Svalbard was discovered by Willem Barents in 1596. The history of Svalbard is the history of hunters, trappers, mining communities and amazing expeditions.

Svalbard has never been a place where people settle down for life, where family traditions are passed down from generation to generation. People came and left again. Svalbard's history is thus starkly set apart from that of other places. Only to a small extent could people depend on shared experience about the harsh conditions which they braved. The lore is full of tragedies; graves are the most common artefact. The history of Svalbard is usually subdivided into epochs depending on what raw material was exploited. In a sense we can say that Svalbard has been a European supplier of various raw materials since 1596.

International Whaling (1600-1700)

International whaling during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was motivated by encouraging prices for blubber oil and baleen. The main players were Dutch, British and German, and the whaling companies were quite significant at a national level. At the peak of this activity, more than 300 ships were active around Svalbard. Smeerenburg on the north-west coast of Spitzbergen is the best known station. Here there were 16 houses for as many as two hundred whalers and 8 boiling stations for blubber. Towards the end of the 1600s, Dutch whaling alone accounted for 150-250 ships that had a total annual catch of 750-1250 whales. The bowhead whale was the most popular catch and the species was eventually exterminated from the waters around Svalbard. There are many traces of whaling on Svalbard's shores, and about fifty whaling stations with remains of houses, boiling stations and bones from whale and walrus, not to mention graves have been recorded from this period.

 

Russian Hunting (1700-1850)

Russian hunting, involving people who spent the winter in Svalbard, lasted 1700-1850 and has left more than 70 stations. By and large, these people were Pomors from the White Sea Area. The most famous of them was Ivan Starostin who spent 39 winters, 15 of which were consecutive, in Svalbard.

The Pomors were mainly interested in walrus products such as tusks, blubber, and hides; they also traded in furs and down. In addition they hunted reindeer, seal, fowl and collected eggs not least for their own nourishment. A number of stations of various sizes were set up, many of them operating all year-round. The polar bear's thick and attractive fur, and that of the fox, served as important incentives to spend the winter. In many stations handcrafted items have been found that indicate the Russians spent their spare time processing raw materials and turning them into valuable commodities.

 

Norwegian Hunting (1850-1973)

Norwegians intensified their activities when the Russians reduced theirs, around 1850, as they were interested in the same products, basically. By the end of the 1800s, it had become quite usual to spend the winter in Svalbard. The hunters had a cyclic schedule: the fox and polar bear were hunted during the winter when the fur was at its best. In spring, you hunted seal, while at the same time processing furs, preparing them for the summer sale. Bird hunting and the collection of eggs and down was undertaken in the summer, and in the autumn, partridge and reindeer were objects of prey. The hunters covered large areas and used a whole network of sheds and cabins.

Although much of their catch was for private use, the hunters needed to sell furs, down and reindeer meat in order to be able to purchase necessary provisions from the mainland. They needed such things as flour, raisins, kerosene, tools, firearms and ammunition; occasionally also a new stove or a boat, and perhaps a modicum of luxury. Legend has it that the hunter Georg Bjørnnes bought a whole year's edition of a certain newspaper which he took with him to Svalbard. Every morning he would go out and "fetch today's paper", exactly one year old, to the day.

At the height of this activity, about fifty hunters spent the winter there, seriously cutting back the population of various species. The use of spring guns for polar bear hunting raised productivity way beyond what the polar bear population could endure. The method meant that the bear would poke its head into a crate containing bait. The moment the bear touched the bait, a shot would be triggered and the bear would be hit in the head. One of the most notable polar bear hunters in Svalbard was Henry Rudi. In the course of his years there, he killed 759 bears. His highest annual catch was 115.

Another well known hunter was Hilma Nøis who had more experience than most anybody else, having passed 38 winters in Svalbard between 1909 and 1973. His base was at Fredheim in Sassendal. His wife, Helfrid Nøis went with him for several years.

 

Research and Expeditions (1859-)

From 1859 on, research and expeditions became increasingly important. Ever since the discovery of Svalbard in 1596, visitors had informally been charting landscape, waters, sailing routes and resources. As of 1850, a series of organised expeditions systematically collected scientific data from this outer edge of the known world. "Products" of this kind were of limited value in the frozen desolation, but were highly valued by academic circles in Europe. The results would shed new light on global issues such as ocean currents, geologic history, the exact shape of our planet, arctic flora and fauna, northern lights, climate, glaciers and moulding of the terrain. During the first international polar year 1882-83, Swedish researchers from the international latitude measurement expedition spent the winter at Kapp Thordsen in Isfjord. In 1899-1901, the earth's exact shape was determined on the basis of data collected by that very expedition.

Due to Svalbard's latitude in the high north combined with favourable ice conditions, the archipelago was also a favourite point of departure for expeditions aiming to be the first to reach the North Pole. During 1896-1928, no fewer than nine expeditions set off from Svalbard in the race to the polar set point. One of the best known, Salomon Andrée, took off from Virgohamn on 11 July, 1897, in his balloon Örnen [the Eagle]. The balloon stayed aloft for a few days only. Not until 1930 were the remains of Andrée's expedition found on Kvitøya, quite coincidentally, by a whaling ship. Roald Amundsen, too, and the Italian Umberto Nobile flew from Svalbard towards the North Pole. In 1926, they flew together, crossing the North Pole in the airship Norge. They had left from Ny-Ålesund, and the mast to which the airship had been moored still stands there.

The aims of the expeditions were often complex. Though the nominal goal tended to be scientific, expedition leaders, participants and sponsors were often motivated by considerations such as national or personal prestige. The Arctic seemed to beckon to people of heroic mettle, goading them into feats of remarkable stamina, actions that became, as such, national symbols and that brought personal glory to the performer when he returned, be he dead or alive.

 

Mining (1900-)

Mining, from 1900 on, was based on fresh research and favourable prices in the newly industrialised Europe. The coal deposits stirred a lot of interest. Svalbard also saw, for brief periods, activities targeting sulphur, gold, zinc, lead, copper, gypsum and marble.

At the onset of the twentieth century, Svalbard was still a no-man's-land, and the first years were chaotic. Many people lost large sums of money investing in flamboyant and unsound industrial adventures. The period was marked by the purchase and transport of valuable equipment, by the hiring of crews and stocking of provisions. Buildings and plants had to be constructed.

Mining is the only commercial activity that has survived for more than a hundred years. It formed the basis for permanent settlements in Longyearbyen, Sveagruva, Pyramiden, Barentsburg and Ny-Ålesund.