Svalbard history


This 2016 video says about itself:

Longyearbyen on Svalbard is the northernmost settlement with over 1000 residents.

Before we continue with the blog reports about birds in Spitsbergen in June 2013, first about the history of the Svalbard archipelago.

Maybe ancient Norse sailors discovered a country called Svalbarð, as the medieval Icelandic Landnámabók says. But that Svalbarð may have been Jan Mayen island, or a part of Greenland, or of Iceland.

In 1596, Dutch captain Willem Barentsz was first to indisputably discover the Arctic archipelago. He called it Spitsbergen, “sharp mountains” in Dutch. Outside Norway, Spitsbergen is still often the name for the whole group of islands.

The whale train oil cookery of the Amsterdam chamber of the Northern Company at Smeerenburg; painting by Cornelis de Man (1639)

In 1614, Dutch whalers established the camp, later village, Smeerenburg. They especially aimed at killing slow-swimming bowhead whales.

This video is called National Geographic Bowhead Whales.

After fights with Danish, English and French competitors, the Dutch abandoned Smeerenburg about 1660. Today, just ruins are left.

In the 1830s, all Svalbard whaling had to stop, as bowheads and other slow-swimming whales had been almost exterminated, and sailing ships and rowing boats were still unable to keep up with fast-swimming rorqual whales.

After the whale slaughter, walruses and other marine and land animals were nearly exterminated by commercial hunters.

In 1952, walrus killing became illegal. Slowly, they have recovered partially since. As did some other species which became protected during the twentieth century.

For centuries, Spitsbergen/Svalbard had officially not been under any government. In 1920, a treaty granted sovereignty to Norway, with economic rights for other countries. To boost their rule with a (pseudo?)historical argument, in the 1920s the Norwegian government started to call the archipelago Svalbard; calling only the biggest island Spitsbergen.

Meanwhile, coal mining had surpassed hunting as the most important economic activity. About both, I will still write blog posts.

The 1920 treaty said that the islands were a demilitarized zone. Nazi Germany violated that during World War II. In 1943, Hitler’s Kriegsmarine destroyed the Norwegian and Soviet villages and some of the coal mines, leading to their abandonment.

After 1945, Svalbard had to start from scratch.

Today, tourism and scientific research have become important for the archipelago.

11 thoughts on “Svalbard history

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