History Of Svalbard & Spitsbergen

By Stewart_Campbell / 05 August 2016

History Of Svalbard & Spitsbergen

The archipelago of Svalbard Norway and Spitsbergen its main island sits in the high Arctic. Two-thirds of the Svalbard archipelago is permanently covered in snow and ice.

The archipelago of Svalbard Norway, and Spitsbergen its main island, sits in the high Arctic. Two-thirds of the Svalbard archipelago is permanently covered in snow and ice. Much like its environment, the region’s history is fascinating.

Norse Seamen

Legend has it that Norse Seamen discovered Svalbard in 1194. This is based on the fact that a name very similar to Svalbard’s is mentioned in an Icelandic chronicle – it said that ‘Svalbaroi’ that was ‘found’ by the Norsemen a few days after sailing from Iceland.  In the 1800s, Norwegian historians again raised the possibility that this was the case but little evidence of a Viking presence has been found. And some believe the name may have referred to another patch of land or even an expanse of ice that they came across.

Russian Pomors

The Pomors were from the north of Russia, close to the White Sea. They have experienced Arctic hunters and were definitely active in the area of the Svalbard archipelago, but it is up for debate as to when they actually arrived.

Willem Barentsz – a Dutch Mariner

And so, the person who is said to have discovered Svalbard is Willem Barentsz, a Dutch Mariner. This is the first undisputed discovery. He was apparently looking for a northeast passage to China when he discovered the area in 1596.

And then the whalers came, followed by the miners

The explorers from the Barentsz mission returned home with news of the rich whaling grounds in and around Svalbard. And a few years later whalers from Europe arrived. The English and Dutch dominated the activities. Whaling was so lucrative that conflict erupted over whaling rights. Mining took over as the main source of economy in the 19th and 20th centuries.


Administrative authority of Svalbard was not agreed until after the First World War. During the peace conferences that followed World War One, the Norwegians convinced other countries they were best placed to take sovereignty. And at that point, Svalbard became Svalbard Norway. However, the archipelago was settled by both Norwegian and Russian coal mining settlements, which continues in a limited capacity even to this day.

Expeditions and explorers

Thanks to its proximity to the North Pole, Svalbard, and in particular Spitsbergen were used as a base for various expeditions to reach the North Pole. One of the earliest was in 1827 by William Parry who attempted to walk over the ice to the pole. One of the later attempts from Svalbard was Andree’s failed expedition by hydrogen balloon in 1897. These attempts continued through to the infamous Nobile 1928 North Pole airship expedition, which reached the North Pole but ended in disaster. Even today, Longyearbyen is an important logistics base for tourist expeditions with flights to the North Pole via the Barneo Ice Camp on the sea ice.

Exploring Svalbard and Spitsbergen today

Svalbard is one of the world’s best locations for High Arctic exploration. It is a fascinating area, rich in history and beauty. To experience a Svalbard holiday or adventure is much easier and more accessible than you might think.                  

This is one of the most northerly landmasses in the Arctic before the floating sea cap of ice over the Arctic Ocean, yet it is also the most accessible, with daily flights from mainland Norway. The archipelago offers outstanding chances of seeing Arctic wildlife – including polar bear, walrus, and whales.

Expeditions Online specialises in cruises to iconic Arctic destinations like Svalbard. On a Spitsbergen cruise such as this, you’ll be in expert hands and will follow in the wake of the early explorers. Historical remains can be seen and visited at various sites in Svalbard, including trappers’ huts, whaling station remnants, old mining operations, grave sites and the ruins of Andree’s balloon expedition.

For more information on Arctic expedition cruises to Svalbard and Spitsbergen, visit the Expeditions Online website. You’ll have an inspirational time in this beautiful, natural corner of our planet.

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