27 Dec

I attended the annual dinner/meeting of the Arctic Club recently. This was held in Edinburgh and was enjoyable and successful.
The Chief Executive of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, Mike Robinson, gave a talk on Polar Heroes, Young enthusiasts who had received awards from the society made presentations. Motivational speakers who have encouraged, enthused and trained school children for Arctic expeditions, showed how the experience has increased the young peoples’ confidence and abilities to a degree that they would have thought impossible previously. I gave a short version of William Speirs Bruce’s life.
I was particularly interested on Mike’s comments about Nansen. I learnt, really for the first time, about the magnitude of Nansen’s achievements. I had obviously heard of Nansen’s attempt at the North Pole and had come across him in relation to his meetings with Bruce. When Bruce joined the Jackson Harmsworth Expedition, he was amazed to find Nansen (who had been feared lost on his attempt to reach the North Pole), in Franz- Joseph land. Nansen had turned south at 86° N and was journeying to Spitsbergen via Franz Joseph Land. This was a wonderful meeting for Bruce and the two remained friends—when Bruce was feared lost himself on an expedition to Spitsbergen in 1909, Nansen, who was visiting the island with his son, offered to help to search for him.
But exploration was only part of the Nansen ‘oeuvre’. He studied zoology in Christiania (Oslo). He made scientific studies on Arctic zoology and found that sea ice forms on the surface of the water rather than below. He worked as curator in the zoological department of the Bergen Museum working for years on neuro anatomy. He was the first to cross Greenland. He made this awful crossing from the uninhabited east coast to the populated west coast (with no possibility of retreating to a safe base).
The ‘Fram’ expedition towards the North Pole began in 1893. The book that Nansen wrote on the experiences was an instant success and gave him financial security. As an authority on Polar exploration he was consulted by many explorers including Robert Falcon Scott before his 1901-4 ‘Discovery’ expedition (Nansen advised dogs for transport, and said the dogs should be fed on stockfish).
He became a diplomat. Sweden and Norway were united under a common monarch until 1905 when Norway left the union. Nansen published a series of newspaper articles supporting the separatist argument and presented the Norwegian case internationally.
In the 1914-18 war, Norway was neutral, but experienced severe food shortages because many prewar international trade arrangements were lost. This worsened when the United States entered the war and imposed further trade restrictions. Nansen’s mission to the States secured food and other supplies in return for rationing. After the war he became president of the Norwegian League of Nations Society and by persistent advocacy, ensured that Norway became a full member of the League of Nations.
To me, one of his most influential and imaginative advances related to his work of repatriation of the hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war, stranded in by the war in various parts of the world, far from home. Nansen wrote that never in his life had he been brought into contact with such a formidable amount of suffering. But by 1920 over 400,000 prisoners had been repatriated to 30 different countries helped by his efforts. In 1921 he worked on the repatriation of 2,000,000 Russian refugees displaced by the Russian Revolution. Since a major problem was that these people had no documents to confirm their identity or nationality, Nansen produced a document “the Nansen Passport”. This provided a form of identity that was accepted eventually by more that 50 countries. Countless numbers benefited including luminaries such as Marc Chagall, Ivor Stravinsky, and Anna Pavlova.
Nansen was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for his work for prisoners of war, the Russian Refugees and the refugees in Asia Minor.
A fantastic life!

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