10 Apr

I am going to visit Spitsbergen this summer – for two reasons; firstly, I understand it is memorable and beautiful place to visit and secondly, because William Speirs Bruce spent so much of his time between 1907 aid his death in 1921, hoping and planning to promote a prospecting company on the island. I am writing a book about Bruce.

Until relatively recently I would have been pushed to locate Spitsbergen accurately but I now know it is the largest island of the Svalbard Archipelago at 70°N, 13ºE, lying north of Norway. It is the only permanently populated island of the archipelago. It was a whaling centre in the 17/18th century and at the end of the 19th century, coal mining was started and with this several permanent communities sprung up.

For Bruce, Spitsbergen became a story of faith, hope … and ultimately disappointment. He visited the area with Prince Albert of Monaco, a distinguished oceanographer in 1898 and 1899. On these visits he noted oil, coal and gypsum. He revisited the archipelago in the early 1900s to map and survey Prince Charles Foreland, an island to the west of Spitsbergen (named after the Prince of Wales who would become Charles1) and again he found coal in tertiary measures and some indication of iron. On his return, he and a colleague established a private prospecting mineral company in July 1908. This was called the Scottish Spitsbergen Syndicate.

He was confident that mining companies could succeed in the icy archipelago for several reasons: 1) the west coast remains open to shipping for four months each year (June to September), as it benefits from south-westerly winds from the North Atlantic Drift.

2) Harbours on the west coast were in deep fjords close to the mining areas. 3) Although the transport of minerals would be seasonal, mining could continue throughout the year and the minerals stockpiled. 4) The permafrost ground would not need as much roof support as is needed in warmer areas
and, 5) (most importantly), in international law Spitsbergen was classified as Terra Nullius –anyone could stake a claim merely by staking out a plot and registering the claim with their government—no purchase price, no taxes. no harbour dues.

£4,000 was raised through the Syndicate’s sale of shares and Bruce led an expedition to make a detailed survey in the summer of 1909. The syndicate laid claims to Prince Charles Foreland, some large areas of Spitsbergen and another island Barents Island. The first expedition seemed successful in terms of analysis of the minerals brought back and Bruce dreamed of a successful commercial venture. But the expedition had swallowed most of the Syndicated financial reserves and these were never adequately renewed – Bruce failed to convince backers that Spitsbergen mining would be a commercial success

The Syndicate absorbed much of Bruce’s time and energy. Over the years he was to be in almost daily correspondence about his prospecting company with the Secretary of the Syndicate, the national press, and in later years, the Foreign Office (he petitioned for Spitsbergen to be annexed by the British to circumvent the threat of foreign occupation. Winston Churchill refused to consider this).

Bruce went to Spitsbergen again in 1912 and 1914 but the outbreak of war prevented further development, After World War 1, in spite of vigorous lobbying to the British Government, the ‘Spitsbergen Treaty’ was signed during the Versailles Treaty Agreement of 1919. Sovereignty of Spitsbergen was given to Norway.

In 1919 the old syndicate was replaced by a larger, better-financed company. By now, Bruce was fixing his main hopes on the discovery of oil, but two scientific expeditions in 1919 and 1920, failed to produce evidence of its presence, though new deposits of coal and iron ore were found. The expeditions again used up most of the companie’s available capital and by this time Bruce was too ill to continue his involvement with the Syndicate. He died in 1921

The company continued to exist, but it failed to maintain its (much reduced) claims. Also, in the 1920s the price of coal dropped significantly. The company was liquidated in 1953.

The Syndicate is a sad story of dogged determination, endless work, financial worry, unsatisfactory communication with the Government and ultimately failure. Bruce had his successes but the development of the Scottish Spitsbergen Syndicate is not one of them.





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