The Scottish Spitsbergen Syndicate

20 May

For the past weeks (months) I have been writing the chapter on Bruce and the Scottish Spitsbergen Syndicate. It is a most complicated subject involving ambition, hard work, competition, geopolitics and, ultimately, disappointment.
Bruce had high hopes of a successful mining enterprise in Spitsbergen, which he had visited with Prince Albert of Monaco (a noted oceanographer), in 1898 and 1899. In 1898 he had found oil shale, coal and gypsum in. His mind turned to the development of a commercial enterprise.
A major advantage was that Spitsbergen was terra nullius – a term meaning that the right to hold and mine an area could be obtained simply by staking out a plot and registering the claim with the claimant’s country (no taxes, no harbour dues). Bruce hoped, as did others, that the archipelago had an untapped quantity of natural resources. He knew that a commercial shipment had been made by a Norwegian ship in 1899 and that thereafter American, Norwegian, Russian, Dutch and three English companies had staked claims
An analysis of the coal that Bruce had brought from his Spitsbergen visits was very encouraging. The samples were said to resemble Yorkshire coal (good household fuel) and later assessed as comparable in quality with coal from Glamorgan, South Wales.
He issued a prospectus for a prospecting company in September 1908 ‘for private circulation only’ under his name and that of J. Victor Burn Murdoch. Shares were sold, £4,000 (only) was raised. He was to visit Spitsbergen on behalf of the Syndicate six times between 1909 and 1920. On the first visit, claims for large areas of Spitsbergen and adjacent islands were made: ‘The land between latitude 77°56’N and 78°25’N and from longitude18° E to Storfjord is the property of the Scottish Spitsbergen Syndicate’. Hopes, interest and enthusiasm were high. But the first expeditions used up most of the Syndicate’s reserves and subsequent reports on coal and other mineral deposits were disappointing. The difficulties of even approaching Spitsbergen were vividly demonstrated in some of the visits where sea ice held up progress. Excitement about the project diminished and for the remainder of his life Bruce and the Syndicate were involved in endless, difficult appeals for cash.
There were serious concerns also about ‘foreign powers’ taking over Spitsbergen, with the consequent dangers of the loss of terra nullius, which might involve Brice’s and other British companies paying taxes. Repeated appeals were made to the newspapers, to the British Government (with the support of Scottish M.P.s) and to the general public in an attempt to whip up both support and patriotic indignation. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, was disappointingly unhelpful, writing that he had discussed the matter with his advisors, who had given him good reason for thinking it would be useless for the government to assert a claim for Spitsbergen, even if it was possible to do so. (Churchill was to stick with this opinion, writing in 1917 that there was no naval reason to consider the annexation of Spitsbergen, particularly as a formal annexation would require an armed force to safeguard the claim which would not, in itself, affect whatever possibility existed of the island being used by enemies). The Government clearly had plans in the bigger sphere of international geopolitics and was not going to prejudice these plans for the sake of a small company, with no trading surplus and based on a small archipelago, which, the Government considered, had no commercial or strategic advantage.
The 1914 expedition was delayed by severe ice conditions. When the expedition finally reached Green Harbour on 12 August 1914, they heard of the outbreak of war. The Syndicates activities were put on hold for the duration of hostilities.
The future of Spitsbergen was finally decided after the war as an addendum to the Versailles Treaty of 1918. The Spitsbergen Treaty was agreed in February 1920 when Spitsbergen was ceded to Norway. Ratification of the treaty did not occur until 1925 when the Norwegian flag was raised in the island. By this time Bruce had died.
A large, scientific expedition was made with Bruce in charge in 1919. Some houses were erected with a view to tourism and mine explorations were made, but again the reports were disappointing from a commercial viewpoint, the syndicates finances were in a poor condition, the company never really developed after this time.
Bruce became seriously ill in 1920 and died in 1921. He must have been devastated and bitter that his Herculean efforts had failed. The company continued until 1953. Over the years it had been unable to keep up development of its properties and claims. A technical report for a possible buyer, Captain C.W.E. Urmston, by Powell Duffryn of South Wales estimated that the cost of developing the claims would be nearly £2,000,000 A sad end for the company after such an optimistic beginning.

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