Norway and Spitsbergen

7 Aug

I recently went on a Fred Olsen cruise to Norway and Spitsbergen. I had always wanted to see the Norwegian fjords and am particularly interested in Spitsbergen because of William Speirs Bruce’s long involvement in the archipelago.
I was not disappointed.The cruise was well organised, the crew efficient, the invited lecturers excellent.
I was allowed to give a talk on Bruce and to my surprise, quite a number of the audience, being Scottish, knew of him and his life
The fjords are really indescribably beautiful and the five Norwegian towns we visited were fascinating in different ways but I was. of course,keen to see the Spitsbergen settlements that Bruce visited in relation to his company, the Scottish Spitsbergen Syndicate(S.S.S). Bruce wanted to create a successful prospecting company for coal, other minerals (notably oil), and even develop a hotel based tourist industry. The S.S.S eventually claimed vast areas of Spitsbergen under the ‘terra nullius’ law; this meant that claims could be made in the island merely by staking out the area to be claimed and informing the appropriate government.
Bruce was particularly impressed by the successful development in Longyearbyen which he visited in 1912 on a S.S.S.expedition. Longyearbyen was developed in 1905 by successful American entrepreneurs John Longyear and Frederick Ayer, who established the Arctic Coal Company which mines coal in Advent Bay close to Longyearbyen. The two men sold the company to a Norwegian state enterprise in 1916 and it continues to this day. Longyearbyen is the biggest settlement in the Svalbard islands and has over 2.000 inhabitants. This sort of development was precisely what Bruce dreamed of, but failed to achieve.
Another fascinating Spitsbergen settlement is Pyramiden. Bruce visited Spitsbergen many times and when, after the Paris Peace Conference at the end of World War 1, Spitsbergen was placed under the jurisdiction of Norway, the incensed directors of the S.S.S. organised a big expedition to confirm their large Spitsbergen claims. There are many 1919 images of boreholes being drilled near Pyramiden. Pyramiden is now a deserted Russian mining town although it was a self sufficient development of over 1,000 inhabitants, originally run by Sweden, taken over by Russia in 1927 and closed in 1998. But the the main centre is painted and maintained regularly, parades could take place in the central square, a statute of Lenin looks over the complex, one room houses the world’s northernmost grand piano (and birds have happy homes on the window ledges).Recently a hotel has opened and an excellent Russian interpreter and guide is based for much of the year in the ‘ghost’ town.
On Bruce’s 1919 expedition, coal was found but not in commercially exploitable amounts and the S.S.S s did not have the funds to pursue their claims.
Bruce was certain that Spitsbergen had oil but could not locate it. The Spitsbergen Treaty of 1919 expires in 2019. Oil has been found. Many countries are now interested in Spitsbergen. Bruce was right in his ideas

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