Tag Archives: Annexation of Spitsbergen


12 Aug

In the early 1900s Spitsbergen was still classified as ‘Terra Nullius’, a place where explorers from any country could claim land simply by positioning identification boards (indicating longitude &latitude), at the peripheries of the claimed areas and informing their governments of the details of the claim.

When William Speirs Bruce brought back coal of good commercial quality from Spitsbergen, he established the prospecting company the Scottish Spitsbergen Syndicate, in 1909. He had high hopes of a successful, marketable, profitable venture that would yield coal, oil and other minerals. The Syndicate made claims over vast stretches of Spitsbergen.

In the following years up to 1919 Bruce was increasingly concerned about his Syndicate’s claims. He feared that other countries, most particularly Norway and Russia, would take over ‘his’ British areas of Spitsbergen, or even lay claim to the entire archipelago – this would result in significant geopolitical, as well as commercial disadvantages to Britain.

He petitioned the British Government regularly for the annexation of Spitsbergen with a string of appeals: for example – if Norway were to get control, all Spitsbergen’s valuable resources would be lost; if Britain did not look out, Russia would grab the place and have an excellent supply of ‘Welsh’ coal. In 1912 he noted that Green Harbour (a port) had a suspiciously large telegraph station, well out of proportion to its needs –he was sure that the Norwegian Government would use the post office for a de facto administration of the Archipelago.

These appeals were doomed to failure. The authorities in Great Britain had ‘bigger fish to fry’ and considered this Archipelago of little commercial or strategic advantage.

An approach to Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, fell on deaf ears. Churchill wrote that there was no sound reason to annex Spitsbergen; writing that this action would require an armed force to safeguard the claim and that this in itself would not affect whatever possibilities existed of the island being used by enemies.

Bruce’s fears were confirmed at a meeting with an official from the Foreign Office, who in late 1918, informed him of the unwelcome dawning international consensus: Denmark would get Southern Jutland, Sweden would get the Baltic Islands and Spitsbergen would become part of Norway

Spitsbergen’s future was officially decided as an addendum to the Treaty of Versailles. The Spitsbergen Treaty was agreed in 9, February 1920. Spitsbergen became part of the Kingdom of Norway.

Bruce’s concerns about the future of Spitsbergen and its surrounds were prescient. Russia now has a significant presence in the region coupled with the will to tackle its severe conditions.

Large reserves of natural gas and oil have been discovered around Spitsbergen and elsewhere. The world’s attention is now focused on the potential gains of the area – the very gains that Bruce wanted to exploit. Exxon Mobile and Shell are applying for permission to begin exploratory drilling in the region.

Also global warming now allows much better access. Cargo ships can get through the North West Passage for several months in summer time. The North East route on the Siberian coast is open for a few months each year. Such easier transportation results in huge savings in transport time, money and greenhouse emissions.

Bruce made no money in the Arctic though he made geographic discoveries. But his instinct that the Arctic was geopolitically important as well as a source of huge potential wealth was all too correct. The world is now well aware of this.



William Speirs Bruce and Autism

7 Aug

I have now spent some years reading, writing and thinking about Bruce. Bruce led an important Scottish expedition to Antarctica on his ship ‘Scotia’. Subsequently he spent years building up the Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory in Edinburgh, which, he hoped would be a permanent national establishment. In addition he started the Scottish Spitsbergen Syndicate. The syndicate aimed to prospect for minerals in the Arctic and in this work he became thoroughly enmeshed in geopolitics as he petitioned the British Government to annex Spitsbergen

I have come to the conclusion that his (considerable) financial and logistical problems were exacerbated by the fact that he exhibited characteristics that today would be considered as part of the autistic spectrum. These characteristics significantly complicated his dealings with other people.

Autism is of course a wide field, but reasons for considering Bruce belonged in this field are:

Bruce’s loyal friend R.N Rudmose Brown (who wrote a biography of Bruce after his death, an appreciation of his many talents), wrote that even with him (Rudmose Brown), there was never a complete confidence: ‘There seemed to be a barrier that no man and certainly no woman ever crossed. He seldom if ever spoke of his family and childhood, rarely of his private concerns & never of his philosophy of life’.

Bruce clearly did have problems with social communications. His letter to his supporter, the Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, Dr. Hugh Robert Mill, illustrates this. ‘I was intending to tell Mrs. Mill and yourself the other day that I was intending to marry, but when the time came it seemed even more difficult to say so than to reach the South Pole. Such is the case however andI should not like the event to take place without having told you’.

His poor communication skills would have made him irascible – he had quarrels through out his career and seems to have been unaware of the effect that his outspoken comments made on recipients. These quarrels could go on for years. A colleague from student days wrote that he was ‘as Prickly as the Scottish thistle itself’. Another long term associate and supporter (who regularly sent money to help the Bruce family out), wrote ‘I hear Bruce has had a row with Keltie. I do not know what about but I think it is a great pity that he should “fall out” with so many people. Even when one is slighted it is just as well to keep quiet. If a man is doing good work and he is respected he is bound to come out on top sooner than later’.

During his work he had ongoing problems with the British Government, which must have been worsened by his regular outspoken and written criticism of the government’s lack of support for his Scottish demands when compared with its comparative generosity to the English explorers Scott and Shackleton. The government’s refusal to annex Spitsbergen again promoted his public criticism. This, and his (politically unwise) harnessing of his demands to Scottish nationalist sympathies must have alienated the authorities and affected their response to his regular demands for financial backing.

He had scant insight into the demands of family life – even when he was ‘with’ the family he was not ‘in’ it. When he was at home he remained doggedly immersed in his current project, totally ignoring other demands on his time. He would spend days in his study, immersed in his work, ignoring the trays of food left outside the door. He was prepared to sail on his Antarctic expedition the ‘Scotia’ with no pay, apparently without thought of the effect on his wife, struggling to make ends meet, isolated from friends and family, and with a small baby. Although concerned about his children he spent little time with them. The marriage did not last.

Finally, he had a collecting mania. Apparently every scrap of paper he had ever received was in his office after his death!