Tag Archives: terra nullius


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.


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

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.