Occupation and conflict


It is 1914. Svalbard is no man’s land, and anyone is free to annex territory.

By:  Ann Kristin Balto // Norwegian Polar Institute 

Foto av to menn foran skilt

An entity called “The Norwegian State-Funded Spitsbergen Expeditions” is systematically studying the area, doing topographic mapping in addition to geological and hydrographic surveys, activities that have been going on since 1906. In 1914, the valley of Adventdalen is being explored.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Spitsbergen was only sporadically visited by Norwegian trappers and fishermen, but this changed in the 20th century. Arctic skipper Søren Zachariassen became the first to sell coal collected on Spitsbergen. His find hinted at the riches that lay hidden in the barren ground.

Claim signs began to pop up in areas that might hold rich mineral deposits. In many cases, these claims overlapped, and conflicts ensued.

Alfred Koller’s photo shows two claim signs. The one on the right is from 1913 and stakes a claim for Johan Bruvik. The one on the left contests Bruvik’s claim; it was erected the following year by “The Spitzbergen Coal & Trading Company” of Sheffield. The men in the picture are acting out the conflict between the claimants.

At that time, Spitsbergen was considered “terra nullius” – no man’s land. Anyone could occupy territory, but no existing authority could approve their claims. However, enterprising men didn’t let that stand in the way of mineral prospecting and subsequent mining.

Norway had been sniffing out ways to increase its influence over Spitsbergen since 1909, and the annual expeditions helped reinforce Norwegian influence in the area. At the end of the First World War, Norwegian companies saw their chance; they started buying up foreign properties and resumed the mining operations that had been at a standstill during the war. When peace had returned in Europe and the Paris Peace Conference was underway, Norway declared its desire for sovereignty over Spitsbergen. Norway’s minister in Paris, Frits Wedel Jarlsberg, composed Norway’s contribution to the treaty text.

The Spitsbergen Treaty was signed in Paris on 9 February 1920, and the islands were recognised as being under Norwegian sovereignty when the treaty came into force on 14 August 1925. At that time, Norway officially changed the archipelago’s name to Svalbard.