Spitsbergen has had a major attractive force on hunters and explorers. Promises of fabled lands and fortune lured many 17th century explorers into these unknown frozen lands and seas. Many perished but some returned home with stories of hardship and despair. Artefacts of these often tragic expeditions can still be seen on the desolate shores.
Nobody is 100% sure about who should get the credit for being the very first to discover the Svalbard archipelago. If you care to dip into legends then you may believe that the Vikings, who were certainly active in the general area, get the nod for being the start of humanity’s history with Svalbard. Starting in the 1800s Norwegian historians began to insist that Vikings discovered the region as early as 1194. They base this claim on maps and annals that listed a Svalbarði (the basis for the name Svalbard, translates as “Cold Rim”) as being four days sail away from Iceland. The problem is that archaeologists have never found any physical evidence to back up the idea that the Vikings had ever been close enough to see the archipelago, never mind setting foot on one of the islands or establishing any sort of base.
Russian historians believe the Pomors may have been chasing their dinner in Svalbard back in the 1400s. But just like the Vikings, no physical evidence has turned up to back up the claim. What we do know is that the earliest recorded contact with the region goes to the Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz. The name Spitsbergen was given to him.
Barentz like so many other explorers, was on his way to find a new sea route to the fabled land of Cathay, the Far East. What he found instead was Bjørnøya (“Bear Island”, the southernmost island), on June 10th, 1596 and the northwest edge of Spitsbergen on the 17th of June, 1596. The meaning of the name Spitsbergen in the Dutch language is “Jagged Peaks” because of the sharp pointed mountains that Barentsz met in the north-west of Spitsbergen.
Spitsbergen has been the starting point of many expeditions to the North Pole. In Virgohamna, on the island of Danskøya the remains can be seen of several expeditions that used this remote bay as their starting point. The most famous of these is by large the balloon expedition of Salomon Andrée, from 1897. Artefacts of his tragic expedition can still be seen here.