Smeerenburg: A 17th-Century European Ghost Town in the Arctic Ocean

If someone were to bring up a visit to a 17th-century European ghost town in conversation, one’s thoughts would probably turn to images of old stone farmhouses, an empty town square, or perhaps even a small castle.  An Arctic whale blubber processing station barely ten degrees south of the North Pole is probably not one of those images.  Such was Smeerenburg, a remote village that existed for four decades on the northwest tip of Svalbard at the very extreme of Europe.

Europeans had only been aware of Spitsbergen (long referring to the entire archipelago, since the 1920s the term Spitsbergen has applied only to Svalbard’s main island) since 1596 when the Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz proved its existence.  Nevertheless, by the mid-1600s, walrus hunting expeditions were already being conducted in and around the islands, and by 1611 a sizeable whaling industry began around Spitsbergen, conducted mostly by Dutch, English, and German parties.

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Source: Bjoertvedt, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Map_of_Albert_I_Land_north.JPG.jpg/.  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

Just off the northwest tip of Spitsbergen on a small island that would eventually acquire the name Amsterdam Island (today’s Amsterdamøya), Dutch whalers from the Noordsche Compagnie (Northern Company) established a seasonal station in 1614 on a sandy, vegetation-free promontory.  After four seasons of temporary operations using tents and crude ovens, it was decided to construct a permanent settlement for the 1619 whaling season.  Lumber and building materials were sent to the location to construct buildings, large copper kettle ovens were set in place for boiling blubber, and thus was the birth of Smeerenburg (Dutch for ‘blubber town’).

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Remnants of whale blubber left behind on the shore at Smeerenburg.  The oil from the blubber boiled over top of, and accumulated around, the edges of the large ovens used for rendering.  Mixing with the surrounding sand and gravel, it hardened and concretised over time.  There are seven such rings at the site; along with a cemetery to the north of the rings where at least 101 people are buried, these are the only extant remnants of Smeerenburg today.  Source: Angrense, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Smeerenburg-blubberovens.JPG.  Used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2.

As no country held jurisdiction over Spitsbergen at the time, many different nationalities were represented in Smeerenburg.  Initially comprised of Dutch and Danish whalers, English whalers soon joined them, along with many Basque whalers in Danish employ.  Spanish and Germans were also known to be present in the waters off Spitsbergen.

Very little about life in Smeerenburg was documented in its time, and little of the station survived beyond the whale blubber rings pictured above and discarded whale bones.  As a result, many of the historical accounts about the settlement are more myth than fact.  Many accounts, including those of great explorers such as William Scoresby and Fridtjof Nansen, tell of Smeerenburg being a fully-functioning city of 10 000 residents with shops, churches, and brothels.  These tales were disproven by Dutch archaeological excavations between 1979 and 1981, which showed conclusively that only a few hundred people could have been present at Smeerenburg at any given time.

We now know that, at its peak, Smeerenburg consisted of around 16 houses (enough to house around 200 whalers) and eight blubber boiling stations, with the alleyways between the buildings cobbled for drainage.  These surrounded a central Dutch fort constructed in 1631 to defend against attempts to conquer the station from outsiders, particularly the Danes.  The Dutch and the Danish had a fairly decent rivalry in the Arctic, with the Danes and their Basque employees raiding whaling equipment from Dutch stations and vice versa; eventually the Dutch expelled the Danes from Smeerenburg in 1625 and constructed the fort.  After the Basques raided a Dutch station on Jan Mayenin 1632, the Dutch sent a seven-man party to winter at Smeerenburg in 1633-34.  This would be the only successful wintering in the history of the settlement; a second attempt at wintering by Dutch party the next winter resulted in all seven men dying.

Bowhead whale skull

This bowhead whale skull has sat on the shore at Smeerenburg for four centuries.  During the four decades Smeerenburg was in existence, bowheads were essentially wiped out in the region.  It was the whale of choice for hunters in the area because the species contained a large amount of blubber, swam slowly, and remained at the surface when dead, making it easy to harvest.  Source: foilistpeter, http://www.flickr.com/photos/foilistpeter/6201854696/.  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) licence.

In just four decades, the whales that had been so plentiful in and around Spitsbergen had been hunted to near extinction.  This, combined with new blubber processing methods that allowed whalers to process the oil at sea, led to the decline of Smeerenburg; the last known Dutch presence at the settlement being in 1657.  Long after it was abandoned, Smeerenburg remained a place of refuge for passing boats, a rendezvous location, and most notably, a burial ground for those unfortunate souls who died while at sea.

Today, Smeerenberg is a protected site inside of Nordvest-Spitsbergen National Park (itself famous for being the location of Earth’s northernmost terrestrial hot springs).  A commemorative plaque mounted in a wooden cairn (seen in the above video), along with a lone red buoy, are the only edifices that mark the location for the curious tourists who sail in from the Svalbard capital of Longyearbyen.  All visits to the site are guided and supervised; the seven remnant ovens and gravesites may only be observed from a slight distance.  The area, devoid of vegetation and composed of fine-grain sand, is considered to be so delicate that walking away from the beach is actually banned during periods of rain or snow.

Further Reading

Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO) (2011).  Smeerenburg.  Svalbard Site Guidelines.  Available at http://www.aeco.no/guidelines/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/aeco-svalbard-smeerenburg.pdf.  Accessed 7 June 2012.

Erkun, E. (2011).  Amsterdamøya: Smeerenburg.  Two to Travel, 10 July 2011.  Available at http://2totravel.blogspot.ca/2011/07/amsterdamya-smeerenburg.html.  Accessed 7 June 2012.

Governor of Svalbard (2008).  History.  10 March 2008.  Available at http://www.sysselmannen.no/hovedEnkel.aspx?m=45295.  Accessed 7 June 2012.

Laboratorium voor Conservatie & Materiaalkennis (2003).  Conservation of a collection iron tools and semi manufactured iron from the smithy of a 17th century whaling station at Smeerenburg, Spitsbergen.  Available at http://www.lcm.rug.nl/lcm/teksten/teksten_uk/smb_uk.htm.  Accessed 7 June 2012.

Stange, R. (2011).  17th century whaling.  Spitzbergen/Spitsbergen, 17 January 2011.  Available at http://www.spitsbergen-svalbard.com/spitsbergen-information/history/17th-century-whaling.html.  Accessed 7 June 2012.

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