Whaling in Svalbard – western Europe's first "oil rush"

In the 1400s Europe begins to blossom. Wars, plagues and other crises have passed, and the population is growing, with people moving out of the countryside and into the towns and cities. In the 1500s Europe begins to look to other regions and continents, towards trading options and new things to sell. Two hundred years later Europe has become a world power, and its political and economic growth forms the basis of whaling in Svalbard.

It started with Spain and Portugal as Europe’s leading maritime nations. They found the sea route to the East and they discovered America and monopolized trade in these enormous, rich areas. But in north-west Europe new seafaring nations, such as England, France and the Netherlands, were gaining strength. They wanted to gain access to what Spain and Portugal had all to themselves. These young seafaring nations competed for trade and markets: perhaps a northern route to the East would get them there. The systematic exploration of the northern sea areas began.

Svalbard was discovered by Barentsz, from the Netherlands, in 1596. During the years that followed there were reports of large quantities of whale, seal and walrus around the archipelago. At the same time a demand for whale and seal products was growing in Europe: oil was needed. The maritime nations noticed the rich resources of the North and began to learn the art of whaling. The year of 1612 is set as the start of systematic whaling in Svalbard. Seafarers from many nations came to the archipelago to explore and harvest the natural resources. The dream of finding a northern route to the East still existed, but was no longer the primary goal. It was all about Svalbard and whaling now.

Updated December 2008

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Norwegian Polar Institute
Fram Centre
NO-9296 Tromsø