Little Bits of History

June 10

Posted in History by patriciahysell on June 10, 2017

1596: Bear Island is discovered. Willem Barents and Jacob van Heemskerk named the barren land after a polar bear they saw swimming nearby. The 69 square mile island is at the southernmost tip of the Svalbard archipelago. Bear Island is in the western part of the Barents Sea (named after Willem). The sea is located off the northern coast of Norway and Russia at the edge of the Arctic Ocean. Bear Island is remote, barren, and for hundreds of years remained terra nullius, a term from Roman law meaning “nobody’s land” and used by international law to mean not now or ever under any sovereign rule. There are no residents of the island but it has been used in the past for mining, fishing, and whaling purposes. Today, a meteorological station is located there and so it is visited for data collection.

Svalbard, since a 1920 treaty under Norwegian control, covers 23,561 square miles of land area divided between many islands with Spitsbergen being the largest and where all the 2,667 residents live. It is the northernmost settlement in the world where a permanent civilian population resides. While other places are farther north, they are occupied by rotating researchers. The Arctic climate is forbidding but slightly less than other regions of the same latitude due to ocean currents. It is 74⁰ north and the midnight sun of summer lasts 99 days and the polar night of winter lasts for 84 days. Glacial ice covers 60% of the land while another 30% is barren rock. Only 10% is covered by vegetation. Despite this, it is a breeding ground for polar bears and some seabirds along with reindeer, Arctic fox, and other marine mammals.

It is believed that Viking seafarers knew of Bear Island but it’s recorded history begins on this day. Barents, a Dutch explorer, was on this third expedition when he came upon the stark island. Steven Bennet conducted more explorations of the island in 1603 and 1604 and noted how many walruses were there. A few years later, it was used basically as a hunting ground for the walrus and other seal species. Eggs of the nesting seabirds were also harvested until as late as 1971.

There were several nations laying claim to the land. Scotland/United Kingdom  made their bid in 1609. The Dutch felt it was their by right of discovery. Denmark and Norway claimed the lands as well. But there were no permanent settlements to help those claims. The Svalbard Treaty of February 9, 1920 found Norway’s claim to be the most substantial and gave the archipelago to them. Today terra nullius claims are usually disputed border lands but also include some parts of Antarctica and by convention, international waters are owned by all mankind. When we stepped out into space, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 proclaimed the Moon and other celestial bodies to belong to all of us.

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. – Mark Twain

He that will not sail till all dangers are over must never put to sea. – Thomas Fuller

Never go into strange places on a falling tide without a pilot. – Thomas Gibson Bowles

The sea finds out everything you did wrong. – Old Norwegian Adage


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