The Rise and Fall of Commercial Coalmining on Spitsbergen. A case study on the Dutch participation in the Spitsbergen Mining Boom, 1899-1932

By drs. H.R. de Haas
Arctic Centre, University of Groningen

In the international IPY-project Large-Scale Historic Exploitation of Polar Areas (LASHIPA), industrial archaeology and historic research are combined in order to address questions on the driving forces, choices on adaptation and technology, and the results and consequences of large-scale natural resource exploitation in the Polar Regions. Within this project, De Haas studied the Dutch participation in an international run for land and resources on Spitsbergen in the first three decades of the 20th century. During this period, Spitsbergen transformed from a remote and uninhabited no-man’s-land, into a resource-producing centre. Entrepreneurs from Europe and the USA developed a number of settlements with large-scale coalmines, and in effect industrialised this part of the Arctic and connected it with global resource markets. The rise of this coalmining industry on Spitsbergen only lasted until the late 1920s, after which it collapsed. Afterwards, some of the mines remained in production; this however, was politically motivated rather then based on commercial considerations.

Amongst the many companies that claimed land on Spitsbergen and subsequently exploited its resources, two originated from the Netherlands. Their activities in the High-Arctic periphery are in many ways exemplary in this run on Spitsbergen. The first company, NV Hollandsch-Noorsche Mijnbouw Maatschappij, withdrew from Spitsbergen after experiencing ownership disputes and practical problems with exploitation as a result of local conditions. The second company, NV Nederlandsche Spitsbergen Compagnie (NESPICO), persisted in their activities even though it experienced similar problems. In a process of adaptation and testing, this company constructed the most technically advanced large-scale coalmine on Spitsbergen at the time: Barentsburg. While a great achievement from an engineering perspective, their efforts resulted in a major entrepreneurial fiasco. In 1932, the Dutch sold the Barentsburg mine with great losses to the Soviet company Trust Arktikugol – which sustains activities on Spitsbergen until today.

In this paper, the author presents some of the conclusions of the project. De Haas focuses on the relations between 1) the physical development of the Barentsburg mine between 1917 and 1940, 2) NESPICO’s entrepreneurial decision-making processes and business strategies, and 3) general (geo)political and economic processes in the Europe, in order to explain the rise and fall of the commercial mining industry on Spitsbergen in the early 20th century. In doing so De Haas identifies more general requirements for commercial interest in Polar resource exploitation, something which is today perhaps more relevant than ever.
Willem Barentsz Poolinstituut

Bundeling van kennis, onderzoek en onderwijs over de Noord- en de Zuidpool

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