Otto Neumann Knoph Sverdrup (1854-1930)
Otto Sverdrup is one of our country's foremost polar explorers, equal to Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen. It is a shame to which extent his great exploits have been overlooked. It is high time that Otto Sverdrup's important achievements are made known in our country. (Helge Ingstad)
Otto Sverdrup was a farmer's son from north Norway. As a youngster he learnt all sorts of useful work with regard to farming as well as forestry. He was also a skilled hunter and shot his first bear as a 14 year old boy. Seventeen years old he became a sailor.
When Nansen planned his ski trip across Greenland in 1887, Sverdrup wanted to participate. Nansen's brother, Alexander, interviewed Sverdrup and gave him his best recommendations. At this time Sverdrup was 33 years old.
On Skis Across Greenland
Twenty seven years old Nansen had made up his plans to ski across Greenland. Scientists believed that the inner parts of Greenland might be inhabitable. Nansen chose to start from east, thus no return would be possible.
The expedition set off from the seal hunter Jason on 17th of July 1888. They drifted southwards. After rowing and sailing in the drifting ice, they were at last able to land at Umivik on the 10th of August, and on the 15th of August, they were ready for departure.
The expedition reached 2.720 meter and was hampered by several storms. On the 26th of September the expedition had crossed Greenland and arrived at the Amerikalikfjord . Nansen and Sverdrup built a boat and rowed all the way to Godthåb. However, the last boat to Denmark had then left and the expedition had to stay until next spring.
During the winter the members of the expedition lived with the Eskimos. For Nansen as well as for Sverdrup and the others, this became an invaluable experience with regard to survival in the Arctic. This included the use of Eskimo clothing, food, and last but not least, how to use dogs.
On the 30th of May 1889 the expedition arrived in Kristiania (Oslo) and was met by thousands of people.
The Polar Ship Fram
In 1892 Nansen joined a seal hunting expedition in the Arctic. He became interested in the currents in the Arctic Ocean. To prove a theory of a current moving from East to North and West, he decided to build a ship suitable for such a journey.
He got in touch with Norway's foremost shipbuilder Colin Archer. Otto Sverdrup was engaged as inspector during the building period. The ship came to be very special, had rounded sides and hardly any keel. The thickness in the sides was almost 80 cm with an ice skin of greenheart. The rudder and the propeller could be taken up on deck. The ship was built to withstand the pressure of the ice and be able to travel on top of the ice. Sverdrup took part in the planning. He also designed three-masted fore-and-aft schooner rig.
The ship was launched 26th of October and Eva Nansen named her Fram.
The First Fram Expedition
Otto Sverdrup became the first skipper on the Fram, which left Kristiania (Oslo) on midsummer’s day 1893. Many regarded the expedition as doomed. Nobody had so far actually entered the arctic ice. Most scientists predicted that the ice would crush the ship and never return.
The Fram froze in on the 22nd of September and the drift started, but Nansen's hope to come close to the North Pole was not fulfilled. So, he left the ship in March 1895 together with Hjalmar Johansen, trying to walk to the pole. They reached 86 degrees 14 minutes N. Sverdrup was now made the expedition leader on board. The Fram drifted up to 85 degrees 59 minutes, a formidable farthest north record. The Fram came out of the ice on the 13th of August 1896 after three long years. Nansen's theory was proved and a piece of polar world history was written.
The First Fram Expedition was a formidable success. Nansen and Johansen arrived at Vardø on the 13th of August 1896 on the same day as the Fram came out of the ice near Spitsbergen. On the 21st of August they were reunited in Tromsø. A journey of triumph then started along the coast. In Kristiania 60.000 people receive the expedition. The members of the expedition are invited to dinner with the King of Sweden and Norway, Oscar II.
The Second Fram Expedition
Already after the homecoming in 1896 a proposal for a new expedition came up. To finance the first expedition had been a formidable problem. Due to the formidable success with the First Fram Expedition, the financing of the second one was not a problem. The ship was taken down to Colin Archers' yard and an extra deck was added. This made the living conditions more comfortable.
The expedition focused on science. Scientists representing zoology, geology, botany, cartography and meteorology, participated. On midsummer’s day 1898 the Fram left Kristiania (Oslo) with 16 men on board. The main object of the expedition was to map the unknown north part of Greenland and some white spots on the east coast of Greenland.
The Fram called at both Egedesminde, Godhavn and Upernivik. 75 Greenland dogs were taken on board and replenishment of coal, water and food for the dogs was made.
On the 18th of August 1898 the expedition was stopped by ice at Pim Island at Ellesmere Island. Efforts to penetrate the Kane Basin were in vain. Now the Fram had entered her first winter harbour.
Before the winter starts, expeditions were sent out to investigate and map unknown areas of Ellesmere Island and to collect scientific data. Preparations for the winter were made. Fresh food was required for the 16 men as well as for the dogs. The men favoured musk ox and polar bear, while the 80 dogs enjoyed seal and walrus.
Christmas was celebrated an excellent food was served - and rather too much to drink. They danced to the melodies from a music box. Speeches were made on several subjects, including both love and food.
At this time, no Eskimos were settled at Ellesmere Island. However, Peary was in the area with his expedition and he had engaged several of the indigenous people. Peary and Sverdrup met in a very short and formal meeting. Peary suspected maybe that Sverdrup also was aiming for the North Pole.
Norway's national day, the 17th of May, was regularly celebrated, on board and out in the wilderness on expeditions.
Sunday 11th of June a tragedy occurred. The doctor had not been feeling well and stayed behind in a tent at Fort Juliane. When Sverdrup returned, he saw the doctor coming out of his tent waving his arms. Suddenly he fell. The doctor had shot himself. He left a letter stating that he could not stand this life in the wilderness. The suicide made an enormous impression on everybody in the ship's company.
A hole in the ice was made and Sverdrup officiated at the funeral. A hymn was sung and the doctor's body slowly slid into the depths of the Arctic Ocean. Another hymn was sung and The Lord’s Prayer was said.
The summer was used for mapping unknown areas, hunting and collecting scientific data and material.
Efforts to penetrate the ice to reach North Greenland failed. The land to the west was unknown and Sverdrup decided to leave his winter quarter and sailed for Jones sound. In Havnefjord he found a suitable harbour in a bay, well shielded by an island he named Skreia.
On the 1st of September the Fram was well installed in her new winter quarters. The first expedition went by boat to investigate the land westwards. Caught by the ice, the expedition had to spend several days at a place they named Baadsfjord. A sledge was made from the boat materials and they made it back to the Fram over land.
On his return to the Fram Sverdrup was met with bad news. Ove Braskerud had passed away. A new funeral took place and the whole ship’s company was in low spirits as several men were ill. Winter was rapidly approaching and being without a doctor caused much bitterness. The only person in the ship's company who had not been through a medical survey was the doctor and he had committed suicide. Sverdrup felt very badly about this. Simmons the botanist is made responsible for taking care of the doctor's books and is made into some sort of a reserve doctor.
Even if the winter approaches two men with two sledges start mapping the land to the east. Six men with four sledges are placing depots as far to the west as possible. Excellent hunting ground is found in a fiord they name Moskusfiord. The meat from 20 musk oxen is transported back to the FRAM, a distance of 138 km.
Winter sets in and Christmas and New Year are celebrated in the usual way. The health situation is improving. The crew members are kept busy making kayaks, sledges, maintaining the ship and also handling scientific data.
The zoologist Edward Bay settles at Bjørneborg for three months in order to prevent polar bears from destroying a major depot built up there.
One of the main expeditions starts when spring is arriving. Three parties with a total of 54 dogs set off and a depot is built. During this expedition the western side of Axel Heiberg’s Island is mapped up to 80 degrees 55 minutes north.
In early August Sverdrup tries, without success, to penetrate Cardigan Strait and Helvetesporten (Hells Gate) to get farther north. In the middle of September he finds a safe haven in Gåsefjorden.
The Fram on fire
On Sunday 27th of May a spark from the galley sets fire to the mainsail that was used as a tent forward. The tent flared up and a serious situation developed. The fire spread fast, the mainmast and the bulwark caught fire, and so did a lot of stored wooden material and sixteen kayaks. Close by there were boxes containing gunpowder. These were removed. At the centre of the fire was a barrel filled with 200 litres 96 % alcohol. Everybody feared the barrel would explode. Fortunately water was at hand and after half an hour the fire was put out. The damages were considerable. The kayaks and the mainsail were lost, so were several skins of musk ox and polar bears and several pairs of skies. Some of the rigging and the main boom burnt.
Sverdrup was convinced that Greenland dogs were the best. They are friendly, strong and also excellent hunting dogs. Normally five to six dogs were used to pull one sledge. When the dogs got the faint of polar bears or musk oxen they were nearly impossible to handle. The only way to stop the dogs then was to overturn the sledges. They soon learnt that if they wanted to go hunting the dogs had to be released from the sledges.
Five to six dogs could pull 400 kilos. Dogs and sledges were able to make progress everywhere, in all sorts of weather and all sorts of temperatures. Only on one occasion a dog froze to death.
1900 –1901 Gåsefjorden
Christmas and New Year was celebrated in the usual way. Sverdrup was disappointed with Simmons and Bay who gradually had been subjected to polar lethargy. They were apathetic and did not care, neither to work as sailors nor as scientists. Some conflicts had occurred between the second-in-command Mr Baumann and the scientists. It seemed like Baumann sometimes was too busy making sailors out of the scientists. Now everybody on board had in fact signed a contract saying that everybody was obliged to participate in all sorts of labour.
In March preparations are made for the most extensive expeditions so far. A large depot was left at Depot Point. The question with regard to Axel Heiberg’s Land being an island or a part of Ellesmere Island needed to be clarified. Sverdrup participated together with Schei in an expedition which lasted for 72 days to the area around Greely's Fjord and further north. This proved that Axel Heiberg’s Island was in island. Isachsen and Hassel went to an area where land had been seen the year before. They mapped Amund and Ellef Ringnes islands, the Eastern part of Kong Christian’s Land and the northern North Cornwall.
North Devon was mapped during the summer. It was found that Grinnell Island was a peninsula, not an island. The job was done. Now they were waiting for the ice to melt which it usually does in August, but the Gåsefjorden remained full of ice. They used saw, they tried to break the ice with the ship. In short they did everything possible to get out of the fiord, but another winter was coming at them.
With the Fram as a base, hunting and fishing was possible at all times. Particularly the areas east and north of Gåsefjorden were excellent for hunting. Musk ox was considered a delicacy. The chef Lindstrøm made several special meals. Reindeer, grouse, hare and goose were also preferred food. Further down on the scale were polar bear and seal. Walrus meat was used for feeding the dogs.
Sledge dogs are excellent hunting dogs. Musk ox is the easiest game to hunt in these areas. Until fall 1901 they had shot 144 musk oxen, nine reindeers, 29 polar bears and a lot of hare, grouse, goose, seal and walrus.
The area around Gåsefjorden was rich hunting ground. To secure supplies for the winter represented only a minor problem. Blood was taken care of to make pancakes. In this area also the first polar wolves were shot. During winter darkness wolves used to come close to the ship. A trap was made. The bait regularly disappeared but there were no wolves in the trap. Eventually one day, the trap was closed and brought onboard. To everybody's surprise they found two wolves in the trap. They were later named Adam and Eva. A cage was made and the wolves were kept on deck.
1901 –1902 Gåsefjorden
Due to the circumstances, one more year had to be spent. The Fram found her new harbour further out in Gåsefjorden. A hectic activity started to provide fresh food for the winter for all the guys as well as for the dogs.
The winter seemed to pass extra slowly this year. Sverdrup is worried. He asks himself: "What will the people at home believe?" The Fram was now in the area where the Franklin expedition with two ships and 130 men disappeared in 1845. The expedition was last seen in the Meleville Bay, and the last known harbour was on Beechey Island. Here, John Ross had placed the sloop Mary during the search for the expedition. Now a party from the Fram was sent to Beechey Island to survey the sloop for possible use to reach Greenland, but the Mary, the depot and a hut had been completely destroyed by polar bears and Inuits.
Another party built cairns where messages stating the position of the Fram were placed, in case of rescue expeditions being under way.
Sverdrup went north together with Schei on a final expedition, a trip of 77 days with a distance of 1550 km. Sverdrup reached a point he named Land Lokk at 81 degrees 40 minutes north. This came to be the northernmost point during all the years they stayed in the area.
Gåsefjorden was covered with sand all the way to the inlet. The sun melted the ice, and finally on the 6th of August, the Fram was steaming out of the fiord. The sails were hoisted and the course was for home.
The Fram arrived Utsira via Greenland on the 18th of September 1902. Approaching Stavanger she was met by ships and boats. In Stavanger Sverdrup was greeted by the mayor and a vast crowd. The engine was out of order and the Fram had to be towed.
On her way to Kristiania (Oslo) she called at Kristiansand where a gala dinner was given and even a ball was organized. At Larvik, Colin Archer came on board. On the way to Kristiania, members of the government came on board as well. Naval ships and the royal yacht Heimdal, commanded by Scott Hansen who had been Sverdrup's executive officer on the First Fram Expedition, escorted the Fram. Hundreds of ships and boats joined the escort. Upon arrival in Kristiania, Sverdrup was met by a total of 100.000 spectators.
Sverdrup wrote: "And now, the Second Fram Expedition had come to an end. An area of between 200.000 and 300.000 square kilometres had been mapped and claimed for Norway...".
The Second Fram Expedition is still unknown to most people even if it is perhaps the most important of all the expeditions with the Fram. Now Sverdrup was regarded as Norway's most modest and silent person compared to Nansen and Amundsen.
The results of the expedition were magnificent. 150 000 square kilometres of new land had been mapped. No expedition, before or later, has discovered and mapped an area of the same size. During the sledge expeditions they travelled all together 18 000 kilometres and spent 762 days and nights in tents.
They brought back some 50 000 plants, 2 000 different specimens of animals and collections of plankton. Based on tons of geological samples it was later determined that there is gas and oil in the area.
I 1919 four volumes of scientific analyses were published followed by a fifth in 1930. More than 30 scientists had then been analysing the collected data for almost 20 years.
The land claimed by Sverdrup
Sverdrup claimed Norwegian sovereignty over the newly discovered area. Neither the united kingdom (Norway and Sweden), nor the later independent Kingdom of Norway showed any interest in Sverdrup's claim. Sverdrup even brought up the case with the Foreign Ministry in February 1928. In 1930 Canada claimed the land according to the sector principle and the Norwegian Government agreed to this claim.
Later, Canada awarded Sverdrup 67 000 dollars in recognition of his scientific work, the loan of his private diary and journals, and also the detailed maps from the area.
Baracoa, Cuba 1906
Sverdrup bought a plantation at Baracoa in 1906. He had extensive plans for cultivating bananas, cocoa and coffee, and even tried to produce cotton. Due to dry weather, terrible storms and a bad year his engagement ended a financial failure. In a letter to Sverdrup's daughter, Alexander Nansen wrote: "Your father’s land on Cuba is not included in the list as it is considered worthless...".
Sverdrup then thought of starting forestry in Alaska. Due to the outbreak of the First World War the project was never realised.
Under Russian Flag
In February 1914 Sverdrup was called upon to search for three missing Russian polar expeditions. A search group consisting of the two ships Eclipse and Hertha was organized with Sverdrup as captain of the Eclipse. Apart from searching for the lost expeditions, the task turned out quite differently.
Two naval transport ships, the Taimyr and the Vaigatch in transit from Vladivostok to Archangels under the leadership of Boris Andrejvitsj Viltkitskij, were stuck in the ice off Cape Tsjeluskin. With a total of 80 men on board the situation was critical. Sverdrup reached a position about 320 kilometres from the two Russian ships in distress. Thirty-nine men were brought over to the Eclipse. Sverdrup himself, now aged 60, led this rescue operation. Later, after 58 days on board, they were assisted and given 100 reindeers and 14 sledges for further evocation. Another arctic tragedy had been avoided.
The Fram’s Saviour
Otto Sverdrup was appointed the first chairman of the Fram Committee. At this point, the Fram was stationed at Horten and she was in very poor condition. An attempt to raise money to restore the ship had failed, and the committee found that there was no way of saving the Fram. Sverdrup, however, disagreed and stated: "We are not going to give up - this is when it all starts!".
In 1930 the Fram was restored at Framnæs Værksted in Sandefjord, and brought back to what she looked like on the Second Fram Expedition. When the Fram was towed to Oslo after having participated at an exhibition in Trondheim, Sverdrup was seriously ill. A proposal came up to tow the ship to Sandvika where Sverdrup had his home so that he could get a last glimpse of his proud ship. His reaction was unmistakable: "I do not want any sort of comedy!"
On the 26th of November 1930 Sverdrup passed away. Six years later the Fram was placed in her own museum at Bygdøynes. She is one of Oslo’s main attractions and is considered a national monument in polar world history.