Otto Sverdrup was one of the greatest pioneers of polar exploration alongside Amundsen and Nansen. But we are guessing you never heard of him. By M. Michael Brady
Otto Sverdrup (1854-1930) is considered to be one of the three Norwegians prominent in the history of the golden era of polar exploration. The other two are Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen. Nansen certainly originated much and inspired others. Amundsen is most remembered as the man who beat Scott to the South Pole in 1911. In comparison, Sverdrup’s polar achievements and leadership seem unheralded.
In his unpublished autobiography of 1962, Arctic explorer Henry A. Larsen sought to change that low ranking, writing that: “in my opinion, Otto Sverdrup was the most competent and practical of all the Norwegian explorers of that era. But being both shy and reticent, he was satisfied with taking a back seat and was of course overshadowed by such men as Nansen and Amundsen. From my own personal knowledge of the Arctic, there is no doubt in my mind today, but that Sverdrup was the most versatile and competent of the three.” [Quoted in Ships of wood and men of iron, p. xvi].
Larsen’s assessment may be the best available. He was born, brought up, and educated at the maritime academy in Norway and had met and been inspired by Amundsen in 1923 in Seattle before emigrating to Canada in 1928. In “Otto Sverdrup, Never Baffled”, Sverdrup’s definitive biographer, Per Egil Hegge echoes Larsen in observing that “Otto Sverdrup completely lacked the ability to publicize himself.” The picture that then emerges is of Sverdrup as the quiet man of polar exploration.
By his full name, Otto Neumann Knoph Sverdrup was born the second of ten children of a tenant farming family on the Horstad gård, a large farmstead in the municipality of Bindal at 65°N in the fjord indented mountainous landscape of northern Norway. The Sverdrups were of a family that traced its lineage back more than two centuries to its progenitor, Peder Michelsen Sverdrup, a royal tax collector appointed in 1624 when Denmark ruled Norway. The surname Sverdrup came from that of a small village in the Southern Jutland region of Denmark that borders on Germany.
Otto and his elder brother Peter Jakob were tutored by their maternal grandfather, whose teaching methods were direct. He taught the boys to swim by rowing them out on the Bindal Fjord and tossing them into the water to find for themselves how to get to land. Otto got his first rifle when he was ten years old. Then he and Peter Jakob went hunting, on foot in summer and on skis in winter. At age 14, he shot his first bear.
At age 17 in 1872, Otto Sverdrup went to sea. He studied in Trondheim and then Christiania (now Oslo), where he qualified as a mate in 1875 and as a shipmaster in 1878. In that year, at the age of 24, he became captain of the Trio, one of the first steamships in coastal traffic in mid Norway. In the following decade, he sailed as a merchant ship officer to destinations in Norway and abroad, including the USA. As he was pursuing his maritime career, his father had bought and in 1874 moved the family to the Trana Farm at Ogndal just east of the small city of Steinkjer, one degree of latitude south of Bindal. So Steinkjer had become Sverdrup’s home on land. At the time, the Sverdup family’s legal advisor was Alexander Nansen, a lawyer who lived and worked in Namsos, just north of Steinkjer. That connection was to change the course of Sverdrup’s career.
Early in 1888, Sverdrup learned from lawyer Alexander Nansen of the search of his elder by one year brother Fridtjof Nansen for members of an expedition then being planned to cross Greenland on skis. So on February 8, he wrote Fridtjof Nansen in Christiania to indicate his interest in taking part in the expedition. On February 20, Alexander sent Fritjof a telegram recommending Otto Sverdrup as an ideal expedition member. The rest is history.
Nansen chose Sverdrup for the Greenland crossing expedition. The four other members were two other explorers, Oluf Christian Dietrichson, and Kristian Kristiansen, and two Sami reindeer herders, Samuel Johannesen Balto and Ole Nilsen Ravna, chosen in part because the expedition had been initially planned using reindeer and because they were superb long-distance skiers with an innate ability to get along in snow-covered landscape. The six-man party sailed on the sealer Jason to the east coast of Greenland, and then rowed two small boats northward for 12 days and nights to Umivik, a village near the Gyldenlöve Fjord at 64°24’N. They left Umivik on skis on August 15, 1888 and arrived at the Ameralik Fjord on the west coast at 64°7’N on September 29 to complete the first documented crossing of Greenland.
In 1891-92, Sverdrup advised Nansen in the building in Larvik of the Fram (“Forward”), a polar exploration ship designed by Scottish naval architect Colin Archer to withstand freezing into the drift ice in Nansen’s planned three-year Arctic science expedition that included an effort to reach the North Pole.
The Fram was launched on October 26, 1892. Sverdrup was given command, and she sailed from Christiania on June 24, 1893 and finally from Vardø in North Norway in late July. On October 5, she reached and was frozen into the drift ice at more than 79°N. After two winters drifting with the ice, in March 1895, Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen left the ship to ski with a dogsled team to reach the Pole, and Sverdrup assumed command of the expedition. By April 7, Nansen and Johansen had reached 86°14’N, but turned around as they reckoned they couldn’t reach the Pole and return before the end of the Arctic summer. Their return was arduous, and they were obliged to overwinter in a makeshift shelter on Franz Joseph Land. By mid June they had reached Cape Flora. On the 17th, they experienced what was to become the most famed chance encounter of Polar exploration. Nansen first caught sight of and approached British polar explorer Frederick George Jackson, who had assumed that the Nansen expedition had perished, as there had been no word from it for three years. The two men stood for a few moments staring at each other. Then Jackson asked: “You are Nansen, aren’t you?”, to which Nansen replied, “Yes, I am Nansen.” Thereafter, Nansen and Johansen returned with the British expedition to north Norway, where they rejoined Sverdrup and the Fram in August 1896.
In 1898, Sverdrup again sailed on the Fram, as captain of the ship and leader of a four-year scientific expedition to northwestern Greenland and eastern Canada, an area on the globe then poorly mapped. He chose five scientists—a cartographer, a geologist, a botanist, a zoologist, and a medical doctor—and a crew of ten. Interestingly, one man that Sverdrup asked to join the crew was Hermann Smith-Johannsen, who could not accept as he wished to finish his engineering studies in Berlin. Later, Smith-Johannsen emigrated to Canada in 1907 and there became a well-known cross-country skier nicknamed “Jackrabbit.”
From the start, the expedition was successful. It explored Ellesmere Island and mapped an area of some 65,000 square miles in the Canadian Arctic territory of Nunavit. Flora and fauna were observed and documented, and geological and oceanographic observations were recorded. Like polar expeditions of its time, it tested and proved the hardiness of its participants, not least of its leader. One night during the first winter, Sverdrup had imbibed a bit much in celebrating his 45th birthday and fell asleep outside his tent without his mittens, at a temperature of minus 35°C (-31°F). When he awoke, he just went back inside the tent and continued sleeping, apparently completely uninjured.
The expedition was comprehensively documented in Sverdrup’s own words in New Land. As described in the Prologue of Sverdrup’s Arctic Adventures, Sverdrup compiled the book in the winter of 1902-1903. With the diaries and charts of the expedition spread out in front of him, he dictating to a shorthand recorder provided by the Norwegian government, to speed publication of the book. Arctic historian Gerard Kenney considers Sverdrup’s second Fram expedition to be one of the greatest ever of polar exploration. In the Acknowledgements of Ships of wood and men of iron, he remarks that upon their return to Norway, the members of the expedition “came back with a record of geographic and scientific discovery, the richness of which is unparalleled in the annals of Arctic exploration.”
After the stunningly successful New Land expedition, Sverdrup continued to sail Arctic waters. One of his lesser known exploits was his search and rescue mission for the Imperial Russian Navy. In 1914-15 on the Eclipse (a Dundee whaler built in 1867), he sought two missing Russian Arctic Expeditions, one led by Greorgy Brusilov on the Santa Anna schooner and the other by Vladimir Rusanov on the Hercules ketch. In retrospect, the enormity of Sverdrup’s search is reflected in an account of survival in the Arctic written by the navigator of the ill-fated Brusilov expedition, who after having been at odds with his commander for months, left the Santa Anna in April 1914 and after a 235 mile trek to Cape Flora in Franz Josef Land, survived to write In the Land of White Death, an account of his ordeal published in Russian in 1917 (translated into German in 1925 and into English in 2000). Sverdrup’s rescue mission for the Imperial Navy was unsuccessful. The fates of the two expeditions remained unknown until many years later, when the Soviet Arctic Institute found relics of the Rusanov expedition in 1937 and explorers found remains of the Brusilov expedition in 2010.
Sverdrup went on his fourth and last voyage in Siberian waters in the summer of 1921. From the bridge of the Soviet ice-breaker Lenin, he led an experimental convoy of four cargo vessels from England to the Ob and Yenisei rivers, replicating a trade route proved feasible by Nansen in 1913 (the centennial of which was observed in 2013 by a Norwegian-Russian expedition, reported in Through Siberia with Nansen, Mountain Gazette, March 4, 2015). Sverdrup’s cargo convoy to the Kara ports and back again was a commercial success. In the in the years that followed, larger convoys were sent along the Arctic sea route that Sverdrup had helped pioneer.
In 1908, Sverdrup had bought Villa Walle on a hill overlooking the town of Sandvika, a southern suburb of Oslo. It had become his home on land, which he called “Homewood.” It was there he died on November 26, 1930.
Memorials to Sverdrup abound. A crater near the South Pole of the Moon is named Otto Sverdrup. The archipelago of the northern Queen Elizabeth Islands in the Arctic Ocean west of Ellesmere Island that he discovered and mapped on the second Fram expedition are is now known as the Sverdrup Islands. In mid 1957, Crown Prince (and later King) Olav unveiled a statue of him by sculptor Carl E. Paulsen in Steinkjer, where he lived in his youth. Sculptor Per Ung created two Otto Sverdrup works in bronze, a bust in Bindal, where he was born, and a statue in Sandvika, where he died. In 2004, upon the 150 anniversary of Sverdrup’s birth, Norway, Canada, and Greenland had a joint issue of commemorative Sverdrup stamps. One of the Royal Norwegian Navy’s five Fridtjof Nansen class frigates is named the HNoMS Otto Sverdrup. The LN-DYO, a Boeing 737-300 in the Norwegian (airline) fleet of passenger airliners featuring tailfin portraits of the famed, honors Otto Sverdrup.
Had men’s magazines existed in Sverdrup’s time, he probably would have been a regular feature on covers. With his fiery red beard, piercing blue eyes, and muscular build, he personified the powers needed to prevail in polar exploration. But just as time travel has yet to happen, that will not come about. Otto Sverdrup remains one of the greatest and most enigmatic of polar explorers.
Further reading (books mentioned in text):
Ships of Wood and Men of Iron: A Norwegian-Canadian Saga of Exploration in the High Arctic, by Gerard Kenney [Toronto, Natural Heritage Books, 2005, 139 page paperback, ISBN 978-1897045060].
New Land: Four Years in the Arctic Regions by Otto Sverdrup, translated by Ethel Harriet Heam, [original edition: London, Longmans, Green & Co., 1904, 2 volumes hardcover; republished 2014 by Cambridge University Press, 518 page paperback, ISBN 978-1108071109.]
Sverdrup’s Arctic Adventures, adapted with explanatory notes from Sverdrup’s New Land, by T.C. Fairley [London, Longmans, 1959, 305 page hardcover].
Otto Sverdrup, Aldri Rådløs (“Otto Sverdrup, Never baffled”), by Per Egil Hegge [Oslo, JM Stenersens Forlag, 1996, large format (9.6 x 12.4 inch), 264 page hardcover, ISBN 988-82-7201-198-6], the definitive Sverdrup biography, with a 52 page addendum by mariner Asbjørn F. Aastrøm (in Norwegian only). Author Hegge also published an equivalent biography of Fridtjof Nansen in 2002.
In the Land of White Death by Valerian Albanov [New York, Modern Library, 2000, 243 page paperback, ISBN 978-0679783619], the account of survival in the Arctic, by the navigator of the ill-fated Imperial Russian expedition led by Brusilov.
Persons mentioned in text (in addition to Otto Sverdrup, in alphabetical order by surname)
Asbjørn F. Aastrøm (1944- ), Norwegian Arctic mariner
Valerian Albanov (1881-1919), Russian navigator, one of two survivors of Brusilov expedition
Roald Amundsen (1872-1928), Norwegian polar explorer, first to South Pole.
Colin Archer (1832-1921), Scottish naval architect and shipbuilder, lived and worked in Larvik, Norway.
Samuel Johannessen Balto (1891-1921), Sami reindeer herder, on Greenland crossing with Nansen.
Greorgy Brusilov (1844-1914?), Russian Arctic explorer.
Ole Christian Dietrichson (1856-1942), Norwegian military officer and explorer, on Greenland crossing with Nansen.
Per Egil Hegge (1940- ), Norwegian journalist, editor, and biographer.
Frederick George Jackson (1860-1938), British polar explorer.
Gerard Kenney (1931-2014), Canadian Arctic historian.
Kristian Kristiansen (1865-1943), Norwegian explorer, on Greenland crossing with Nansen.
Henry A. Larsen (1899-1964), Canadian Arctic explorer.
Alexander Nansen (1862-1945), Norwegian lawyer, brother of Fridtjof Nansen.
Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930), Norwegian scientist, diplomat, humanitarian, and 1922 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
Olav V (1903-1991), King of Norway 1957-1991.
Carl E. Paulsen (1896-1973), Norwegian sculptor.
Ole Nilsen Ravna (1841-1906), Sami reindeer herder, on Greenland crossing with Nansen.
Hermann Smith-Johannsen (1875-1987), Norwegian skier and supercentenarian who emigrated to Canada and helped introduce cross-country skiing there.
Peder Michelsen Sverdrup (1590-1631), progenitor of Sverdrup family.
Peter Jakob Knoph Sverdrup (1853-1897), elder brother of Otto Sverdrup.
Per Ung (1933-2013), Norwegian sculptor.
Vladimir Rusanov (1875-1913?), Russian Arctic explorer.