Why do people decide to leave everything behind to find work in harsh Arctic environments? This is an important question, if we want to explain the development of industry in the Polar Regions. In this presentation we will try to answer it, by analyzing the stories of employees in the Spitsbergen mining industry in the early 20th century.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries experienced the culmination of an exceptional hero cult surrounding polar scientists and explorers. Far less celebrated, but probably no less important, were the numerous mining workers and engineers present and active in industrial enterprises in the High Arctic at about the same period. While the motives and driving forces of polar scientists and explorers have been relatively carefully examined, very little attention has been paid to these, less glamorous, people and their choice to earn a living in an Arctic industrial community.
By examining a unique material of written accounts, diaries, newspaper articles and images from the Swedish coal mining establishment of Sveagruvan (the Svea Mine) on Spitsbergen, in production during the first two decades of the 20th century, we will analyze the narratives of workers, foremen and managers, men and women, expressing their views of the time they spent on Spitsbergen. The material will be discussed from four identity creating perspectives: gender, nationality, class and profession. How did individuals in different positions narrate their life and work at the Svea Mine? What was the source of inspiration for those narratives? To what extent were they inspired by the established heroic picture of the Arctic scientists and explorers? What does this tell us about the motives for working in the High Arctic?