Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld – A Great Arctic Explorer of the Nineteenth Century

Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld – A Great Arctic Explorer of the Nineteenth Century

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By Pauli Kettunen, Gale Ambassador at the University of Helsinki
I am a second-year student in a programme ambitiously titled ‘Society and Change’ – there is not enough space to describe it here, if you had started wondering! At the University, my main interests are in Political History, in addition to all the other things concerning the History of Civil Society. In my free time I like cooking, reading, exercising, complaining about politics, and gaming. My latest addiction is reading science fiction by Alastair Reynolds.

One hundred and forty years ago, the world was speculating about the survival of a significant arctic exploration party. One can read, for example this article in The Western Daily Press, one of the periodicals included in Gale’s British Library Newspapers. With Professor Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld leading the expedition, the steamer Vega had departed on August 27th, 1878 for the Northeast Passage, the shipping route to the Pacific Ocean along the Arctic Ocean coasts of Norway and Russia. As radio technology had not yet been developed, there were no means for the press to get in touch with Nordenskiöld and his crew. In the reporter’s words, “More than seven and a-half months have…now elapsed and nothing more has been heard of him.” Nevertheless, the newspaper firmly believed that the expedition would be safe, possibly having stopped to spend the winter at “the sheltered bay of Kulynchinska.” Without faster means to confirm this, organisations that had invested in Nordenskiöld’s expedition, or were otherwise interested in the Northeast Passage, were planning to send out search parties to look for the Vega.

In May 1879, Professor Nordenskiöld’s sponsors launched attempts to find him and his crew from the Arctic Sea, where they correctly believed they could find him. The Vega later sailed out on its own after the ice that had trapped it had melted.
In May 1879, Professor Nordenskiöld’s sponsors launched attempts to find him and his crew from the Arctic Sea, where they correctly believed they could find him. The Vega later sailed out on its own after the ice that had trapped it had melted.
“The Northeast Passage.” Gloucester Citizen, 6 May 1879, p. 2. British Library Newspapers, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/9N4ej3.

However, the relief steamers did not find the Vega trapped in ice. The experienced arctic explorer — who had been on several expeditions to the Svalbard islands and Greenland [1] – had been right in his calculations about the Northeast Passage, and after the ice gave way in July, the ship sailed to Japan as initially planned, arriving in Yokohama at the beginning of September. There Nordenskiöld gave an account of the story to the press and just three days after his arrival in Japan, the story had been forwarded all the way to Chicago. With the help of one of the papers in Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, we can read Nordenskiöld’s own words, as told to a correspondent in Yokohama and telegraphed by cable to The Daily Inter Ocean. They had spent 264 days trapped in the ice, but the ship had lasted in the pressure, and they had not been in any danger; their supplies had been plenty, and the nearby native tribes had provided them with additional support. Nordenskiöld also mentioned having tried to contact his Swedish sponsor through a letter in February. He had most likely attempted to have it delivered through the native people in the area, as The Western Daily Press had speculated, but it was never received.

"Nordenskjold." Daily Inter Ocean, 5 Sept. 1879. Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/97wZF3.
“Nordenskjold.” Daily Inter Ocean, 5 Sept. 1879. Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/97wZF3.

Nordenskiöld was celebrated in every call of port where the Vega docked on his return trip to Europe from Japan via the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean. In the Penny Illustrated Paper, accessible through the wonderful digital archive of British Library Newspapers, is a description of his visit to Paris. The professor was “covered with honours” and received with a banquet presided over by Prince Oscar of Sweden. According to the paper, a conference even “broke up amid cries of ‘Vive la Suède!’, ’Vive Nordenskiöld!’” Despite all the praise Professor Nordenskiöld received in his honour, he was still able to maintain Finnish modesty. As the newspaper writes, “…Professor Nordenskiöld … gave a condensed account of his voyage, modestly attributing a large share of the success to the energy and perseverance of Captain Palander.” The man in question, Louis Palander, was a lieutenant in the Swedish navy, and he had worked with Nordenskiöld on his previous expeditions before serving as the Chief Officer on the Vega. Whilst the professor was known to plan and organise for his expeditions meticulously, much of the navigating and sailing was probably left in the capable hands of the naval officer.

Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld (1832–1901) was born in Finland, and he went to university in Helsinki, where he could have obtained a professorship. However, after being promoted to a doctor he got into trouble with the Russian authorities because of a speech that questioned the countries’ relations. Instead of taking back his words, he travelled to Sweden, and continued his academic career there, as told by The Graphic in 1879.
Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld (1832–1901) was born in Finland, and he went to university in Helsinki, where he could have obtained a professorship. However, after being promoted to a doctor he got into trouble with the Russian authorities because of a speech that questioned the countries’ relations. Instead of taking back his words, he travelled to Sweden, and continued his academic career there, as told by The Graphic in 1879.
“PROFESSOR A. E. NORDENSKIÖLD.” Graphic, 8 Nov. 1879. British Library Newspapers, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/97ueK4.

Thanks to the help of faster modes of communication like the telegraph, word of his successful voyage reached far and wide. During the year 1879, when the Vega finished the Northeast Passage, there were already almost 500 pieces of news about him. In the peak year of 1880, during which the Vega sailed back to Europe, his name can be found in over 900 newspaper articles in Gale Primary Sources – and this is only a sample of sources largely from the English-speaking world! (Please see graph below.) There would most likely be many more articles to discover, should one search archives of, for instance, French-language newspapers. Nordenskiöld certainly was a celebrity of his time, having achieved something that had been daydreamed about for centuries beforehand.

"Over the Ocean." St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 25 Apr. 1880, p. 2. Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/9N4Sf6.
“Over the Ocean.” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 25 Apr. 1880, p. 2. Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/9N4Sf6.
Term frequency from Gale Primary Sources. The archives included in the search were: 17th and 18th Century Burney Collection, British Library Newspapers, The Economist Historical Archive, Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, and The Times Digital Archive.
Term frequency from Gale Primary Sources. The archives included in the search were: 17th and 18th Century Burney Collection, British Library Newspapers, The Economist Historical Archive, Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, and The Times Digital Archive.

His return to Sweden was met with great enthusiasm and Nordenskiöld was persuaded to write a popular book of the voyage, as opposed to only scientific texts. Published in 1881, the book was immediately translated to English and Finnish, and eventually into a total of ten languages.[2] The book contributed to his popularity, along with the wide press coverage. The Times praised The Voyage of the Vega (as it was named in English), summing up its contents for the readers. Nordenskiöld not only told his own story, but gave an overview of past expeditions and journeys before his, giving them credit as the foundation of his own successful voyage. The Times recognises that this research – which Nordenskiöld had conducted before the expedition – had been the reason why he had been able to plan the journey so thoroughly.

"Reception of Professor Nordenskjold, the Swedish Arctic Explorer, at Stockholm." Daily Graphic, 24 May 1880, p. 718. Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/97wr9X.
“Reception of Professor Nordenskjold, the Swedish Arctic Explorer, at Stockholm.” Daily Graphic, 24 May 1880, p. 718. Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/97wr9X.

The better part of a year after the Vega had reached Stockholm, Nordenskiöld was put forward to lead a “Proposed Antarctic Expedition”, as reported by the Milwaukee Sentinel in March 1891. It is not clear why, based on these sources, but the Northeast Passage was his final expedition. He continued his scientific career and published new books and maps, and was also appointed as a member of the Academy of Sweden. His great cartographic collection – which Nordenskiöld amassed during his scientific career – was sold to the University Library in Helsinki after his death in 1901. It is one of the most valuable collections of maps in the world, and it has received a place in the UNESCO Memory of the World registry.[3]

“A Map of the Swedish Arctic Expeditions 1837–80”
“A Map of the Swedish Arctic Expeditions 1837–80”
Dahlman, C. E; Torell, Otto; Lovén, Sven; Nordenskiöld, Adolf Erik (1880): ”Karta öfver svenska arktiska expeditionernas forskningsområde åren 1837–80”, National Library of Finland, A. E. Nordenskiöld Collection, http://urn.fi/URN:NBN:fi-fe2014111346281.

[1] Forselles, Cecilia: Nordenskiöld, Adolf Erik. Kansallisbiografia-verkkojulkaisu. Studia Biographica 4. Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, 1997– (cited on 5.3.2019)
Fixed publication ID URN:NBN:fi-fe20051410; fixed link to the article http://urn.fi/urn:nbn:fi:sks-kbg-003569 (ISSN 1799-4349, online publication)
English translation by Aulikki Litzen, https://kansallisbiografia.fi/english/person/3569

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

Blog post cover image citation: Georg von Rosen (1886): ”Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld” (oil on canvas), Nationalmuseum (Sweden), https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Adolf_Erik_Nordenski%C3%B6ld_m%C3%A5lad_av_Georg_von_Rosen_1886.jpg

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