What is the Difference Between Svalbard, Spitsbergen and Spitzbergen?

Svalbard Spitsbergen Spitzbergen

You’ve come to the right place, intrepid traveller, if you care to learn what terminology to use and why, because this isn’t a simple question of “Po-tay-toh/ Poh-tAh-to”. 

The reality is that this terminology is dripping in history and conflict– ask any Norwegian and you’ll hear that Svalbard is an archipelago, and Spitsbergen is the largest island within it.

But ask someone from the Netherlands, Russia, or a slew of people from countries in the European Union, and they’ll tell you Spitsbergen is the archipelago, while West Spitsbergen is its largest island. Just for good measure, ask a German. They will tell you that Spitzbergen is the correct spelling.

To better understand why different countries use different terminology for this gorgeous area of the world, we must leaf through the historical records and definitions.

In this post, read about what Spitsbergen, Spitzbergen, and Svalbard are, the history behind the discrepancy, and which you should use.

Origin of the names Spitsbergen and Spitzbergen

Dutch navigator Willem Barentsz named West Spitsbergen in 1596. The name “Spitsbergen” comes from the Dutch ”spits” – pointed, and ”bergen” – mountains. At the time, the name applied to both the main island and the archipelago.

While searching for a Northeast Passage to Asia, Barentz discovered and named the islands of Spitsbergen and Bjornoya.

He and the 17 crewmen went eastwards, but the ship got stuck in the ice and sank, and the crew was forced to spend the winter on Novaya Zemlya.

On June 14, 1597, the crew left in two open boats and an ill Willem Barentz, died six days later. Twelve members of the crew managed to survive, and the following year, Barentz’s diary was published with a map of Spitsbergen, which was when the Barents Sea was named after him.

Today, the Encyclopedia Britannica defines Spitsbergen as:

[the] largest island of the Svalbard archipelago, part of Norway. Spitsbergen, with an area of 15,075 square miles (39,044 square km), is approximately 280 miles (450 km) long and ranges from 25 to 140 miles (40 to 225 km) wide.

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The Spitzbergen Spelling

Spitzbergen, a spelling that has survived in Germany and some communities still to this day, is a term that may have been based on misunderstood pronunciation. The “Spitzbergen” spelling was used in English during the 19th century, including by the Royal Society (Proceedings vol 12, Royal Society, 1863).

In 1906, the Arctic explorer Sir Martin Conway dictated that the ”Spitzbergen” spelling was incorrect, signalling that ”Spitsbergen” was the correct spelling, because, as he noted, the name was Dutch, not German. He is famously quoted for saying, “Spitsbergen is the only correct spelling; Spitzbergen is a relatively modern blunder. The name is Dutch, not German. The second S asserts and commemorates the nationality of the discoverer,” (Sir Martin Conway, ”No Man’s Land”, 1906, p. vii.).

However, the British generally continued to use the term Spitzbergen, at least until a monumental 1920  international treaty, titled the “Spitsbergen Treaty,” which not only determined the fate of the islands, but also the correct pronunciation.

Svalbard Spitsbergen Spitzbergen

What is Svalbard?

The Encyclopedia Britannica now defines Svalbard to be: 

[…] is an archipelago, part of Norway…  composed of nine main islands: Spitsbergen (formerly West Spitsbergen), North East Land, Edge Island, Barents Island, Prins Karls Foreland, Kvit Island (Gilles Land), Kong Karls Land (Wiche Islands), Bjørn (Bear) Island, and Hopen.

But not everyone agrees.

The Spitsbergen Treaty Defines Physical Area and Usage

Spitsbergen didn’t fall under any particular country’s jurisdiction until the 20th century. Most countries seemed happy to keep the archipelago belonging to no one nation, as long as nobody else tried to take control of it. The land just didn’t seem important enough to risk disputes with other countries in order to have ownership. Whales and fish, thought to be the biggest resources, weren’t dependent on the actual landmass of the area, so surrounding countries harmoniously shared the waters.

This all changed in the late 19th century when mining became lucrative in Spitsbergen. Suddenly the question of land jurisdiction was important, as well as reliable administration and legislation. Various options were discussed including joint administration of Spitzbergen by its nearest neighbors Norway, Sweden, and Russia.

During the peace conferences in Paris, the Norwegians convinced other nations to put Spitsbergen under Norwegian sovereignty with the Spitsbergen Treaty. Signed on the 9th of February, 1920, the treaty defined several conditions that remain important to this day. Some of the most notable stipulations were that:

  • Spitsbergen is under Norwegian administration and legislation.
  • Citizens of all signatory nations have free access and the right of economic activities.
  • Spitsbergen remains demilitarized. No nation, including Norway, is allowed to permanently station military personnel or equipment on Spitsbergen.

Today, the treaty is commonly referred to as the “Svalbard Treaty”, but this term is not historically correct for the time, since the area wasn’t named Svalbard until several years later.

Reindeer in Svalbard

Norway Names The Arctic Archipelago of Svalbard

Under Norwegian governance, the archipelago was named ”Svalbard”, or Cold Coast in Old Norse, in 1925, which included the main island of Spitsbergen in addition to the eight smaller islands making up the archipelago. By the end of the 20th century, this language usage became common.

The “Svalbard law” recognizing the archipelago under Norwegian rule was enforced on 14 August 1925 and is considered Svalbard’s national holiday in its main town of Longyearbyen.

But don’t confuse Svalbard law with that of Norway. Since Svalbard isn’t considered to be part of any Norweigan county, it isn’t governed in the same way that  Norway’s mainland is.

Instead, it is governed by a Norwegian-appointed governor and considered an unincorporated area with special jurisdiction specified in the Svalbard Treaty. This means it falls outside the EEA, Schengen Area, and Nordic Passport Union.

Criticism Around the Spitsbergen Treaty and Svalbard Law Lasts To This Day

Russia, then a Soviet state, was not invited to the 1920 Paris meeting where the treaty was birthed, and even though the Moscow government later acknowledged both Norwegian sovereignty over the archipelago and signed the treaty, the name “Svalbard” isn’t used by Russian officials, even today. Tora Hultgreen, head of Svalbard Museum, stated in the High North News that when Norway renamed Spitsbergen as Svalbard, “[t]hat was to symbolize that we reclaimed an area that had belonged to Norway before.”  It was then that Russians called into evidence that Russian trappers may have sailed to Svalbard first.

Which Country Can Lay Claim To First Discovering The Area?

There is evidence that Willem Barentsz came to the archipelago in June 1596, as his diary describes the area no man had been before, after an expedition to Novaya Zemlya. In the diaries from the earlier expeditions, there are descriptions of traces from Russian trappers, remains of foundations from houses, and Orthodox crosses, however, in his Barentsz map of the western coast of Svalbard there was no indication or mention of anyone else.

The first existing records of Russians in Svalbard start around 1710, when the Pomors came to trap under a direct order from Czar Peter the Great. According to Hultgreen, it was the Russian Pomors who taught the Norwegians how to winter at Svalbard with their land-hunting techniques.

Despite a lack of evidence, Russia has claimed that the Russian trappers and hunters were the first to discover the area in the early 16th century. While archeologists have been able to date the wood used to build their hunting stations back to the early 1500s, critics retort that this driftwood was likely to have been there far before building with it.

Spitsbergen Svalbard Spitzbergen

Why Is The Area Still Disputed Today?

To begin, the areas around Svalbard are rich for fishing and controlled by the Fisheries Protection Zone, where Norway exercises control over the waters and fishing allowed. However, Russia has always protested the right Norway has to this control because the fisheries that fall within the Fisheries Protection Zone are also part of the overall fisheries management of the Barents Sea, where Norway and Russia generally cooperate. Thus, no separate quotas are licensed for fishing in the zone.

The next area where Norwegian sovereignty creates tension is with the use of the land in the archipelago. According to The High North News, Moscow considers Norway’s expansion of protected natural areas to be a threat to Russian business activity, and in particular, to mining and tourism in the old mining communities. 

The first Russian prospecting of coal mining on Svalbard started in 1912, and shortly after, the Soviet Union bought Barentsburg from the Netherlands. This purchase explains why this Russian settlement is called Barentsburg and not a Russian name.

Finally, Russia has also expressed that Norway itself may be in violation of the Treaty’s basic right to economic activity due to its restrictions on helicopter/vessel use. Norway has responded that the Treaty places a particular responsibility on Norway for preserving nature and that the Treaty only gives the right to mining insofar that it follows local laws and regulations.

Which Countries Use Different Names For the Area Today?

Russia is not the only country to still use the name Spitsbergen for the whole archipelago and West Spitsbergen for its largest island, the Netherlands does as well. Some English literature uses the name Spitsbergen for the entire archipelago, whereas in Russian literature, the archipelago is referred to as Grumant, a term for Greenland.

Svalbard Zodiac Austfonna

“History is not another name for the past, as many people imply. It is the name for stories about the past.”

– A. J. P. Taylor

On a Secret Atlas expedition, you may hear us refer to Svalbard as Spitsbergen, but we tend to use the name as defined by Norway, fitting in with the governing country’s accordance. Today, the archipelago offers a magical wealth of experience and wildlife through expedition cruises. 

Visitors can witness the dazzling up-close splendor of polar bears, exotic birdlife such as kittiwakes, puffins, guillemots, and minkes in addition to Arctic foxes, whales, and Svalbard reindeer, just to name several favorites.

For those looking for even more of an adrenaline rush, a variety of summer outdoor activities such as kayaking, snowshoeing, hiking, ski mountaineering, and sailing allow you to engage with nature. 

Should you wish to explore Svalbard and the incredible historic and natural sites yourself, Secret Atlas offers ice-strengthened, purpose-built expedition vessels with greater maneuverability to allow visitors to gain access to remote corners of this unspoilt wilderness. Since there is space for all guests in the Zodiac vessels, everyone can go ashore together, resulting in maximum time to explore the polar environment at a leisurely pace with the best-in-industry guide-to-guest ratio of 1:6.

Learn about Secret Atlas Expedition Cruises to Svalbard
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