Terrible Things Happening in Cold Places

Tobiesen's graves
20 Jan 2019, 3:50 p.m.

Fridtjof Nansen's expedition in the ship Fram, between 1893 and 1896, would not ordinarily justify a post on this blog, since nothing terrible happened on it at all (except to bears, walruses, birds, other prey animals, and some of the expedition's dogs). While reading Nansen's account of the journey, Farthest North, however, I discovered an anecdote that veered wildly into my territory. A murder investigation began...

The grisly story is one told by Peter Henriksen, one of the expedition members whose biography up till that point Nansen gives as follows:

Peter Leonard Henriksen, harpooner, was born in Balsfjord, near Tromsö, in 1859. From childhood he has been a sailor, and from fourteen years old has gone on voyages to the Arctic Sea as harpooner and skipper. In 1888 he was shipwrecked off Novaya Zemlya in the sloop Enigheden, from Christiansund. He is married, and has four children.

Black-and-white photograph of a blonde, brawny man, wearing a sailor's cap and coat.
Peter Henriksen, photograph from Farthest North by Fridtjof Nansen.

The extract is lengthy, so I've hidden it behind this cut; click the triangle to expand it.

Nansen's recounting of Henriksen's tale

“Wednesday, January 24th. At supper this evening Peter told some of his remarkable Spitzbergen stories—about his comrade Andreas Bek. ‘Well, you see, it was up about Dutchman’s Island, or Amsterdam Island, that Andreas Bek and I were on shore and got in among all the graves. We thought we’d like to see what was in them, so we broke up some of the coffins, and there they lay. Some of them had still flesh on their jaws and noses, and some of them still had their caps on their heads. Andreas, he was a devil of a fellow, you see, and he broke up the coffins and got hold of the skulls, and rolled them about here and there. Some of them he set up for targets and shot at. Then he wanted to see if there was marrow left in their bones, so he took and broke a thigh-bone—and, sure enough, there was marrow; he took and picked it out with a wooden pin.’

“‘How could he do a thing like that?’

“‘Oh, it was only a Dutchman, you know. But he had a bad dream that night, had Andreas. All the dead men came to fetch him, and he ran from them and got right out on the bowsprit, and there he sat and yelled, while the dead men stood on the forecastle. And the one with his broken thigh-bone in his hand was foremost, and he came crawling out, and wanted Andreas to put it together again. But just then he wakened. We were lying in the same berth, you see, Andreas and me, and I sat up in the berth and laughed, listening to him yelling. I wouldn’t waken him, not I. I thought it was fun to hear him getting paid out a little.’

“‘It was bad of you, Peter, to have any part in that horrid plundering of dead bodies.’

“‘Oh, I never did anything to them, you know. Just once I broke up a coffin to get wood to make a fire for our coffee; but when we opened it the body just fell to pieces. But it was juicy wood, that, better to burn than the best fir-roots—such a fire as it made!’

“One of the others now remarked, ‘Wasn’t it the devil that used a skull for his coffee-cup?’

“‘Well, he hadn’t anything else, you see, and he just happened to find one. There was no harm in that, was there?’

“Then Jacobsen began to hold forth: ‘It’s not at all such an uncommon thing to use skulls for shooting at, either because people fancy them for targets, or because of some other reason; they shoot in through the eyeholes,’ etc., etc.

“I asked Peter about ‘Tobiesen’s’ coffin—if it had ever been dug up to find out if it was true that his men had killed him and his son.

“‘No, that one has never been dug up.’

“‘I sailed past there last year,’ begins Jacobsen again; ‘I didn’t go ashore, but it seems to me that I heard that it had been dug up.’

“‘That’s just rubbish; it has never been dug up.’

“‘Well,’ said I, ‘it seems to me that I’ve heard something about it too; I believe it was here on board, and I am very much mistaken if it was not yourself that said it, Peter.’

“‘No, I never said that. All I said was that a man once struck a walrus-spear through the coffin, and it’s sticking there yet.’

“‘What did he do that for?’

“‘Oh, just because he wanted to know if there was anything in the coffin; and yet he didn’t want to open it, you know. But let him lie in peace now.’”

Suddenly appearing in the midst of the Fram crew's cosy first winter, between meteorological notes and hearty dinner menus, this grave-robbing anecdote gave me quite a shock! Its tone is repeated nowhere else in Volume One, at least, of the book. Luckily for the sanctity of the dead, the Fram's course took her far away from any spots where Henriksen might have been tempted to repeat his and Bek's antics. (By the way, Amsterdam Island was the site of the famous Dutch settlement of Smeerenburg, so the dead men they dug up would have been whalers from the 17th century.)

Chief among the many questions it raised for me, of course, was, "Who was 'Tobiesen', and was he murdered?" The historical record says probably not... but I ran into many other graves on my way to finding it out.

Sivert Kristian Tobiesen

Sivert Kristian Tobiesen was a 19th-century Norwegian whaler, who crossed the Arctic Ocean for the first time as a boy of thirteen, working as a cook on the schooner Alexander. The Alexander's task was to transport seven fishermen to Bjørnøya, or Bear Island, south of Spitsbergen. There, in a bay called Russehamna, they were to spend the winter of 1834-5, as they had the previous year. Unfortunately, all seven men died.

Tobiesen's career took him whaling in the Pacific and around Svalbard, as well as transporting British soldiers to and from the Crimean War. He learned to hunt seal and walrus in Jan Mayen in 1859, and by 1861 he was able to buy his own ship, the Aeolus, which he took walrus-hunting around Svalbard. In the winter of 1864, the Aeolus was caught in the pack ice in the Hinlopen Strait. They had some luck, in that the renowned explorer A.E. Nordenskiöld was leading an expedition to Spitsbergen (the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago) at the time. After the crew abandoned their ship and rowed around the north coast of the island, they were rescued by the expeditionary group, but they had lost their whole winter's catch.

Illustration of a man with a beard and a high forehead, wearing a suit and bow tie.
Sivert Kristian Tobiesen, illustration from The Voyage of the Vega round Asia and Europe by A.E. Nordenskiöld.

The next year, Tobiesen decided to overwinter on Bjørnøya. He prepared by buying the old Norwegian hut at Russehamna, hoping it would still be serviceable, and also buying a new house that the crew would transport to Bjørnøya and assemble there. The location he picked was in a small bay called Herwighamna on the north coast of the island. A small hut had been built there in 1822, in which Tobiesen and his crew could stay until the new one was finished. To the east of this spot was a beach called Kvallrossfjaera, walrus beach, because of the huge numbers of the animals that had once thrived there.

The crew attempted to recover their catch from the previous year, but found it had spoiled. They had other upsets as well: "a bear, for instance, in the winter 1865-66 consumed for Tobiesen the contents of two barrels of salt fish, which he had left behind in a deserted hut." (Nordenskiöld, The Voyage of the Vega round Asia and Europe.)

Map of a small island, with 'Nordhamna' and 'Tobiesen's house' marked in the north, and 'Russehamna' marked in the southeast.
Map of Bjørnøya, created using the Norwegian Polar Institute's Svabardkartet.

The mass grave at Kvallrossfjaera

A much more gruesome event, however, came earlier in the overwintering. Gunnar Horn and Anders K. Orvin, in Geology of Bear Island, describe it so:

West of his house in Nordhamna, TOBIESEN found the remains of at least 11 persons, and he believed they were Russians, killed by the men who were to bring them home so that they might get possession of the catch.

Digging up the mass grave, the men counted the jawbones they found within and concluded that there had been 14 bodies. At the bottom of the pit were pieces of charcoal, as though someone had tried to burn the corpses but then given up and filled in the hole.

From the remains of clothes found in the grave, Tobiesen was certain that these were the bodies of Pomor hunters or trappers. Pomors, a Russian ethnic group, had hunted walrus on Bjørnøya in the 18th century, though they had stopped coming there by the time of Tobiesen's expeditions. The remains of their huts could be found at Russehamna and also a few minutes' walk further west of the Tobiesen house, in the bay Nordhamna.

From a sense of propriety—and simply not wanting to live next to the grave of 14 murder victims—the crew dug up the Russians' bodies and moved them to a new grave, nearer the Russian relics. They filled the old pit with walrus bones from the Kvallrossfjaera beach. Since the time of those old hunters, the walrus population on Bjørnøya's northern coast had plummeted. The men hoped that if they cleared away the bones, more walrus would arrive, but their hopes were unmet: in their whole overwintering, they would be able to shoot only one, plus a few polar bears and about forty foxes.

Map showing (from west to east) the bay Nordhamna, the beach Kvallrossfjaera, the houses Tyskhuset and Tobiesen's house, and the bay Herwighamna.
Map of the north coast of Bjørnøya, created using the Norwegian Polar Institute's Svabardkartet.

The grave at Russehamna

Another disappointment during that winter was the state of the house at Russehamna. A week or two after arriving at Bjørnøya, Tobiesen led a party to inspect it. Not only was the house damaged beyond repair, at least without more material than was available on the Arctic island, but underneath it lay the bones of five of the ill-fated fishermen from the 1834-35 overwintering. Tobiesen was greatly affected:

I cannot describe my emotions when I held one of the skulls in my hand. I, who 31 years ago, then a boy of thirteen, was cook on board the same vessel that carried them across, and could still remember the names of every one of them, wondered whose head I had in my hand now.

The fishermen's leader had lived the longest, and his body had been taken home to Norway by his brother for burial. Tobiesen's crew could not find the final body; Horn and Orvin remark, "In 1924 we found an old skeleton west of Daudmannsvatnet. Perhaps it may have been one of these winterers."

Daudmannsvatnet, incidentally, was named after this discovery: the dead man's lake.

The grave at St. Sebastian

At the spot on Nordhamna known as St. Sebastian stands a peculiar monument: a shaky-looking cross made of rusting iron stands on a patch of clifftop, surrounded by four smaller posts with chain strung between them. It's a grave, of course, but whose?

One tradition has it that the bodies resting there belong to the tragic shipwreck, in 1938, of a trawler named the St. Sebastian. This is decidedly unlikely, however, as Horn and Orvin included a photograph of the site in Geology of Bear Island—in 1924. At that time the cross and posts were already present, and in fact the cliffside had eroded so much since the grave was dug that a coffin was sticking out into thin air.

Black-and-white photo showing the metal cross on the cliff, with a coffin sticking out of the cliff face.
The site in 1924, photograph by Gunnar Horn.

Given that remains of Pomor huts are to be found nearby, it might seem obvious that this is the final resting place of the murdered Pomors discovered by Tobiesen. A team of archaeologists who investigated the site in 2015 quickly came to dispute this, though. They believe that Gravodden, the point of land that divides Nordhamna from Herwighamna, would be a more likely location for that. There are already graves dug there, for one thing, and it's nearer to the original site.

I haven't been able to find a copy of Tobiesen's diaries online, or even available in print, but from the quotes I've seen, he made no mention either of finding the Pomors in coffins, or of making new coffins for them. The photograph from 1924 thus rules out this hypothesis just as much as the trawler accident.

The archaeologists suggest that the cross and posts could have been the work of Captain Abaza of the Russian cruiser Svetlana. It's already known that Abaza travelled in the area in 1899, marking sites of historical Russian significance, which would bolster Russian territorial claims. (This was the same year that the 'Tyskhuset', or German House, was built nearby, for the use of German fishermen.) Abaza also opened a grave in Nordhamna while he was there, recording that he found a skeleton with Russian boots inside. It seems plausible that he might have had it reburied with a new, visibly Russian grave marker.

The team excavated a single skeleton from the grave, though they noted that it was unusually wide for the burial of just one person. The grave had been eroded up to the skeleton's thighbones, with no legs, feet or boots to be found on the beach below. They concluded that this was not a whaler's grave, as those are usually dug as deep as possible towards the permafrost (say 60 cm) and the bodies are placed in coffins. (The whalers who went to Svalbard were prepared for such eventualities.) This person, most likely a young Pomor hunter, had been buried under about 10 cm of earth, with boards cut from driftwood laid over him. This points to a burial by people making do with what they had in the cold winter. (What happened to the coffin in the 1924 photo? Had it been destroyed entirely by 90 years of erosion?)

The death of Tobiesen

Tobiesen was the first person to make meteorological observations over the winter at Bjørnøya. These observations, as well as his diary, were published by Nordenskiöld in 1870 and earned Tobiesen a medal from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences: some compensation for the poor hunting that winter.

He spent the next few years hunting and fishing in the Arctic, helping to expand the Norwegian's fishing grounds into the Kara Sea. He also continued to make geographical observations and in 1871, in the hunting vessel Freya, proved for the first time that it was possibe to sail from Spitsbergen to Novaya Zemlya, at latitudes of up to 79° North.

The next winter, however, would be his last. Once again, Tobiesen took the Freya to Novaya Zemlya to hunt. His crew numbered eleven, including him and his son, Johan Jacob. In the middle of September 1872, the ship was stuck fast in the ice on the west coast of the islands. Seven of the men decided to row southwards and seek help from another vessel. They ended up having a series of adventures I won't get into here! (See Nordenskiöld's book for details.)

Tobiesen, Johan Jacob, the ship's cook and the first mate believed it was too late in the year to try a sea voyage in a small boat. They set up a tent of sails over the Freya's deck and took stock of their provisions: a pitiful amount of food, but plenty of wood on board and on the beach nearby, besides the carcasses of the seals and walruses they had already caught. For a few months, things went fairly well. Curious polar bears often came sniffing up at the beset ship, providing the men with a source of fresh meat.

Unfortunately, in January 1873, the bears stopped coming. With only salt meat to eat, the party's health began to decline, and all four eventually got scurvy. Tobiesen became bedridden on February 17 and died on April 29. His son passed away of scurvy on July 5.

The remaining men, both ill, had no luck signalling passing ships. In late July, when the ice cleared, they left the site in a fishing boat and were eventually rescued.

So, was Tobiesen murdered?

No one now seems to think so; every source I have seen whilst researching this post repeats that he died of scurvy. Of course, that doesn't mean we can rule it out entirely! Overwintering in Polar regions is stressful in the best of circumstances (as we've previously seen) and—not to be delicate about this—a man already suffering from scurvy would not take much force to kill.

Tobiesen and Johan Jacob kept up barometric and meteorological observations as long as they were able. Based on his past behaviour, this means it's likely Tobiesen also kept a diary. This has never been published; it would be interesting to see what he wrote about relations on board, and if that tallies with the accounts of the survivors.

I would also love to know just why Nansen and his companions thought that the father and son might have been murdered. Was it just idle gossip, or was there some oddity about the case that roused suspicion? If so, that hasn't been preserved. Without a modern-day Henriksen or Bek (or, ahem, an archaeologist), we may never know what happened for certain.

Sources

  1. Farthest North, vol. 1—Fridtjof Nansen
  2. Sivert Tobiesen—Norsk Polarhistorie (translation)
  3. Sivert Kristian Tobiesen, Ishavsskipper—Norsk biografisk leksikon (translation)
  4. Geology of Bear Island : with special reference to the coal deposits, and with an account of the history of the island—Gunnar Horn and Anders K. Orvin
  5. The Voyage of the Vega round Asia and Europe—A.E. Nordenskiöld
    Contains historical details of various other Arctic expeditions, including Tobiesen's.
  6. Bjørnøya's history and cultural remains—Norwegian Polar Institute Cruise Handbook for Svalbard
  7. ‘Murder and Mystery on Bjørnøya:’ Mass grave is real-life bone chiller for team trying to save exposed ruins—icepeople.net
    An English summary of one of the Norkark blog posts below.
  8. CN: contains images of an excavated skeleton Utgravingsprosjekt Nordhamna—Norark (translation
    Four blog posts describing the 2015 excavations on Bjørnøya.
  9. 1872-73: Det vanskelige isåret 1872 ga tre ufrivillige og dramatiske overvintringer: to på Spitsbergen (Svenskehuset ved Kap Thordsen og Gråhuken) og en på Novaja Zemlja.—Norsk Polarhistorie (translation)
  10. Fridjof Nansen, 1861-1893—W.C. Brögger and Nordahl Rolfson
  11. The Place Names of Svalbard—Anne Urset, Norwegian Polar Institute