polar explorer, humanitarian, scientist, and Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Fridtjof Nansen is probably the most famous Norwegian ever. His life as a polar explorer, humanitarian activist and campaigner, author, scientist, academic and diplomat has been and still is of great inspiration for Norwegians.
How does a dream of exploring The Arctic arise?
What kind of man or woman is disposed of such a crazy idea?
Dreaming of what? Shades of white, a landscape covered with white wallpaper, -45 degrees, endless icebergs, ice bear, walrus, seal … and total isolation?
What kind of person does it take to put himself/herself into that situation?
With self-imposed pain, exhaustion, coldness, hunger, thirst, insomnia – and longing ...
Well, Fridtjof Nansen was such a man.
He was born on the 10th October in 1861 on the farm Store Frøen just outside of Kristiania (Oslo). At a young age, he was already a great athlete, a keen runner winning several races. His interest in wildlife and outdoor living was awakened by his mother who had a strong influence on Nansen. He went skiing in the wintertime, often covering 50 kilometres a day with only a small satchel of supplies and a dog for company. He was hunting and spent the nights under the stars by an open fire.
He felt strongly connected to Nature and chose to study zoology at the University of Oslo.
In 1883, Nansen’s fascination for the Arctic and the dream of crossing Greenland, skiing from the East coast to the West coast, was awakened. He joined the sailing ship Viking on his first research expedition to the East coast of Greenland in 1881, observing the seals and bears of the Arctic tundra. After his studies, he became a zoological curator at Bergen Museum where he did scientific research on the central nervous system of lower vertebrates which earned him a doctorate.
In October 1888 he returned to Greenland.
The expedition lasted several months and was a great success both for Norway as a polar nation and for Nansen, of course, who now suddenly had become a celebrity. He had stayed with the Inuits on the Western part of Greenland from fall 1888 throughout winter and spring 1889 when he returned. He had learned a lot from the Inuits by studying their way of living and culture, something that he and the polar researchers should later benefit from.
«You, your skis and nature become a unity. This is something that is beneficial not only for the body but the soul as well, and it has a deeper meaning for a people than most of us realise».
- Fridtjof Nansen
After this triumphant journey through the frozen North, Nansen had more ambitious plans on his mind. He wanted to prove that the ocean currents could navigate a ship across The Polar Sea, perhaps so far North that The Pole itself could be reached.
To prove this, he needed a ship. And the ship Nansen had in mind, cost a considerable amount of money. Nansen with his now freshly gained explorer status convinced the government to such a degree that they granted him a, then substantial, amount of NOK 20 000, to build the Fram (Forward), a ship specifically designed to withstand the pressures of the ice. The ship was designed by Colin Archer, a Norwegian boat constructor and naval architect. The advantage of Fram was that it would be squeezed up out of the sea ice rather than being trapped in the ice and crushed. That it moved “more like a cradle rocked by an inconsiderate hand than a ship in a seaway,” according to Nansen biographer Huntford, didn’t matter. “A safe ship, as every seaman knows, is an uncomfortable one.”
However, after realising that his ship, Fram, could not pass through packed ice straightforward to the North Pole, Nansen and a colleague, Hjalmar Johansen, set out in March 1895 by foot. They brought with them a team of 28 huskies, three sledges and a 100 days’ supply of food on their 644 km journey to the Pole. Unfortunately, they never reached the North Pole as they were forced to turn back 23 days and 225 km later. The men had nevertheless come closer than anyone else, reaching the landmark at 86° 4’ latitude. The scientific results of the Fram-expedition were published in six volumes, and published during the period 1900-1906.
«I demolish the bridges behind me... Then there is no choice but to move forward».
Nansen was not only a great explorer and scientist, he was also an outstanding diplomat. In connection with The Union Agreement between Norway and Sweden in 1905, Nansen was sent to London by Prime Minister Chr. Michelsen to promote Norway’s case there. In this case, Norway benefitted from his international fame. After his stay in London, he was assigned to travel to Copenhagen to persuade the Danish Prince Carl to become Norway's king. The prince should later become King Haakon VII of Norway.
And … Nansen had a big heart.
After a long journey in Siberia in 1913, he was strongly fascinated by the country’s nature and the people living there. In the aftermath of World War I, he was deeply engaged in relations with Russia. From 1920 as a member of The League of Nations, Nansen led the attempt to send home the vast number of prisoners of war. In the period up to 1922 about 450,000 prisoners of war from 26 countries were exchanged and sent home. To help the refugees, granting them some kind of immunity, Nansen took the initiative to introduce the Nansen Passport in 1922. The Nansen Pass was the first legal travel document for stateless refugees which was approved by 52 countries in 1942.
At the same time, he became increasingly involved in other humanitarian work such as helping out with the millions of victims of the famine that raged the newly established Soviet Union. Nansen also made a formidable effort especially for Greek, Turkish and Armenian refugees.
In 1922, he received The Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian efforts.
That’s the beauty of individuality, uniqueness – some of us are looking at the stars while others tend to follow the broad path.
Fridtjof Nansen was such a man; who searched for and dreamt about this ultimate adventure, this ultimate struggle and pain – and found joy in it. It was his life call.
«It is better to go skiing and think of God than go to church and think of sports».
Facts Fridtjof Nansen
- Born 10th October 1861 in Kristiania (Oslo)
- Died 13th May 1930 (68 years old)
- Polar explorer, humanitarian activist, diplomat, scientist, author.
- Published several books.
- Received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for his humanitarian work.
- His ship, Fram, is displayed at Bygdøy in Oslo