The subversive scientist?

Scrooge McDuck or Uncle Scrooge may be a comic book
character, but (Nils) Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld (1832-1901) is a very real
historical figure. Born in Helsinki, on Bulevardi 5, Nordenskiöld spent his youth
and childhood at Frugård manor in Mäntsälä, where he developed an early interest
in the natural sciences. Already as a child Nordenskiöld accompanied his father
Nils, the chief superintendent of the Finnish mining board, on various
mineralogical expeditions around the country. The boy's formal schooling began
at 13 with a false start, but two years later he was already at the top of his
class. In 1855, six years after entering the Imperial Alexander University of
Helsinki, Nordenskiöld had already defended a doctoral dissertation, published
several other scientific publications, and accompanied his father on a
scientific trip to the Urals.


{mosimage}A man of principles, or, banqueting
will do that to you

In November 1855 Nordenskiöld and a group of friends
from the University arranged a banquet to celebrate their birthdays and name
days. There was live music, singing, and a great deal of drinking and
merriment. Many speeches and toasts were made, some parodying the great
eastern, some the western powers. The party ended on the streets of Helsinki
with some of the guests singing the Marseillaise in Swedish.

Much to the misfortune of the revellers, these were
the years of the Crimean War (1852-56), and the resident Russian Governor-General
of Finland, the count Fredrick von Berg, was in no way predisposed to opening
space for public political dissent. In fact, Nordenskiöld and his friends had
already evoked Berg’s wrath by exposing one of the university students as his

The new incident gave von Berg the excuse he needed to
take his revenge. The speeches and the Marseillaise were construed as
subversive political acts, and von Berg had the University expel or detain the
involved students. Some of those punished left Finland for good. Nordenskiöld,
suddenly stripped of his academic positions, travelled to Berlin for further
study, but returned the next summer.

The following spring Nordenskiöld took part in a
formal degree ceremony of the faculty, and had the degrees of master and doctor
conferred on him. Two days later he was invited to make a farewell speech to
the Swedish guests. Nordenskiöld's chosen subject was the future of Finland, and
he spiced up the speech with phrases such as “the indomitable consciousness of
our right to freedom”. The audience responded with rapturous joy, but not
everyone was pleased. The Governor-General thought it near-treason, and gave
Nordenskiöld two options: to apologise, or to emigrate permanently. Nordenskiöld
chose exile, and never again returned to live in Finland.


Explorer of the Northeast Passage

Nordenskiöld settled in Sweden where he was soon offered
the chance to participate in an arctic expedition to Svalbard, an archipelago
lying in the Arctic Ocean. Between the years 1857 and 1883 Nordenskiöld
participated in and lead a total of ten scientific expeditions in the arctic
regions. He explored Svalbard, Greenland, and even attempted to reach the North
Pole, but it was the Northeast Passage that truly captured his imagination.

{mosimage}At the time all commercial shipping routes from Europe
to Asia or the west coast of North America circumnavigated either Africa or the
southernmost tip of South America. In theory however, the shortest maritime
route between Europe and East Asia was the Northeast passage, a passage from
northern Norway to the Pacific Ocean along the coast of Siberia and through the
Bering strait. Something like this had been mapped out already by Olaus Magnus
in his 1539 Carta marina map. But no-one had ever succeeded in sailing
through the route. Was it inevitable that all attempts should fail? Would the
passage always be blocked by ice, or could the arctic weather permit the
journey? Nordenskiöld was convinced that it could be done, and set out to prove

In 1877 Nordenskiöld had secured the necessary funds,
and started planning and preparing for the voyage. For the expedition’s ship he
bought the Vega, a whaler with a powerful steam engine, and gathered her
a crew of experienced volunteers. The captain of the Vega was to be
Louis Palander, a Swedish naval lieutenant. Indeed, had it not been for Palander
and his exceptional navigational skills, the expedition might never have
succeeded, since Nordenskiöld himself was no arctic sailor. He was constantly
sea-sick, and according to contemporaries “no one has ever dreaded ice as much
as Nordenskiöld did”.

But Nordenskiöld had mastered the skill of preparing
well, and when the Vega weighed anchor on the 21th of July
1878, it had everything needed to weather an arctic winter or two. That is, if
the Bering strait froze over before they could pass through, the ship would
have enough coal, and the people enough warm clothes, food, and entertainment.

The journey started auspiciously enough with the
numerous scientists and officers aboard the Vega all carrying out their
specific measurements or research tasks. Hardly anything from the sea currents
to petrified prehistoric plants and local tribes escaped their attention.
Longitudes were measured, maps drawn, and everything was going according to plan.
But on the 28th of September, when the Vega was only two days
away from the Bering strait, the ocean froze around her. Had the expedition arrived
on the spot only a few hours earlier, it could have sailed through the entire
length of the passage in two months.

As it was, the Vega and her people were stuck
in Kolyuchin Bay for ten months of arctic winter. Thanks to Nordenskiöld’s
planning, however, the time was spent in relative comfort. While the
temperature outside eventually dropped to -46°C, inside the ship’s cabins it
was always at least +12°C. The scientists carried on with their research, and the crew’s
inevitable boredom was alleviated with a celebration on every possible
occasion. It turned out that the only thing Nordenskiöld had forgotten was a
Christmas tree, and even that could be rigged up from twigs and driftwood.

On 18th July 1879 summer finally reached the Vega in
the form of a break-up of the surrounding ice. Soon they were through the
Bering strait, and on their way home. Nordenskiöld had proved the Northeast
passage could be safely sailed through. The expedition’s success was a global
sensation, and the Vega was received with festivities in every harbour
it put into. From a first stop in Port Clarence (Alaska) the expedition
continued on to Japan, where even the emperor was curious to meet Nordenskiöld.
Hong Kong, China, Borneo, and Ceylon followed, and then, on the other side of
the Indian Ocean, Yemen, the Suez canal, the Mediterranean, and Naples. Twenty-one
months after the beginning of the expedition the Vega finally arrived to
a jubilant Stockholm on the 24th of April 1880. Nordenskiöld’s
voyage around the continent of Eurasia was complete.


Founder of the History of

In the end the discovery of the Northeast passage did
not immediately reroute much commercial traffic, but it did provide excellent
fuel for the popular imagination. The true age of explorations was coming to an
end, but the fascination, the romance still lingered. After all, this was the
time when Jules Verne published his Voyages extraordinaires, and the two
books Nordenskiöld wrote about his journey were soon published in 11 languages.

With his royalties Nordenskiöld built up an extensive scientific
library of geographical history. He took a particular interest in early
cartographical literature, and in works describing voyages of exploration. Especially
the discovery of the New World fascinated him, and Nordenskiöld actually did go
to the Chicago Universal Exposition to promote his book "First maps of
America". It was a fitting occasion since the Exposition, also known as
the Columbian Exhibition, commemorated the 400th anniversary of
Columbus' journey to America.

Nordenskiöld had become a Swedish citizen, held the
post of Superintendent of the mineralogical department in the Swedish Royal
Museum from the age of 26 unto his death, and made all his great expeditions under
the Swedish flag. He had been created a baron, appointed a member of the
Swedish Academy, and received a place in the Swedish Diet, but in his heart he
always remained a Finn. After all, it was here, at Louhisaari manor, that he
had married the baroness Anna Maria Mannerheim, the aunt of another Finnish
hero. While during his lifetime Nordenskiöld had made his collection available
to other scholars by publishing a Facsimile-atlas of the most important maps, at
his death he wanted the collection, in its entirety, to be located in Finland.

Today The A.E. Nordenskiöld Collection, comprising
over 400 atlases and 24, 000 historical maps, is one of the greatest treasures
of the Helsinki University Library, and included in the UNESCO Memory of the
World Register.