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Explorer A.E. Nordenskjöld

Early meiji Japan's opening to foreign scientific contact: The Northeast passage expedition by A. E. Nordenskiöld with notes on his Finnish background

Kauko Laitinen, Ph.D., Docent
Renvall Institute
University of Helsinki

Adolf Erik NordenskioldThe arrival of S.S. Vega under the flag of the Royal Swedish Sailing Society at the harbour of Yokohama on September 2, 1879 - 120 years ago - created a world sensation. A polar expedition consisting of 30 members under the command of Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld had succeeded in sailing from Northern Europe to Japan through the Northeast Passage.

Nordenskiöld's voyage via the Northeast Passage is a legend in the history of scientific explorations. Still surprisingly little is known outside Japan about Nordenkiöld's stay in Japan. Outside Finland little is generally known about Nordenkiöld's Finnish background and his later contacts with Finland. This article aims at bridging some of this knowledge gap.

"All the predictions became true"

It has been known for centuries that the Northeast Passage - the shortest maritime route between Europe and East Asia - is possible to navigate. Parts of the route had been navigated by many. Therefore Nordenskiöld did not discover the existence of the Northeast Passage, but his expedition was the first to prove that it can be sailed through.

The voyage was not a mere sailing but had a thorough scientific scheme including a great number of research tasks important for natural science. The plan was approved by King Oscar II. The financing for the voyage came for its most part from Oscar Dickson, a timber merchant from Gothenburg, partly also from the King as well as the Russian merchant Alexander Shibiryakov. A whaling ship "Vega" was equipped as the flag-ship of the expedition. The captain was Louis Palander. The crew included 30 people, including the 20-year old Finnish Lieutnant Oscar Nordquist, who served the expedition as interpreter of Russian. In Nordenskiöld's opinion previous expeditions through the Northeast Passage had failed because they had sailed too far from the coast. Nordenskiöld believed that during summer there was navigable open water close to the coast thanks to water flowing from the rivers of Siberia. The expedition started from Gothenburg, Sweden, on 4 July 1878. The voyage went smoothly according to plan, until the ship stuck in drift ice off Pitlekaj - only 120 nautical miles, or two days' journey, from the Bering Strait on 28 September. If the expedition had arrived only a few hours earlier to the spot or if they had sailed somewhat more far away from the coast, they could still have passed the whole Northeast Passage during the same summer.

Norden 2On 18 July 1979 the Vega was reached by the break-up of the ice. It was possible to continue the journey after a scientifically very rewarding wintering. Due to Nordenskiöld's careful preparations before the voyage, the expedition was fortunate as not a single man developed scurvy of suffered any other misfortune. According to Sven Hedin, a famous Swedish discoverer, Nordenskiöld had planned the trip so carefully that "everything went as planned, all the predictions became true". Becoming stucked in the ice just before reaching the Bering Strait remained the only bigger surprise. It may be worth adding that without the exceptional navigational skills of the captain, Louis Palander, the voyage might never have been completed. Nordenskiöld himself was not arctic sailor: according to contemporaries "no one has ever dreaded ice as much as Nordenskiöld did". During his many arctic trips he was constantly sea-sick. As a scholar he had no patience to dwell on small details, he wanted to reach the main points and conclusions without delay. His personal traits made him an extraordinary explorer.

Warm welcome by The Tokyo Geographical Society In Japan

Tokyo Geographical Society had in March 1879 been established under the presidency of Prince Kitashirakawa. The society listed members from the high strata of early Meiji society: the Imperial Family, peers, high-ranking officials, politicians, scholars and merchants. The German Minister von Eisendecker, who was the president of the Deutsche Asiatische Gesellschaft, contacted Tokyo Geographical Society on August 25 and informed about the successful journey of the Nordenskiöld expedition through the Northeast Passage and expected arrival of S.S. Vega in Japan in a few days. He asked if the Society could welcome Dr. Nordenskiöld and his expedition under auspices of the three societies, namely the Tokyo Geographical Society, British Asiatic Society as well as the Deutsche Asiatische Gesellschaft. On September 2, on the day when S.S. Vega anchored in Yokohama, the Society accepted the request. The opportunity to welcome a prominent foreign scientist contributed to the general recognition of a new society in Japan and encouraged it to open contacts with foreign scholarly communities, at the time when those contacts still were limited - we may remember that Japan's more than two centuries long isolation had ended only two decades before Nordenkiöld's arrival.

A welcome reception took place on September 15, 1879 at Kobu-Daigakko, the predecessor of the Faculty of Technology of Tokyo Imperial University. It was an exceptionally grand ceremony at that time with over 130 guests including the presence of Prince Kitashirakawa, Prince Higashifushimi, as well as the American, Russian and British ministers. A special silver medallion was awarded to Nordenskiöld as a token of the Society's appreciation. In his return speech Dr. Nordenskiöld encouraged Prince Kitashirakawa, the President of the Society, to undertake a voyage along the Northwest Route from East Asia to Europe by Japanese people under the auspices of the Society and other expeditions to the Arctic. On September 17, Nordenskiöld was received by the Meiji Emperor.

While S.S. Vega stayed in Yokohama, a collection of Japanese literature available at that time, altogether over 1,000 titles or about 7.000 volumes, was purchased. As Nordenskiöld himself did not understand Japanese he asked a Dutch medicine producer A.J.C. Geertzes to help him purchase Japanese books. Geertzes' assistant, Masashi Okuchi, gathered the books from Yokohama and Tokyo bookstores. According to Miyahiko Miki, the books are a good random selection of the book supply at that time; perhaps because of lack of time no particular effort seems to have been made to built up a consistent collection. Now the collection is preserved at the Royal Swedish Library in Stockholm.

On October 11 S.S. Vega left Yokohama and sailed to Kobe, which was reached on the 13th, and from where the expedition visited Kyoto and Lake Biwa. Kobe was left behind on the 18th. The expedition arrived on 21 October in Nagasaki, where Deshima was visited. Finally S.S. Vega left Nagasaki on 27 October and sailed via the Southern Route through Suez Canal. Stops were made in Hong Kong, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Naples, Rome, Lisbon, London and Copenhagen before the expedition reached Stockholm on 24 April 1880.

While still on his way to Europe, Nordenskiöld started editing his diary of the trip. Over 800 pages in all, it appeared in two volumes in 1880-81 under the title Vegas fard kring Asien och Europa. Its English version appeared under the title The Voyage of the Vega Round Asia and Europe and nine other language versions appeared more or less simultaneously, including the translation into Finnish in 1881-1883. It took, however, a century before it appeared in Japanese in 1988. With royalties received from the work, Nordenskiöld built up a voluminous and rare collection of 400 atlases and 24,000 maps, which after Nordenskiöld's death were purchased from his family to the Library of the University of Helsinki, where they are now preserved. Why in Helsinki? Nordenskiöld had a special relationship with Finland: he was born and educated there.

Nordenskiöld in Finland

In 1692 Erik Nordberg, the forefather of Nordenskiöld, of the parish Tierp in Uppland, Sweden, had been sent to oversee some estate lands in Finland, where he then settled permanently. He is known to have popularised the cultivation of potatoes in Finland. The father of Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, Nils Gustaf Nordenskiöld, was a mineralogist, who had in 1823 become appointed Chief of the Board of Mining in Finland. As an active scientist and a member of many foreign scientific societies, he came to be known as "the father of Finnish mineralogy".

Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld was born in 1832 in Helsinki at Bulevard 5. His childhood he spent in Mantsala at Frugard Manor, where his father had his mineral collection. The father let the young Adolf Erik accompany him on some field trips and trained him to distinguish minerals. The manor housed also the elder Nordenskiöld's library containing works up to the 18th century. The library was donated to ?o Akademi Library in Turku in 1960.

Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld began his formal schooling in Porvoo, where the principal of the Lyceum was J. L. Runeberg, later famous as the national poet of Finland. The latter commented Nordenskiöld as "absolutely idle". Later the young Nordenskiöld's motivation for study improved, although he left the school before graduation out of solidarity to other students who had received unduly punishments, and privately completed the matriculation exam in 1849.

Nordenskiöld studied at the University of Helsinki, where he completed his M.A. degree in 1853 at he age of only 21. After this he accompanied his father on a mineralogical trip to the Urals, and in 1855 he already defended his doctoral dissertation. He also produced several other scientific publications, including a wide description of minerals found in Finland (Beskrifning ofver de in Finland funna mineralien, Description of minerals found in Finland). He continued his study for one year in Berlin. In 1856 he started preparations of his first research trip, which aimed across the Eurasian continent to the Pacific coast.

Nordenskiöld had a promising academic career before himself at the University of Helsinki. He was a strong candidate for a chair in geology and mineralogy which had been established in 1852 but which was left unfilled due to lack of qualified applicants. Politics, however, came into play. In 1809 Finland had moved from Swedish realm, a part of which it had been since the 12th century, and had become a Grand Dutchy under Russia. While Finns were generally speaking able to maintain a high degree of autonomy in the country, especially during the Crimean War (1852-56) the office of the Russian Governor-General in Finland was carefully observing the public opinion in order to detect any nostalgy of times before 1809. To his misfortune, the liberal-minded Nordenskiöld had not at the university hidden his antipathy towards the Russians, with the result that he was deprived of two minor positions at the university.

In 1857 he decided to leave for Sweden, where he worked under the guidance of professor Carl Gustaf Mosander at the Museum of Natural Sciences. At that time he participated in his first arctic expedition to the Spitzbergen in the team led by Otto Torell. In Autumn 1858 Nordenskiöld returned to Finland, where he hoped to be employed as professor at the University of Helsinki. The agents of the Governor-General, however, followed his every step. While he was waiting the University's decision to employ him, he received an unexpected offer from the Swedish Academy of Science. Professor Mosander had died, and his post as professor was offered to Nordenskiöld, who was then only 26. Nordenkiöld accepted the offer, thinking that his absence from Finland was only temporary. In order to leave Finland he needed a new passport, which he could only get by turning directly to the Governor-General von Berg. The latter promised the passport while pointing out that Nordenskiöld would have to say farewell to Finland. When Nordenskiöld received his passport following day, it was accompanied by an order to leave the country within fourteen days. The order was not legal, but it had the effect, that Nordenskiöld was unable to visit Finland again until the term of von Berg in Finland ended in 1862.

Sweden welcomed wholeheartedly Nordenskiöld, who already had a good reputation among the scientists. In 1860 he was invited to become a member of the Academy of Sciences. He became a Swedish citizen. As a member of aristocracy in Finland he soon received a place in the estate of the nobles and via that also in the Swedish Diet.

Nordenskiöld continued to maintain close contacts with Finland: his brothers and sisters lived there and in 1863 he married with Anna Mannerheim. The later Marshal of Finland, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, was the son of Anna Nordenskiöld's brother. When the Diet in Sweden decided in 1864 that voyages of arctic exploration would no longer be supported, Nordenskiöld was ready to return to Finland and assume the professorship, which was still open. The University tried to invite him into the position in 1867, but the authorities did not approve it. When in 1874 the possibility to invite Nordenskiöd to Helsinki rose again, Nordenskiöld himself now felt it impossible to abandon Sweden, where he had enjoyed warm reception already for almost 20 years. He stayed the rest of his life in Sweden, but close contacts - both personal and academic - with Finland continued as usual until his death in 1901.

Sources / Further reading

Helsinki University Library, John Nurminen Foundation, The Northeast Passage: from the Vikings to Nordenskiöld. Helsinki: John Nurminen Foundation 1992

Hakli, Esko, Explorers - astronauts of their time, Catalogue of an exhibition on A.E. Nordenskiöld in 23 Aug.-17 Oct. 1979 at Helsinki City Hall. Helsinki University Library 1979; p. 7-60.

Miki Miyahiko, "Norudenshorudo no hondana", Tosho (Iwanami Shoten) October 1979, p. 46-51.

Ogawa Takashi (tr.), Vega go kokaiki, 2 vols. (Japanese translation of Vegas fard kring Asien och Europa by Nordenskiöld), Tokyo: Fuji shuppansha 1988.

Nordenskiold Seminar, Tokyo 1999

Hakli, Esko, A.E. Nordenskiold - a Finnish-Born Scholar and Explorer

Hakli, Esko, A.E. Nordenskiold's Scientific Library in Helsinki

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Updated 12/16/2008

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