Most tend to associate Pirates with the Caribbean, warm weather, azure skies and sunny sand-beaches. However, Pirates were also found in many other places, a few of them even laid waste to the Norwegian Arctic some four centuries ago…
Thanks to movies, series, comics and other mass-medias, the myth of the Pirate is as alive in 2015 as it was three or four centuries ago. While these fearsome sailors, dead-set on accumulating wealth through pillage, smuggling and kidnapping indeed swarmed the seas in the Age of exploration, Pirates were, deep-down, not very different from Vikings, who themselves had one single motivation in most cases: money. It is therefore not all that surprising that centuries after the close of the Viking Age, other outlawed sailors would raise to prominence in the shores of Northern Europe. These modern Pirates specifically focused their attention on Arctic Norway, where the stately control of the Kingdom of Denmark-Norway was much weaker than further South. Incidentally enough, the region had already been plagued by Piracy and low-level warfare during the Middle-Ages, when North-Norwegian sailors fought against the Finnic Karelian people and their Russian allies for the control of the region. These conflicts lasted between the XIIIth and the XVth century and were barely over when a new type of threat (literally) rose on the horizon: Pirates!
In the second half of the XVIth century, Renaissance reached Scandinavia and various authors and intellectuals of the region began to spread information about their homeland and in this process made the whole region more familiar to other European people. The specific interest in the Arctic territories of Scandinavia also rose when William Barents sailed there, in his search for the North-East passage in the 1590s. Soon after, Pirates followed, and they were not after the glory of exploration to say the least. Instead, they were after the goods that circulated in these waters, such as Norwegian dried fish, furs or spices and silver items from Russia. With the majority of the Arctic people living on the coast, the arrival of ruthless Pirates heralded a period of constant threat and conflict.
Two Pirates were especially feared, and for good reasons, Phillipus Defos and Jan Mandhaus! Defos, a Frenchman was especially active between 1602 and 1605 and attacked the fortress-settlement of Vardø, near the Russian border, several times. Besides looting all the ships that sailed around the settlment, Defos also kidnapped several locals, whose fate is still unknown today. The most daring feat of the Pirate though was probably his canon attack of the fortress which resulted of its complete surrender. Thanksfully, Defos was ultimately taken, but then arose another terrible threat, Jan Mandhaus. Mandhaus, who had previously harried all over the North Sea was himself a very mysterious man, and no-one seemed to know where he was originally from. regardless of these details, it soon became evident that Mandhaus was an accomplished Pirate. It took the efforts of two of Denmark’s cleverest Pirate-hunters, Jørgen Daa and Jens Munk. to capture him in an epic sailing chase that ended in the forzen waters of Russia’s White sea. With the capture (and subsequent execution) of Mandhaus in 1615, Pirate activity in the Arctic became much rarer and finally stopped plaguing the existence of the locals. Today, the last remains of this tumultuous period are the rumors that prior to being captured, Mandhaus hid a treasure-chest near the hamlet of Hamningsberg, halfway between the villages of Vardø and Båtsfjord. Who knows what kind of riches such a fearful Pirate could have left behind him? With some luck, someone might even find this legendary cache one day and bring to life some beautiful witness of a period that was far from pretty.
- (1) Solhaug, Randi, M. (2014). Pirater på plyndringstokt i Nord-Norge. Labyrint 2014; 3. Accessible online at the University of Tromsø
- (2) Blix-Hagen, Rune (2013) . Sjørøverene skjøt med kanonkuler over bebyggelsen ‘saa att Kulerne fløy om folckens Ørenn. Tromsø: Nordlys; 2 of August 2013.
- (3) Blix-Hagen, Rune (2007) I kamp mot sjørøvere. Page on polarhistorie.no.
- (I) Lyons, Irving (1865). The Boy Pirate : or, Life on the ocean. Illustrated. London : Newsagents’ Publishing Co.
- (II) Sámi men fighting off pirates on the coast of Finnmark. Taken from Olaus Magnus (1555). Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (History of the Nordic Peoples). Rome.
- (III) Cornelis Doedsz (1610). Tabula Hydrographica. Amsterdam
- (IV) A painting of the settlment of Vardø from Lilienskiold, Hans H. (1698). Speculum Boreale..