To the end of the world
The chance of bumping into your neighbour in the street in Hammerfest is not that great, and only a very few of the world’s travellers find their way to this town at a latitude of just over 70 degrees north. So there is every reason to celebrate a visit to Hammerfest with membership of the venerable Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society. A certificate on the wall and the exclusive Polar Bear pin honours the dedication of a true traveller.
The world’s most northerly town
Hammerfest calls itself the most northerly town in the world. This is because, in 1789, both Hammerfest and Vardø received their town charters by royal decree of King Christian VII of Denmark-Norway. This made Hammerfest the most northerly outpost of European urban culture. Early visitors to Hammerfest were not particularly impressed by its size, but praised the dress, manners and culture of the town’s bourgeoisie. Modern-day Hammerfest has about 10,000 inhabitants, and there are no other large settlements farther north than Hammerfest.
A question of definition
It would of course be a terribly boring world if everyone agreed on everything. Hammerfest’s status as the world’s most northerly town has been challenged by, for example, its arch-enemy Honningsvåg, which in 1996 declared itself unilaterally as a town. Today, town status is no longer protected, so the 2,500 residents of Honningsvåg cannot be prohibited from calling themselves townspeople. The people of Hammerfest are, on the other hand, not obliged to take any notice of Honningsvåg.
Other candidates for the title of world’s most northerly town are Barrow, Alaska, with 3,400 inhabitants, Tiksi (4,900) and Khatanga (3,500) in Siberia, and Longyearbyen (2,000) on Svalbard. The people of Hammerfest do not, however, believe there is anything remotely urban about these places, and insist on their status as the world’s most northerly town by virtue of their many urban amenities, traditions and history.
Hunting in the Arctic
Hammerfest’s prosperity in times gone by was based on hunting marine mammals in the Arctic Ocean. The first expedition to Svalbard from Hammerfest was in 1794, and Hammerfest was a pioneering town in the development of the Arctic hunting industry. Every spring, expeditions would set sail to hunt for seal, walrus and polar bear to Svalbard, Northeast Greenland, Franz Josef Land, to the ice at the outlet of the White Sea, and to Novaja Zemlja and the Kara Sea. Seal pelts, walrus pelts and tusks, polar bear pelts and even live polar bear cubs were all much in demand in the wider world. You can learn more about this from the exhibits at the Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society.
If you become a member of the Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society, you will be presented with a certificate to hang on the wall, signed by the mayor of Hammerfest, as well as the famous Polar Bear pin to wear on your lapel. If, on your travels around the world, you should see anyone wearing the pin, you’ll know you’ve met someone who’s also been to Hammerfest. If you wish, you can even be “knighted” in a simple ceremony, followed by a glass of non-alcoholic champagne and some Arctic delicacies.