Today we went to the Norwegian Maritime Museum and the Kon-Tiki Museum. The Maritime Museum covers the 4000-year history of the Norwegians exploring the oceans. That’s a pretty impressive record, when you consider that it includes dugout canoes from 2200 BC, the Vikings, North Sea oil exploitation, Arctic and Antarctic expeditions, the Norwegian Merchant Marine during WWI and WWII, Thor Heyerdahl’s expeditions, and the modern Society for Sea Rescue (Redningsselskapet) picking up refugees trying to make it from Turkey to Greece. That’s a pretty awesome record, by any measure. When you consider that they had to cross the North Sea to get any where, it’s even more impressive.
One of the highlights for us was a film of a clipper ship in a voyage from Hamburg, Germany, around Cape Horn to Chile. I’m not sure what year it was done; obviously, it was made sometime when there were film cameras and sailing ships making regular runs across the Atlantic. We watched the movie twice and never got an explanation of why they didn’t take a steam freighter through the Panama Canal.
This was no sight seeing cruise. They had to wait out a storm in the North Atlantic for 17 days before they could really get on their way. The narration quoted the captain as saying the 3-4 feet of water over the rail was no big deal, compared to what they might see going around the Horn. We got a lump in our throats watching the men climb the rigging, up to 170 feet above the deck, to set the sails every time the wind changed. One thing’s for sure, the captain was right about the storms. Rounding the Horn, the tops of the waves towered above the deck. It was an awesome sight, even in an old black and white movie. Needless to say, they made it to Chile and calm water – but of course, they were going to have to turn right around and do it again.
Fast forward to more modern times: not enough can be said about the Norwegian Merchant Navy. In WWI, they supplied Great Britain in spite of Norwegian neutrality, U-boats and mines. In WWII, when the Nazis conquered Norway, they ordered all of the Norwegian merchant vessels world wide to find a neutral or German port; for the most part, they ignored that order and supplied the Allied war effort. About 40% of the oil shipped to England went on Norwegian-flagged ships. They paid a heavy price: over 500 ships and 3,000 men — but without their contribution, there’s no telling how the war would have come out.
There’s a lot to this museum: ship models of every kind, an art exhibit, a panoramic movie of the Norwegian coast (unfortunately out of order when we visited), along with some reconstructed parts of old sailing ships: passenger cabins and a fo’c’sle – that is, the part of the ship that housed the crew, when they weren’t working. The passenger cabins were far from luxurious, but I bet you wouldn’t complain after spending some time “before the mast.” The rooms were small, the ceilings were low, the beds cramped – the only bright spot would have been the warmth from the wood burning stove (!) in the next room where the cook would have been working.
Right across the street is the Kon-Tiki Museum, which details Thor Heyerdahl’s expeditions to prove that pre-Columbian people could have sailed from South America to Polynesia, instead of Samoan people sailing in from the west. The success of the Kon-Tiki voyage sparked more trips: the voyages of Ra I and Ra II to show that ancient Egyptians could have sailed to the New World, and the truncated expedition of the Tigris to show how far Mesopotamian people could have explored, all in boats made of reeds.
The personal stories of heroism, ingenuity and perseverance are great. There’s no doubt that the men who took on these challenges are a breed apart. The scientific justification is tenuous, though. With modern archaeology and DNA evidence, it can be shown that Polynesian sweet potatoes have South American sweet potatoes as part their genetic make-up; that doesn’t prove the case, but it’s some evidence. As far as the rest of the claims go – well, let’s say that Mr. Heyerdahl was in the minority among the scientific community.
After today, Maggie and I had to hand it to the Norwegians — they’re a tough bunch. That might be partly due to the Norwegian winter, both as a toughening agent and a motivation to get far, far away. Not just anybody would have taken on this level of challenge, not to mention succeeding. For a small country, Norway has accomplished a lot; it’s fair to say that they changed history, and we all benefit.