Arctic Photographs by Elis Nilsson


In 1892 Alfred Björling, a 21 year old Swedish Botanist, led an expedition alongside Elvad G Kallstenius, a 24 year old Zoology student, and three other men, in an attempt to be the first people to reach the North Pole, over a decade before the Robert Peary expedition claimed to have been the first to have successfully done so.


Björling had little experience of Arctic conditions and Kallstenius had none at all; their equipment was much more modest than many of the other contemporary attempts and the expedition was very poorly organised. They set out hoping to catch a whaling boat from Newfoundland to Cape Sabine on the fringes of the Arctic wilderness, but they arrived late so then resorted to purchasing a small schooner sailing ship, The Ripple, in which they set sail to the Arctic.

The Ripple was wrecked in August 1892 but Björling and Kallstenius survived, as did their determination to reach the pole. They set off again in a small open boat to get further north and were never seen again. Their bold if poorly planned attempt to be the first to North Pole was given little attention by the press at the time and they were largely forgotten.


However a Elis Nilsson, a fellow Swede, searched for remnants of the Björling-Kallstenius expedition aboard a whaling ship, but found nothing of the expedition; earlier that year the Peary Auxiliary Expedition, led by Henry G Bryant, had found some items such as a silver watch and a zoological note book, but none of the men’s bodies were ever found.

Despite being unable to find any further trace of the crew, Nilsson did leave behind a fascinating set of photographs from his travels. These were gifted to James Allan in 1896 and are now held at Glasgow University Archive Services.

The photos contain give an insight into the Arctic expeditions of the late 19th century, the whaling industry and life of the native population of northern Canada. So though Nilsson never found what he was looking for, these beautiful photos show that his trip was not in vain.



Bryant, Henry G, ‘The Peary Auxiliary Expedition of 1896’, in The Bulletin of the Geographical Society of Philadelphia, June 1895

Lyle Dick, Muskox Land: Ellesmere Island in the Age of Contact, (University of Calgary Press, 2001)

Mowat, Farley, The Polar Passion: The Quest for the North Pole, (McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1967)

Categories: Archive Services

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