Jan Mayen has a relatively quiet history – mainly characterized by the hunting and whaling expeditions, but in its more recent history the island has become an important navigation station. Jan Mayen travel is also part of this island’s recent history, partially because its isolation has made travel to Jan Mayen difficult.
While the first undisputed discovery of Jan Mayen goes to the Dutchman Jan Jacobs May van Schellinkhout (for whom the island is named), in 1614, there are stories that suggest previous knowledge of the place. The Irish monk Brendan, known to be a good sailor, may have seen the island as early as the 6th century. After one voyage, he told about a black fiery island he had seen that he believed to be the entrance to hell. In later centuries, Vikings may have come across the island in their travels. In the early 1600s, however, various sailors—including Henry Hudson, Jean Vrolicq, and John Clarke—claimed the island’s discovery, naming and renaming it.
In the years following van Schellinkhout’s landing on Jan Mayen, the Dutch used the island as a whaling base. They established several whale oil boilers to extract oil from whale blubber, and built fortifications to protect their whaling operations. In the height of the whaling years, more than 1000 men lived on the Jan Mayen during the summers. As a result of the extensive hunting, the Greenland whale was nearly driven to extinction, and whaling in Jan Mayen’s waters ended by 1650.
Once the whalers left, the island was deserted for the next two and a half centuries, with only a few ships visiting it over the years. In 1882, however, an Austrian/Hungarian expedition established a base on Jan Mayen, staying there for a year while doing research and mapping. Then, in the early 1900s, Norwegian trappers began wintering on the island, trapping blue and white foxes and polar bears. Once again, overexploitation proved the undoing of the hunters, as the fox population declined rapidly, and the hunting ended in the 1920s.