May 15, 2020


Fredrik Hjalmar Johansen, Norwegian polar explorer, was born in Skien, southern Norway, on 15 May, 1867. Huntford wrote that Johansen was of ‘medium height, well built, quiet and modest, Johansen was an all-round sportsman, but especially a skier and, above all, a gymnast.’ He was a successful acrobatic and athlete in his youth and later began studying law at the University in Christiania in 1886. When his father, a town hall janitor, died two years later Johansen was forced to leave his studies for lack of funds. He worked at a variety of jobs, including prison warder, and also tried his hand at a military career being put on reserve as lieutenant.

Johansen was granted a place on Fridtjof Nansen’s 1893-1896 expedition aboard Fram which was to drift across the Arctic Ocean in search of the North Pole. He was signed on as a stoker, however he also performed other duties such as acting as meteorological assistant for Sigurd Scott-Hansen.

Johansen portrait: Telemark Museum

On 19 November, 1894, Nansen formally asked Johansen to accompany him on the planned journey for the North Pole. Johansen described it as ‘a red letter day in the story of my life.’ Nansen had chosen Johansen for the job because he was ‘unquestionably best suited in all respects; an accomplished skier, certainly a stayer like few others, and a splendid fellow, both physically and mentally’. Johansen often found it difficult working closely with Nansen as the commander interfered with all details. Johansen was also pondering about Hilda Øvrum, the woman he wished to marry.

Nansen and Johansen left the ship on 14 March, 1895, with three dog-drawn sledges intending to reach the Pole across the ice. Even as the days of March went by Johansen wrote that they ‘suffer[ed] more and more from the cold’. In early-April it was decided to call off the attempt for the Pole as the pack-ice was in constant motion and progress too dangerous. ‘It is my considered opinion’, wrote Nansen, ‘that we ought not to tempt Fate by continuing much further north’. On 9 April, they had reached 86° 14’ North.

On his twenty-eighth birthday, 15 May, 1895, Johansen wrote it was ‘as if Nature herself was celebrating’ as the weather was bright and there was no wind. The two men had a little party in the tent and Nansen wished the birthday boy well and ‘many a happy surprise’.

With dwindling supplies and their dogs dying or put down, the two men worked hard in difficult conditions to reach land. They sighted land at last on 24 July and they reached an island in the Franz Josef group on 28 August. Here they wintered and had to learn to balance their activity and consumption—‘We learned patience’, wrote Johansen. They built a small hut and lived there until May, 1896. Johansen described the time spent there as like adventure books he had read in his childhood, ‘à la Robinson Crusoe, for this is what it is’.

Johansen portrait, Fram Museum

With their two kayaks lashed together, Nansen and Johansen set out again on 17 May, 1896. After much dangerous going, they reached Cape Flora on 17 June. Here, by remarkable and life-saving coincidence, they met Frederick George Jackson, commanding the Jackson–Harmsworth expedition, conducting general exploration of Franz Josef Land. The two men were presumed dead and were taken on board. They were safely home in Norway by August and hailed as heroes. When they reached Christiania, tens of thousands gathered to see the men who had returned from the dead in the Arctic and to hear their patriotic speeches. Nansen, as leader, received more acclaim than he had following his return from Greenland. These stories of heroism, courage and danger boosted the feeling in Norway for independence from Sweden, a movement in which Nansen was to play a central role

R. Markham, The Lands of Silence: A History of Arctic and Antarctic Exploration (Cambridge, 1921), pp. 340-345.

Huntford, Nansen (London, 1997), pp. 200-201, 246, 262, 281, 296, 307, 350.

R. Bown, The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen (Boston, 2012), pp. 21-22.

‘Johansen, Fredrik Hjalmar (1867-1913)’, Fram Museum:

‘The First Fram Expedition (1893-1896)’, Fram Museum:

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