Lars the Devil

Mirko Stopar
Lars the Devil

Non-fiction, 2020

Translated from the Norwegian by Rosie Hedger

© Mirko Stopar
Translation © Rosie Hedger

Wild Young Lad Turned Gunner

‘As you can see, the spirit of the sea lives on in the hearts of the folk of Sandeherred. A native of the region is often a seaman, in spite of the fact that he is a farmer. […] The sea is so firmly etched into the lives of the local people. They are as comfortable at sea as they are on land. They are born on land, but keep the company of the sea. This explains their vigour, courage and strength.’
This is the description given in a rural text written in 1918 of the twelve-thousand-year-old cultural landscape in Sandar. The area, formerly known as Sandeherred, has a rich cultural history and now forms part of modern-day Sandefjord. In the Bronze age, it represented one of southern Scandinavia’s outmost northern trading posts. Kaupang, Norway’s first trading post dating back to the Viking era, is located just a few kilometres away. The area has close historical links to the sea that go back many years, and both cup marks and the outlines of boats can be found engraved in the rock by Sørbyøya. From here, the Vikings set out to conquer foreign lands, and many years later, men would set off to hunt whales on the other side of the world.

Lars Anton Andersen was born on Sørbyøya on 12 May 1891, the son of Anders Henrik and Karen Lovise Larsen. According to the census of 1900, his father was a farmer and fisherman using both nets and lines. The pair already had a daughter, Helga Amanda, who was seven years old at the time.
The smallholding known as ‘Sørbøia’ was simple, and the family lived in very close quarters. The place was ideally located: a sunny site with strips of land leading diagonally down towards the nearby fjord. Life was hard, but they didn’t starve, for they knew how to fish and hunt.
As a boy, Lars was said to be a funny, entertaining lad. He had a reputation for causing uproar and playing all manner of boyish pranks. He wasn’t a particular fan of school, and time and time again he was known to bunk off in favour of spending time in the great outdoors. Lars was mad about fishing, and was in his element when exploring the various inlets around the fjord in the local area. He hunted deer and birds, often in the company of a friend whose surname was Olsen. However, Lars was also notoriously foolhardy, with a habit of playing on the ice in the springtime, something he showed great aptitude for. ‘I wish our Lord would inflict illness upon him,’ his mother remarked, ‘to curtail his wild spirit.’
Young Lars could also sail and row. Money was tight at home, so Lars paid his way by providing transportation between the islands in the local area, a shortcut that saved all manner of people many hours on foot. The rowing made Lars strong, and even as a teenager he was a strapping young man. His job ferrying people back and forth across the inlet also gave him time to ponder an alternative escape from the life he was living.
In Sandar, just like everywhere else in Vestfold, the economic situation for a family like Lars’ was far from ideal. They were competent when it came to taking advantage of the resources available to them in terms of land and sea, but they weren’t able to produce enough to provide themselves with a decent living. Lars’ boat provided extra income, but the future wasn’t bright for the family. There was only one way out, and that was the sea. The sea could provide an answer to any future uncertainty, but first and foremost it represented a rite of passage, a test of manhood.
On his sporadic trips to Sandefjord, Lars was able to see the city transforming before his eyes following the destructive fire of 1900, an event that affected the entire city centre. The process of rebuilding the area progressed with an energy that demonstrated the best of the population’s bounce-back mentality and drive. The new city layout made it all the more obvious that all roads lead to the sea.
Lars took long walks down by a harbour where there was a sense of promise in the air. On the one hand, this was a period during which the shipping industry was switching from sails to steam power, and use of steamship tonnage was on the increase. On the other hand, it was the end of an era in the history of whale hunting, during which Tønsberg had dominated and the hunting grounds were located to the north. As the boats were unloaded, Lars listened to the stories of the mysterious world north of the Arctic Circle.
Whaling along Norway’s northernmost coastline dated back hundreds of years, but the revolution in the hunting industry on the Finnmark coast was initiated by men from Vestfold around the middle of the 19th century, and it is this that laid the foundations for modern-day whaling. The demand for the raw materials obtained through whaling laid the groundwork for technological developments and innovative methods that made whaling more effective and more profitable.
Lars happened to strike up conversation with rugged, experienced whalers who had recently returned from Finnmark or Svalbard, and he found himself captivated by their accounts, which represented a cross between the old and the new, the familiar and the unfamiliar, civilisation and wilderness. Lars reflected upon the descriptions of the brutal, ice-cold sea with its blue whales and fin whales, all set against a backdrop of towering white mountain ranges. Northern locations became outlined in his mind and exerted a magnetic strength that pulled him towards something he knew was there, but which he had never experienced. As Lars sat in his boat and rowed people back and forth, he imagined a future at sea, a bold existence in the Arctic Ocean.
More than once, his mother was forced to visit his school to speak to his teachers in the wake of her son’s poor behaviour. Lars might have confronted the teacher in his usual quarrelsome way, or may even have skipped school all together, since he and Olsen occasionally bunked off in order to go hunting or fishing together. Anders and Karen Lovise made an agreement with their son that he could do his own thing in terms of work only after finishing school and going through the obligatory confirmation ritual at the time. The ceremony took place in Sandherred Church on 1 October 1905. Lars was almost fifteen years old and as restless as the waves that surrounded the boat that he would row his passengers around in, providing them with a shortcut in their journeys. Back and forth, back and forth. Young Lars was also keen to find a shortcut to adulthood. Back and forth, movement without any real progress. The inlet felt narrow and claustrophobic, but just beyond it was the mouth of the wide, open ocean.

Modern whaling was introduced by the pioneer Svend Foyn around the mid-1860s, and was distinctive in its use of the explosive harpoon and steam ship. This was the start of a period that became known as North Sea whaling, given that whaling was dominant in the hunting grounds and land stations along the northern Norwegian coastline, but also in other parts of the Arctic, such as Svalbard.
In 1906, the whaling vessel known as ‘Alfa’ set its course for Svalbard, commandeered by Ingvald Bryde and with 15-year-old Lars Andersen on board as deck boy. There is no evidence that sheds any light on the details of his employment, but it is not difficult to imagine Lars, with his enthusiastic personality, persuading Bryde or another officer that he was the perfect candidate for such a job. We can be fairly confident that Lars did not have any family background in whaling, and nor did he have any acquaintances to assist him in landing the job he did. There were also increasing numbers of whalers, experts and newcomers choosing to set out on the hunt for whales in Antarctic waters at the time, when this represented an entirely new enterprise.
Workwear, mattress, bedclothes, cutlery and plate, marlinspikes and hand-crafted wraps designed to protect splices; these items were all that Lars stored away in the ship’s sea chest. He didn’t make a big thing of his departure. His family didn’t come down to the harbour. He could take care of himself. It was just a case of saying ‘thank you’ and ‘see you soon’.
Lars Andersen’s first trip was as part of an expedition that consisted of a factory ship with a few whale boats, also known as ‘catchers’. There were between eight and ten men to each whale boat: a gunner, a boatsteerer, a steward, a chief machinist and a few assistants, stokers, seamen and a deck boy, generally a young man on his first trip. The factory ship was the sailing vessel known as ‘Aviemore’. The use of such floating factories wasn’t all that common in the north; in most cases the whales were processed on land. ‘Aviemore’ was docked close to land and provided the whaling vessels with coal and freshwater. The whalers transported the dead whales to the factory ship, where specialists stood at the ready to cut them up and process their oils.