Discovered (1194) by the Vikings, the islands were forgotten until their rediscovery (1596) by Willem Barentz, the Dutch navigator. For a decade after Henry Hudson reported (1607) good whaling there, English and Dutch whalers quarreled over the territory; in 1618 they compromised, the Dutch limiting their operations to the northern part, leaving the rest to the English, the French, and the Hanseatic League. The Danes at the same time claimed the islands as part of Greenland.
After the decline of whaling, the group became (18th cent.) a hunting ground for Russian and Scandinavian fur traders. In the late 19th cent., the islands were mapped by many notable explorers, and important coal deposits were discovered. For a half century after the discovery of coal, Norway, Russia, and Sweden negotiated for the islands.
By a treaty signed at Paris in 1920 and subsequently ratified by the other claimants, they were awarded to Norway which took formal possession of them in 1925. The treaty prohibited military installations on the islands and ensured recognition of claims of other countries to parts of the coal fields. In World War II, Svalbard was raided (Aug., 1941) by an Allied party that evacuated the civilian population to England and rendered the mines inoperable. A German garrison was expelled in 1942 by a small Norwegian force. In Sept., 1943, the German battleships Tirpitz and Scharnhorst, with 10 destroyers, completed the devastation of the mines and mining installations by bombarding the islands.
In 1944 the USSR—which had not signed the 1920 treaty but which had later adhered to it—was refused a request to share with Norway in the administration and defense of Svalbard. After the war the mining settlements were rebuilt. Coal mining concessions operated by the USSR and later Russia account for about one third of the coal shipped from Svalbard.