History of Greenland

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: General history

Hunting and whaling have always been important ways to make a living on Greenland. One of the exotic animals found here is the polar bear, which is also in the coat of arms of the Danish monarch.
Hunting and whaling have always been important ways to make a living on Greenland. One of the exotic animals found here is the polar bear, which is also in the coat of arms of the Danish monarch.

The history of Greenland, the world's largest island, is the history of life under extreme Arctic conditions: an ice-cap covers about 84 percent of the island, largely restricting human activity to the coasts. Greenland was unknown to Europeans until the 10th century, when it was discovered by Icelandic Vikings. Before this discovery, it had been inhabited for a long time by Arctic peoples, although it was apparently unpopulated at the time when the Vikings arrived; the direct ancestors of the modern Inuit Greenlanders did not arrive until around 1200 from the northwest. The Viking settlements along the south-west coast eventually disappeared after about 450 years. The Inuit survived and developed a society to fit the increasingly forbidding climate (see Little Ice Age) and were the only people to inhabit the island for several hundred years. Denmark-Norway nonetheless claimed the territory, and after several centuries of no contact between the Viking Greenlanders and the Scandinavian motherland it was feared that they had lapsed back into paganism, so a missionary expedition was sent out to reinstate Christianity in 1721. However, since none of the lost Viking Greenlanders were found, Denmark-Norway instead proceeded to baptize the local Inuit Greenlanders and develop trading colonies along the coast as part of its aspirations as a colonial power. Colonial privileges were retained, such as trade monopoly.

During World War II, Greenland became effectively detached, socially and economically, from Denmark and more connected to the United States and Canada. After the war, control was returned to Denmark, and, in 1953, the colonial status was transformed into that of an overseas Amt (county). Although Greenland is still a part of the Kingdom of Denmark, it has enjoyed home rule since 1979. In 1985, the island became the only territory to leave the European Union, which it had joined as a part of Denmark in 1973.

Early Palaeo-Eskimo cultures

The prehistory of Greenland is a story of repeated waves of Palaeo-Eskimo immigration from the islands north of the North American mainland. As one of the furthest outposts of these cultures, life was constantly on the edge and cultures have come and then died out during the centuries. Of the period before the Scandinavian exploration of Greenland, archaeology can give only approximate times:

  • The Saqqaq culture: 2500–800 BC (southern Greenland).
  • The Independence I culture: 2400–1300 BC (northern Greenland)
  • The Independence II culture:800–1 BC (far northern Greenland).
  • The Early Dorset or Dorset I culture: 700 BC–AD 200 (southern Greenland).

There is general consensus that, after the collapse of the Early Dorset culture, the island remained unpopulated for several centuries.

Norse settlement

Islands off Greenland were sighted by Gunnbjörn Ulfsson when he was blown off course while sailing from Norway to Iceland, probably in the early 10th century. During the 980s, Icelandic Vikings made the first European discoveries of mainland Greenland and, finding the land unpopulated, settled on the southwest coast. The name Greenland (Grønland) has its roots in this colonization and is widely attributed to Erik the Red (the Inuit call it Kalaallit Nunaat, "Our Land"), and there has been speculation on its meaning. Some have argued that the coasts in question were literally green at the time due to the medieval climate optimum, in as much as the Viking settlers practised some form of an agrarian economy. Others have suspected that the name was in part a promotional effort to lure people into settling there by making it sound more attractive. The condition of Greenland in the 10th century may have been more hospitable than today.

Erik the Red was exiled from Iceland for a period of three years due to a murder and sailed to Greenland, exploring the coastline and claiming certain land as his own. He then returned to Iceland to bring people to settle on Greenland. The date of establishment of the colony is said in the Norse sagas to have been 985 when 25 ships left with Erik the Red (only 14 arrived safely in Greenland). This date has been approximately confirmed by radiocarbon dating of some remains at the first settlement at Brattahlid (now Qassiarsuk), which yielded a date of about 1000. According to legend, it was also in the year 1000 that Eric's son, Leif Ericson, left the settlement to discover Vinland (generally assumed to be located in Newfoundland.)

This colony reached a size of 3,000 to 5,000 people, initially in two settlements – the larger Eastern Settlement and the Western Settlement (of a peak size of about 1,000 people.) At least 400 farms are known. This was a significant colony (the population of modern Greenland is only 56,000) and it carried on trade in ivory from walrus tusks with Europe as well as exporting rope, sheep, seals and cattle hides according to one 13th century account. Stockfish (dried cod) trade is also possible. The colony depended on Europe (Iceland and Norway) for iron tools, wood (especially for boatbuilding), supplemental foods, and religious and social contacts. Trade ships from Iceland traveled to Greenland every year and would sometimes overwinter in Greenland.

The last written records of the Greenlandic Vikings are from a 1408 marriage in the church of Hvalsey – today the most well-preserved of the Norse ruins.
The last written records of the Greenlandic Vikings are from a 1408 marriage in the church of Hvalsey – today the most well-preserved of the Norse ruins.

In 1126, a diocese was founded at Garðar (now Igaliku). It was subject to the Norwegian archdiocese of Nidaros (now Trondheim); at least five churches in Viking Greenland are known from archeological remains. In 1261, the population accepted the overlordship of the Norwegian King as well, although it continued to have its own law. In 1380 this kingdom entered into a personal union with the Kingdom of Denmark. After initially thriving, the Scandinavian settlements declined in the 14th century. The Western Settlement was abandoned around 1350. In 1378, there was no longer a bishop at Garðar. After 1408, when a marriage was recorded, no written records mention the settlers. It is probable that the Eastern Settlement was defunct by the late 15th century although no exact date has been established.

The Demise of the Greenland Norse settlements

There are many theories to why the Norse settlements collapsed in Greenland. Jared Diamond, author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, suggests that five factors contributed to the demise of the Greenland colony: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, loss of contact, and failure to adapt. Inquiry into these factors has led to numerous studies and new discoveries. The Frozen Echo by Kirsten Seaver contests some of the more generally-accepted claims about the demise of the Greenland colony. For example, Seaver surmises that the Greenland colony was healthier than commonly thought and that the Greenlanders didn't simply starve to death. Rather, they may have been wiped out by native or unrecorded European attack, or they abandoned the colony either to return to Iceland or to seek out Vinland. These theories conflict with the physical evidence found at farm sites, however. The lack of personal belongings at these sites suggests that the Vikings simply packed up their belongings and left.

Environmental damage is one of the theories due to the inhospitable terrain. Greenland was colder than Iceland and Norway. The cold West Greenland current that flowed down from the Arctic produced long winters; however, the weather changed yearly. The only vegetation present were sedges and, on rare occasions, dwarf shrubs. Palynologists' tests on pollen counts and fossilized plants prove that the Greenlanders struggled with both soil erosion and deforestation. Since the land was agriculturally inept, the Greenlanders resorted to pastoralism and hunting for food.

To investigate the possibility of climatic cooling, scientists drilled into the Greenland ice caps to obtain core samples. The oxygen isotopes from the ice caps suggested that the Medieval Warm Period had caused a relatively milder climate in Greenland, which lasted roughly between 800 and 1200. However, in 1300, the climate began to gradually cool and eventually the so called "Little Ice Age" reached intense levels in Greenland by 1420. Archeological excavations of garbage heaps from the earliest Viking farms in Greenland and Iceland show more bones of sheep and goats than those of cows and pigs. Since the winters continued to cool, there were hardly any planting opportunities for Greenlanders to grow hay. By the mid-fourteenth century deposits from a chieftain’s farm showed a large number of cattle and caribou remains, whereas, a poorer farm only several kilometers away had no trace of domestic animal remains, only seal. Bone samples from Greenland Norse cemeteries confirm that the typical Greenlander diet had increased from 20% migratory animals to 80%.

Although Iceland was completely uninhabited prior to being settled by the Norse, the Norse in Greenland had to deal with the Inuit. The Inuit were the successors of the Dorset who migrated south and finally came into contact with the Norse a little after 1150. There are limited sources showing the two cultures collaborating; however, scholars know that the Norse referred to the Inuit (and Vinland natives) as skraeling meaning "wretches" in Old Norse. The Icelandic Annals are one of the few existing sources that confirm contact between the Norse and the Inuit. They report a hostile encounter initiated by the Inuit against the Norse, which left eighteen Greenlanders dead and two boys captured into slavery. Historians have learned a great deal about the Inuit from the Eskimo folktales. Archeological evidence indicates that the Inuit traded with the Norse because of the many Norse artifacts found at Inuit sites; however, the Norse did not seem to show as much interest in the Inuit because no evidence of Inuit artifacts were found in any of the two Norse settlements.

The Norse did not learn the Inuit techniques of kayak navigation or ring seal hunting. Archeological evidence also proves that in 1300 the Inuit had expanded their winter settlements as close as the outer fjords of the Western Settlement. By 1325, the Norse had completely deserted the Western Settlement.

In mild weather conditions, a ship could make the 200-mile trip from Iceland to Greenland within a couple of weeks. Greenlanders had to keep in contact with Iceland and Norway in order to trade. Greenlanders could not make their own ships, depending on Icelandic merchants or logging expeditions to Vinland. The sagas mention Icelanders traveling to Greenland to trade, but chieftains and large farm owners had control over trade. The chieftains would trade with the foreign ships and then disperse the goods by trading with the surrounding farmers. Greenlander’s main commodity was the walrus tusk, which was used primarily in Europe as a substitute of elephant ivory for art décor, whose trade had been blocked by conflict with the Islamic world. Many scholars believe that the royal Norwegian monopoly on shipping contributed to the end of trade and contact. However, Christianity and Europeanization in the greater part of the fourteenth and fifteenth century still heavily influenced the Greenlanders. In 1921, a Danish historian, Paul Norland, found human remains from the Eastern Settlement in a church courtyard. The bodies were dressed in fifteenth century medieval clothing with no indications of malnutrition or genetic deterioration. Most had crucifixes around their necks with their arms crossed as in a stance of prayer. It is known from Roman papal records that the Greenlanders were excused from paying their tithes in 1345 because the colony was suffering from poverty. The last ship to reach Greenland was an Icelandic ship that was blown off course at the first decade of the fifteenth century. The crew of the ship never came into contact with any Norse Greenlanders. Other theories suggest contact with Europe caused the Greenland Norse’s population to decline due to the Black Death, but there is no concrete evidence to prove this possible.

Finally, the last of the five factors suggests that the Norse simply could not adapt to Greenland. Evidence from the sagas indicates that some of the Norse left Greenland in search of a place called Vinland, but when hostile natives injured several of those Norse they returned to Greenland. In the end, the colony was still able to survive for some 450 years. The archeological studies prove the Norse did make an effortful attempt to adapt, for some Norse did dramatically change their lifestyles. Most likely the disappearance of the Greenland Norse was not caused by one single factor. An intriguing factor was the lack of fish remains among their garbage. Icelanders, Inuit and modern Greenlanders consume lots of fish, but something caused rejection from the settlers. Jared Diamond speculates that some early authority suffered food poisoning and, since Greenlanders were not ready to take risky chances in such an unforgiving environment, the taboo was transmitted along centuries.

Late Dorset and Thule cultures

The Thule were skilled whalers, as depicted here by Norwegian missionary Hans Egede in the 18th century.
The Thule were skilled whalers, as depicted here by Norwegian missionary Hans Egede in the 18th century.

The Norse may not have been alone on the island when they arrived; a new influx of Arctic people from the west, the Late Dorset culture, may predate them. However, this culture was limited to the extreme northwest of Greenland, far from the Vikings who lived around the southern coasts. Some archaeological evidence may point to this culture slightly predating the Icelandic settlement. It disappeared around 1300, around the same time as the western of the Norse settlements disappeared. In the region of this culture, there is archaeological evidence of gathering sites for around four to thirty families, living together for a short time during their movement cycle.

Around 1200, another Arctic culture – the Thule – arrived from the west, having emerged 200 years earlier in Alaska. They settled south of the Late Dorset culture and ranged over vast areas of Greenland's west and east coasts. This people, the ancestors of the modern Inuit, were flexible and engaged in hunting of almost all animals on land or in the ocean. Increasingly settled, they had large food storages to avoid winter famine. The early Thule avoided the highest latitudes, which only became populated again after fresh immigration from Canada in the 19th century.

The nature of the contacts between the Thule, Dorset and Norse cultures are not clear, but may have included trade elements. The level of contact is currently the subject of widespread debate, possibly including Viking trade with Thule or Dorsets in Canada or possible scavenging of abandoned Norse sites (see also Maine penny). No Viking trade goods are known in Dorset archaeological sites in Greenland; the only Norse items found have been characterized as "exotic items." Carved screw threads on tools and carvings with beards show contact with the Norse. Some stories tell of armed conflicts between, and kidnappings by, both Inuit and Norse groups. The Inuit may have reduced Norse food sources by displacing them on hunting grounds along the central west coast. These conflicts can be one contributing factor to the disappearance of the Norse culture as well as the Late Dorset, but few see it as the main reason. Whatever the cause of that mysterious event, the Thule culture handled it better, not becoming extinct.

Danish colonization

In 1536, Denmark and Norway were officially merged. Greenland came to be seen as a Danish dependency rather than a Norwegian one. Even with the contact broken, the Danish King continued to claim lordship over the island. In the 1660s, this was marked by the inclusion of a polar bear in the Danish coat of arms. In the 17th century whaling brought English, Dutch and German ships to Greenland where the whales were sometimes processed ashore but no permanent settlement was made. In 1721 a joint merchant-clerical expedition led by Norwegian missionary Hans Egede was sent to Greenland, not knowing whether the civilization remained there, and worried that if it did, they might still be Catholics 200 years after the Reformation, or, worse yet, have abandoned Christianity altogether. The expedition can also be seen as part of the Danish colonization of the Americas. Gradually, Greenland became opened for Danish trading companies, and closed for those from other countries. This new colony was centered at Godthåb ("Good Hope") on the southwest coast. Some of the Inuit that lived close to the trade stations were converted to Christianity.

When Norway was separated from Denmark in 1814, after the Napoleonic Wars, the colonies, including Greenland, remained Danish. The 19th century saw increased interest in the region on the part of polar explorers and scientists like William Scoresby and Knud Rasmussen. At the same time, the colonial element of the earlier trade-oriented Danish civilization on Greenland grew. Missionary activities were largely successful. In 1861, the first Greenlandic language journal was founded. Danish law still applied only to the Danish settlers, though.

At the turn of the 19th century, the northern part of Greenland was still close to unpopulated; only scattered shelters attributed to hunting parties were found there. During that century however, new Inuit families immigrated from Canada to settle in these areas. The last group from Canada arrived in 1864. During the same time, the eastern part of the island became depopulated as economic conditions worsened.

Democratic elections for the district assemblies of Greenland were held for the first time in 1862–1863, although no assembly for the land as a whole was allowed. In 1911, two Landstings were introduced, one for northern Greenland and one for southern Greenland, not to be finally merged until 1951. All this time, most decisions were made in Copenhagen, where the Greenlanders had no representation.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Danish trade monopoly was criticized by traders. It was argued that it kept the natives in non-profitable ways of life, holding back the potentially large fishing industry. Many Greenlanders however were quite satisfied with the status quo, as they felt the monopoly would secure the future of commercial whaling. Nonetheless, the Danes gradually moved over their investments to the fishing industry.

Strategic importance

After Norway regained full independence in 1905, it refused to accept Denmark's sovereignty over Greenland, which was a former Norwegian possession severed from Norway proper in 1814. In 1931, Norwegian whaler Hallvard Devold occupied uninhabited eastern Greenland, on his own initiative. After the fact, the occupation was supported by the Norwegian government. Two years later, the Permanent Court of International Justice ruled in favour of the Danish view, which was then accepted by Norway.

The Thule Air Base, established after World War II, is the northernmost base of the US Air Force.
The Thule Air Base, established after World War II, is the northernmost base of the US Air Force.

During World War II, when Germany extended its war operations to Greenland, Henrik Kauffmann, the Danish Minister to the United States – who had already refused to recognize the German occupation of Denmark – signed a treaty with the United States on April 9, 1941, granting the US Armed Forces permission to establish stations in Greenland. Because of the difficulties for the Danish government to govern the island during the war, and because of successful export, especially of cryolite, Greenland came to enjoy a rather independent status. Its supplies were guaranteed by the United States and Canada.

During the Cold War, Greenland had a strategic importance, controlling parts of the passage between the Soviet Arctic harbours and the Atlantic, as well as being a good base for observing any use of intercontinental ballistic missiles, typically planned to pass over the Arctic. The United States were interested in this position, and, in 1951, the Kauffman treaty was replaced by another one. The Thule Air Base at Thule (now Qaanaaq) in the northwest was made a permanent air force base. In 1953, some Inuit families were forced by Denmark to move from their homes to provide space for extension of the base. For this reason, the base has been a source of frictions between the Danish government and the Greenlandic people. These frictions only grew when on January 21, 1968 there was a nuclear accident – a B-52 Stratofortress carrying four hydrogen bombs crashed near the base, leaking large amounts of plutonium over the ice. Although most of the plutonium was retrieved, natives still tell about resulting deformations in animals.

Home rule

The colonial status of Greenland was lifted in 1953, when it became an integral part of the Danish kingdom, with representation in the Folketing. Denmark also began a programme of providing medical service and education to the Greenlanders. For this purpose, the population became more and more concentrated to the towns. Since most of the inhabitants were fishers and had a hard time finding work in the towns, these population movements may have contributed to unemployment and other social problems that have been troubling Greenland lately.

As Denmark engaged in the European cooperation later to become the European Union, friction with the former colony grew. Greenlanders felt the European customs union would be harmful to their trade, which was largely carried out with non-European countries such as the United States and Canada. After Denmark, including Greenland, joined the union in 1973 (despite the Greenlanders having voted 70.3% no in the referendum), many inhabitants thought that representation in Copenhagen was not enough, and local parties began pleading for self-government. The Folketing granted this in 1978, the home rule law coming into effect the following year. On February 23, 1982, a 53% majority of Greenland's population voted to leave the European Community, which it did in 1985, the only entity to have done so.

Self-governing Greenland has portrayed itself as an Inuit nation. Danish placenames have been replaced. The centre of the Danish civilization on the island, Godthåb, has become Nuuk, the capital of a close-to-sovereign country. In 1985, a Greenlandic flag was established, using the colours of the Danish Dannebrog. However, the movement for complete sovereignty is still weak.

International relations, a field earlier handled by Denmark, are now left largely, but not entirely, to the discretion of the home rule government. After leaving the EU, Greenland has signed a special treaty with the Union, as well as entering several smaller organizations, not least with Iceland and the Faroe Islands, and with the Inuit populations of Canada and Russia. It was also one of the founders of the environmental Arctic Council cooperation in 1996. Renegotiation of the 1951 treaty between Denmark and the United States, with a direct participation of self-governing Greenland, is an issue, and the 1999–2003 Commission on Self-Governance suggested that Greenland should then aim at the Thule Air Base eventually becoming an international surveillance and satellite tracking station, subject to the United Nations.

Modern technology has made Greenland more accessible, not least due to the breakthrough of aviation. However, the capital Nuuk still lacks an international airport (see transportation in Greenland). Television broadcasts began in 1982.

Danish overseas colonies and territories
Former Danish colonies
Danish Gold Coast (Danish Guinea) | Danish India (capital Dansborg at Tranquebar, Balasore in Orissa, Frederiksnagore at Serampore in Bengal, Dannemarksnagore at Gondalpara, Calicut, Oddeway Torre on Malabar coast; annex Frederiksøerne: the Nicobar islands) | Danish West Indies (U.S. Virgin Islands)
See also: Danish East India Company | Danish West India Company
Current overseas territories of Denmark: | Faroe Islands | Greenland

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