History of Greenland

From Academic Kids

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

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 unpopulated when the Vikings arrived; the direct ancestors of the modern Inuit did not arrive until around 1200. The Inuit were the only people to inhabit the island for several hundred years, but in remembrance of the Viking settlement, Denmark nonetheless claimed the territory, and colonized it in the 18th century. 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 eventually the colonial status was lifted, and although Greenland is still a part of the Kingdom of Denmark, it has enjoyed home rule since 1979. The island is the only territory to have left the European Union.


Early Palaeo-Eskimo cultures

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

After the collapse of the Early Dorset culture, the island remained unpopulated for several centuries.

Norse settlement

During the 980s, Icelandic Vikings made the first European discoveries of Greenland and, finding the land unpopulated, settled on the southwest coast. The name Greenland (Grnland) has its roots in this colonization (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, while others have suspected that it was mostly a marketing scam to get people to settle there. Eric the Red was exiled from Iceland after a murder and sailed to Greenland and spent three years exploring the coastline. He then returned to Iceland to bring people to settle on Greenland. The date of establishment of the colony is said in the sagas to have been 985 when 25 ships left with Eric 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 is 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. The colony depended on Europe for iron and perhaps timber. Trade ships traveled to Greenland each year.

The last written records of the Greenlandic Vikings are from a  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 in 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.

The Scandinavian colony did not thrive however. 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 most recent radiocarbon date found in Norse settlements as of 2002 was 1430 ± 15 years.1 Probably a climatic change brought about the disappearance of the settlement; another theory is that the soil became over-exploited until it gave less harvest. Another contributing cause that has been suggested is that the Saharan ivory trade undermined the market for walrus ivory. Lack of adaptability to changing conditions has been partially refuted by new research that showed that the Norse changed from a diet of 80% farm food at settlement to one of 80% marine food before the end.1 Other theories have included population depletion from the Black Death, or with Basque or English pirates.

Late Dorset and Thule cultures

The  were skilled , as depicted here by Norwegian missionary  in the .
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." Some stories tell of armed conflicts between, and kidnappings by, both native and Norse groups. 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 obviously handled it better, not becoming extinct.

Danish colonization

In 1536 Denmark and Norway were officially merged. Greenland became 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. 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 Godthb ("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, Greenland was still close to unpopulated above latitude 81° N; only scattered shelters attributed to hunting parties were found there. During the 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 18621863, 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 many Norwegians saw as an ancient Norwegian possession. 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 , established during , is the northernmost base of the .
The Thule Air Base, established during 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 deformation 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 Union, 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 center of the Danish civilization on the island, Godthb, 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 19992003 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. [1] (http://dk.nanoq.gl/wimpshow.asp?type=image&id=56663)

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.


¹ Arenborg, et.al. "C-14 dating and the disappearance of Norsemen from Greenland", Europhysics News 33:3 (2002)

See also

External links

pl:Historia Grenlandii es:Historia de Groenlandia


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