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Norse Greenland

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Title: Norse Greenland  
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Norse Greenland

The history of Greenland is a history of life under extreme Arctic conditions: currently, an ice cap covers about 80 percent of the island, restricting human activity largely to the coasts.

The first humans are thought to have arrived in Greenland around 2500 BC. Their descendants apparently died out and were succeeded by several other groups migrating from continental North America. There is no evidence that Greenland was known to Europeans until the 10th century, when Icelandic Vikings settled on its southwestern coast, which seems to have been uninhabited when they arrived. The ancestors of the Inuit Greenlanders who live there today appear to have migrated there later, around 1200 CE, from northwestern Greenland. While the Inuit survived in the icy world of the Little Ice Age, the early Norse settlements along the southwestern coast disappeared, leaving the Inuit as the only inhabitants of the island for several centuries. During this time, Denmark-Norway, apparently believing the Norse settlements had survived, continued to claim sovereignty over the island despite the lack of any contact between the Norse Greenlanders and their Scandinavian brethren. In 1721, aspiring to become a colonial power, Denmark-Norway sent a missionary expedition to Greenland with the stated aim of reinstating Christianity among descendants of the Norse Greenlanders who may have reverted to paganism. When the missionaries found no descendants of the Norse Greenlanders, they baptized the Inuit Greenlanders they found living there instead. Denmark-Norway then developed trading colonies along the coast and imposed a trade monopoly and other colonial privileges on the area.

During World War II, when Germany invaded Denmark, Greenlanders became socially and economically less connected to Denmark and more connected to the United States and Canada.[1] After the war, Denmark resumed control of Greenland and in 1953, converted its status from colony to 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 Paleo-Eskimo cultures

The prehistory of Greenland is a story of repeated waves of Paleo-Eskimo immigration from the islands north of the North American mainland. (The peoples of those islands are thought to have descended, in turn, from inhabitants of Siberia who migrated into Canada tens of thousands of years ago.) Because of Greenland's remoteness and climate, survival there was difficult. Over the course of centuries, one culture succeeded another as groups died out and were replaced by new immigrants. Archaeology can give only approximate dates for the cultures that flourished before the Norse exploration of Greenland in the 10th century.

The earliest known cultures in Greenland are the Saqqaq culture (2500-800 BCE) [2] and the Independence I culture in northern Greenland (2400-1300 BCE). The practitioners of these two cultures are thought to have descended from separate groups that came to Greenland from northern Canada.[3] Around 800 BCE, the so-called Independence II culture arose in the region where the Independence I culture had previously existed.[4] it was originally thought that Independence II was succeeded by Dorset culture (700 BCE - 200 CE), but some Independence II artefacts date from as recently as the 1st century BCE. Recent studies suggest that, in Greenland at least, the Dorset culture may be better understood as a continuation of Independence II culture; the two cultures have therefore been designated "Greenlandic Dorset". Artefacts associated with early Dorset culture in Greenland have been found as far north as Inglefield Land on the west coast and the Dove Bugt area on the east coast.[5]

After the Early Dorset culture disappeared around 200 CE, the island was uninhabited for several centuries.[5] The next immigrants to arrive from Canada, perhaps as early as 800 CE, settled the northwest part of the island, bringing with them the so-called Late Dorset culture, which survived until about 1300 CE.[6] The Norse arrived and settled in the southern part of the island in 980 CE.

Norse settlement

Europeans became aware of Greenland's existence, probably in the early 10th century, when Gunnbjörn Ulfsson, sailing from Norway to Iceland, was blown off course by a storm, and happened to sight some islands off Greenland. During the 980s, explorers from Iceland and Norway reached the southwest coast of Greenland, found the region uninhabited, and settled there. The settlers named the island Greenland (Grænland in Old Norse and modern Icelandic, Grønland in modern Danish and Norwegian). Tradition has it that Erik the Red coined the name—in effect as a marketing device. In both the Book of Icelanders (Íslendingabók)--a medieval account of Icelandic history from the 12th century onward—and the Icelandic saga, The Saga of Eric the Red (Eiríks saga rauða)--a medieval account of his life and of the Norse settlement of Greenland—it is written, "He named the land Greenland, saying that people would be eager to go there if it had a good name." (although there is no particular reason to doubt this information, sagas often reflect oral traditions which may or may not be historically accurate). [7]

The Norse established their settlements along fjords (such as the Tunuliarfik and Aniaaq fjords in the central area of the Eastern settlement). Because this was during the so-called Medieval Warm Period, the vegetation there was very different from what it is today. Excavations have shown that the fjords at that time were surrounded by forests of 4-to 6-metre-tall birch trees and by hills covered with grass and willow brush.[8][unreliable source?][9][unreliable source?] The Norse probably cleared the landscape by felling trees to use as building material and fuel, and by allowing their sheep and goats to graze there in both summer and winter. The climate also became increasingly colder in the 14th and 15th centuries, during the period of colder weather known as the Little Ice Age.

According to the sagas, Erik the Red was exiled from Iceland for a period of three years for committing a murder.[10] He sailed to Greenland, where he explored the coastline and claimed certain regions as his own. He then returned to Iceland to persuade people to join him in establishing a settlement on Greenland. The Icelandic sagas say that 25 ships left Iceland with Erik the Red in 985 AD, and that only 14 of them arrived safely in Greenland.[11] 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 the sagas, it was also in the year 1000 that Erik's son, Leif Eirikson, left the settlement to explore the surrounding waters, and came across what he called Vinland, which is generally assumed to have been located in what is now Newfoundland.

The Norse settled in three separate locations: the larger Eastern settlement, the smaller Western settlement, and the still smaller Middle Settlement (sometimes considered part of the Eastern one). The settlements at their height are estimated to have had a population of between 2,000 and 10,000 people. More recent estimates (such as that of Professor Niels Lynnerup, in Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, edited by William W. Fitzhugh and Elisabeth I. Ward) have tended toward the lower figure. Ruins of approximately 620 farms have been identified: 500 in the Eastern settlement, 95 in the Western settlement, and 20 in the Middle. The settlements carried on a trade in ivory from walrus tusks with Europe, as well as exporting rope, sheep, seals and cattle hides according to one 13th-century account. They depended on Iceland and Norway for iron tools, wood (especially for boat building, although they also may have obtained some wood from coastal Labrador), supplemental foodstuffs, and religious and social contacts. Trade ships from Iceland and Norway traveled to Greenland every year and would sometimes overwinter in Greenland. Beginning in the late 13th century, all ships from Greenland were required by law to sail directly to Norway.

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 Norse 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 the Norwegian kingdom entered into a personal union with the Kingdom of Denmark. After initially thriving, the Norse 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, not many written records mention the settlers. There are correspondence between the Pope and the Biskop Bertold af Garde from same year.[12] The Danish Cartographer Claudius Clavus seems to have visited Greenland in 1420 from documents written by Nicolas Germanus and Henricus Martellus who had access to original cartographic notes and map by Clavus. Two mathematical manuscripts containing the second chart of the Claudius Clavus map from his travel to Greenland where he himself mapped the area were found during the late 20th century by the Danish scholar Bjönbo and Petersen. (Originals in Hofbibliothek at Vienna. A Greenlander in Norway, on visit; it is also mentioned in a Norwegian Diploma from 1426, [Peder Grønlendiger][13])

In a letter dated 1448 from Rome, the Pope Nicholas V prescribe the bishops of Skálholt and Hólar (the two Icelandic episcopal sees) to ensure to provide the inhabitants of Greenland with priests and a bishop, the latter of which they hadn't had in the 30 years since the apparent coming of the heathens when most churches were destroyed and the people taken away as prisoners.[14]

It is probable that the Eastern Settlement was defunct by the middle of the 15th century although no exact date has been established.

Norse failure

There are many theories as to why the Norse settlements collapsed in Greenland after surviving for some 450–500 years (AD 985 to 1450-1500). Jared Diamond, author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, suggests that some or all of five factors contributed to the demise of the Greenland colony: cumulative environmental damage, gradual climate change, conflicts with hostile neighbors, the loss of contact and support from Europe, and, perhaps most crucial, cultural conservatism and failure to adapt to an increasingly harsh natural environment. Numerous studies have tested these hypotheses and some have led to significant discoveries. On the other hand there are dissenters: In The Frozen Echo, Kirsten Seaver contests some of the more generally-accepted theories about the demise of the Greenland colony, and asserts that the colony, towards the end, was healthier than Diamond and others have thought. Seaver believes that the Greenlanders cannot have starved to death, but rather may have been wiped out by Inuit or unrecorded European attacks, or they may have abandoned the colony to return to Iceland or to seek out new homes in Vinland. However, the physical evidence from archeological studies of the ancient farm sites does not show evidence of attack. The paucity of personal belongings at these sites is typical of North Atlantic Norse sites that were abandoned in an orderly fashion, with any useful items being deliberately removed; but to others it suggests a gradual but devastating impoverishment. Midden heaps at these sites do show an increasingly impoverished diet for humans and livestock.

Greenland was always colder in winter than Iceland and Norway, and its terrain less hospitable to agriculture. Erosion of the soil was a danger from the beginning, one that the Greenland settlements may not have recognized until it was too late. For an extended time, nonetheless, the relatively warm West Greenland current flowing northwards along the southwestern coast of Greenland made it feasible for the Norse to farm much as their relatives did in Iceland or northern Norway. Palynologists' tests on pollen counts and fossilized plants prove that the Greenlanders must have struggled with soil erosion and deforestation.[15] As the unsuitability of the land for agriculture became more and more patent, the Greenlanders resorted first to pastoralism and then to hunting for their food.[16] But they never learned to use the hunting techniques of the Inuit, one being a farming culture, the other living on hunting in more northern areas with pack ice.

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, lasting from roughly 800 to 1200. However from 1300 or so the climate began to cool. By 1420, we know that the "Little Ice Age" had reached intense levels in Greenland.[17] Excavations of midden or garbage heaps from the Viking farms in both Greenland and Iceland show the shift from the bones of cows and pigs to those of sheep and goats. As the winters lengthened, and the springs and summers shortened, there must have been less and less time for Greenlanders to grow hay. By the mid-14th 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 by this time from 20% sea animals to 80%.[18]

Although Greenland seems to have been uninhabited at the time of initial Norse settlement, after a couple of centuries the Norse in Greenland had to deal with the Inuit. The Thule-Inuit were the successors of the Dorset who migrated south and finally came into contact with the Norse in the 12th century. There are limited sources showing the two cultures interacting; however, scholars know that the Norse referred to the Inuit (and Vinland natives) as skraeling. The Icelandic Annals are among the few existing sources that confirm contact between the Norse and the Inuit. They report an instance of hostility initiated by the Inuit against the Norse, leaving eighteen Greenlanders dead and two boys carried into slavery.[19] Archaeological evidence seems to show that the Inuit traded with the Norse. On the other hand, the evidence shows many Norse artefacts at Inuit sites throughout Greenland and on the Canadian Arctic islands but very few Inuit artefacts in the Norse settlements. This may indicate either European indifference—an instance of cultural resistance to Inuit crafts among them—or perhaps hostile raiding by the Inuit. It is also quite possible that the Norse were trading for perishable items such as meat and furs and had little interest in other Inuit items, much as later Europeans who traded with Native Americans.

We know that the Norse never learned the Inuit techniques of kayak navigation or ring seal hunting. Indeed, they never learned to adjust to the cold winters as the Inuit did. Archaeological evidence plainly establishes that by 1300 or so the Inuit had successfully expanded their winter settlements as close to the Europeans as the outer fjords of the Western Settlement. Yet by 1350, the Norse, for whatever reasons, had completely deserted their Western Settlement.[20] The Inuit, being a hunting society, may have hunted the Norse livestock, forcing the Norse into conflict and/or abandonment of their settlements.

In mild weather conditions, a ship could make the 900-mile (1400 kilometers) trip from Iceland to Eastern Settlement within a couple of weeks. Greenlanders had to keep in contact with Iceland and Norway in order to trade. Little is known about any distinctive shipbuilding techniques among the Greenlanders. Greenland lacks a supply of lumber, so was completely dependent on Icelandic merchants or, possibly, logging expeditions to the Canadian coast.

The sagas mention Icelanders traveling to Greenland to trade.[21] But the settlement chieftains and large farm owners controlled this trade. The chieftains would trade with the foreign ships and then disperse the goods by trading with the surrounding farmers.[22] The Greenlanders' main commodity was the walrus tusk, which was used primarily in Europe as a substitute for elephant ivory for art décor, whose trade had been blocked by conflict with the Islamic world. Professor Gudmundsson also suggests a very valuable narwhal tusk trade, through a smuggling route via western Iceland (where the Greenlanders came from) to the Orkney islands (where Western Icelanders came from).

Many scholars believe that the royal Norwegian monopoly on shipping contributed to the end of trade and contact. However, Christianity and European customs continued to hold sway among the Greenlanders for the greater part of the 14th and 15th centuries. In 1921, a Danish historian, Paul Norland, found human remains from the Eastern Settlement in the Herjolfsnes church courtyard. The bodies were dressed in 15th 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. Perhaps the buried were sailors having died en route or while over wintering. 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.[23] The last reported ship to reach Greenland was a private ship that was "blown off course", reaching Greenland in 1406, and departing in 1410 with the last news of Greenland: the burning at the stake of a condemned witch, the insanity and death of the woman this witch was accused of attempting to seduce through witchcraft, and the marriage of the ship's captain, Thorsteinn Ólafsson, to another Icelander, Sigridur Björnsdóttir.[24] However, there are some suggestions of much later unreported voyages from Europe to Greenland, possibly as late as the 1480s.[25]

The last of the five factors points to the failure of the Norse to adapt to the changing conditions of Greenland. The Norse struggled to adapt, as the excavations show plainly. Some of the Norse, perhaps most, dramatically changed their folkways. But it is not known whether they adopted the ways of the Inuit, even, it seems, when faced with extinction. Most likely no single factor brought about their extinction. What is plain is that the settlement died out once and for all.

One intriguing fact is that very few fish remains are found among their middens. This has led to much speculation and argument. Most archaeologists reject any decisive judgment based on this one fact, however, as fish bones decompose more quickly than other remains, and may have been disposed of in a different manner. Isotope analysis of the bones of inhabitants shows that marine food sources in fact supplied more and more of the diet of the Norse Greenlanders, making up between 50% and 80% of their diet by the 14th century.[26]

One Inuit story recorded in the 18th century tells that raiding expeditions by European ships over the course of three years destroyed the settlement, after which many of the Norse sailed away south and the Inuit took in some of the remaining women and children before the final attack.[11]

Late Dorset and Thule cultures

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.[6] However, this culture was limited to the extreme northwest of Greenland, far from the Norse who lived around the southern coasts. Some archaeological evidence may point to this culture slightly predating the Norse settlement. It disappeared around 1300, around the same time as the westernmost 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. These people, the ancestors of the modern Inuit, were flexible and engaged in the hunting of almost all animals on land and in the ocean, including big whales. They had dogs, which the Dorset did not, and used them to pull the dog sledges; they also used bows and arrows, contrary to the Dorset. Increasingly settled, they had large food storages to avoid winter famine. The early Thule avoided the highest latitudes, which only became populated again after renewed immigration from Canada in the 19th century.

The nature of the contacts between the Thule, Dorset and Norse cultures is not clear, but may have included trade elements. The level of contact is currently the subject of widespread debate, possibly including Norse trade with Thule or Dorsets in Canada or possible scavenging of abandoned Norse sites (see also Maine penny). No Norse 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 found in settlements on the Canadian Arctic islands 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 for the Late Dorset, but few see it as the main reason.

Danish recolonization

Main article: Danish colonization of Greenland

Most of the old Norse records concerning Greenland were removed from Trondheim to Copenhagen in 1664 and subsequently lost, probably in the 1728 fire there.[27] The precise rediscovery is uncertain because south-drifting icebergs during the Little Ice Age long made the eastern coast unreachable, leading to general confusion between Baffin Island, Greenland, and Spitsbergen as seen, for example, in the difficulty locating the Frobisher "Strait", which was not confirmed to be a bay until 1861. Nonetheless, interest in discovering a Northwest Passage to Asia led to repeated expeditions in the area, though none were successful until Roald Amundsen in 1906 and even that success involved his being iced in for two years. Christian I of Denmark purportedly sent an expedition to the region under Pothorst and Pining to Greenland in 1472 or 1473; Henry VII of England sent another under Cabot in 1497 and 1498; Manuel I of Portugal sent a third under Corte-Real in 1500 and 1501. It had certainly been generally charted by the 1502 Cantino map, which includes the southern coastline.[27] The island was "rediscovered" yet again by Martin Frobisher in 1578, prompting the Danish king Frederick II to outfit a new expedition of his own the next year under the Englishman James Alday; this proved a costly failure.[27] The influence of English and Dutch whalers became so pronounced that for a time the western shore of the island itself became known as "Davis Strait" (Dutch: Straat Davis) after John Davis's 1585 and 1586 expeditions, which charted the western coast as far north as Disko Bay.[28]

Meanwhile, following Sweden's exit from the Kalmar Union, the remaining states in the personal union were reorganized into Denmark-Norway in 1536. In protest against foreign involvement in the region, the Greenlandic polar bear was included in the state's coat of arms in the 1660s (It was removed in 1958). In the second half of the 17th century Dutch, German, French, Basque, and Dano-Norwegian ships hunted bowhead whales in the pack ice off the east coast of Greenland, regularly coming to shore to trade and replenish drinking water. Foreign trade was later forbidden by Danish monopoly merchants.

From 1711–1721,[29] the Norwegian cleric Hans Egede petitioned King Frederick IV for funding to travel to Greenland and re-establish contact with the Norse settlers there. Presumably, such settlers would still be Catholic or even pagan and he desired to establish a mission among them to spread the Reformation.[30] Frederick permitted Egede and some Norwegian merchants to establish the Bergen Greenland Company to revive trade with the island but refused to grant them a monopoly over it for fear of antagonizing Dutch whalers in the area.[31] The Royal Mission College assumed superintendency over the mission and provided the company with a small stipend. Egede found but misidentified the ruins of the Norse colony, went bankrupt amid repeated attacks by the Dutch, and found lasting conversion of the migrant Inuit exceedingly difficult. An attempt to found a royal colony under Major Claus Paarss established the settlement of Godthåb ("Good Hope") in 1728 but was a costly debacle which saw most of his soldiers mutiny[30] and his settlers killed by scurvy.[32] Two child converts sent to Copenhagen for the coronation of Christian VI returned in 1733 with smallpox, devastating the island. The same ship that returned them, however, also brought the first Moravian missionaries, who in time would convert a former angekok (Inuit shaman), experience a revival at their mission of New Herrnhut, and establish a string of mission houses along the southwest coast. Around the same time, the merchant Jacob Severin took over administration of the colony and its trade and, having secured a large royal stipend and full monopoly from the king, successfully repulsed the Dutch in a series of skirmishes in 1738 and 1739. Egede himself quit the colony on the death of his wife, leaving the Lutheran mission to his son Poul. Both of them had studied the Kalaallisut language extensively and published works on it; as well, Poul and some of the other clergy sent by the Mission College such as Otto Fabricius began wide-ranging study of Greenland's flora, fauna, and meteorology. However, though kale, lettuce, and other herbs were successfully introduced, repeated attempts to cultivate wheat or clover failed throughout Greenland, limiting the ability to raise European livestock.[29]

As a result of the Napoleonic Wars, Norway was ceded to Sweden at the 1814 Treaty of Kiel. The colonies, including Greenland, remained in Danish possession. The 19th century saw increased interest in the region on the part of polar explorers and scientists like William Scoresby and Greenland-born Knud Rasmussen. At the same time, the colonial elements of the earlier trade-oriented Danish presence in Greenland expanded. 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 sparsely populated; only scattered hunting inhabitants were found there.[33] During that century, however, Inuit families immigrated from British North America to settle in these areas. The last group from what later became Canada arrived in 1864. During the same time, the Northeastern part of the coast became depopulated following the violent 1783 Lakagígar eruption in Iceland.

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 1888, a party of six led by Fridtjof Nansen accomplished the first land crossing of Greenland. The men took 41 days to make the crossing on skis, at approximately 64°N latitude.[34] 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, traders criticized the Danish trade monopoly. 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 satisfied with the status quo, as they felt the monopoly would secure the future of commercial whaling. It probably did not help that the only contact the local population had with the outside world was with Danish settlers. Nonetheless, the Danes gradually moved over their investments to the fishing industry.

Polar exploration

At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, American explorers, including Robert Peary, explored the northern sections of Greenland, which up to that time had been a mystery and were often shown on maps as extending over the North Pole. Peary discovered that Greenland's northern coast in fact stopped well short of the pole. These discoveries were considered to be the basis of an American territorial claim in the area. But after the United States purchased the Virgin Islands from Denmark in 1917, it agreed to relinquish all claims on Greenland.

Strategic importance

After Norway regained full independence in 1905, it argued that Danish claims to Greenland were invalid since the island had been a Norwegian possession prior to 1815. 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, who claimed the area as Erik the Red's Land. Two years later, the Permanent Court of International Justice ruled in favor of Denmark.

During World War II, when Nazi 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 therefore had a geopolitical interest in Greenland, and in 1946, the United States offered to buy Greenland from Denmark for $100,000,000 but Denmark did not agree to sell.[35][36] 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 friction between the Danish government and the Greenlandic people. Tensions mounted when, on January 21, 1968, there was a nuclear accident — a B-52 Stratofortress carrying four hydrogen bombs crashed near the base, contaminating the area with radioactive debris. Although most of the contaminated ice was cleaned up, controversy currently surrounds recently declassified information indicating that one of the bombs was not accounted for. A 1995 Danish parliamentary scandal, dubbed Thulegate, highlighted that nuclear weapons were routinely present in Greenland's airspace in the years leading up to the accident, and that Denmark had tacitly given the go-ahead for this activity despite its official nuclear free policy.

Another recent controversy surrounds the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS), which the United States Air Force upgraded in recent years to a phased array radar.[37] Opponents argue that the system presents a threat to the local population, as it would be targeted in the event of nuclear war.

Home rule

From 1948 to 1950, the Greenland Commission studied the conditions on the island, seeking to address its isolation, unequal laws, and economic stagnation. In the end, the Royal Greenland Trading Department's monopolies were finally removed. In 1953, Greenland was raised from the status of colony to that of an autonomous province or constituent country of the Danish Realm. Despite its small population, it was provided nominal representation in the Danish Folketing.

Denmark also began a number of reforms aimed at urbanizing the Greenlanders, principally to replace their dependence on (then) dwindling seal populations and provide workers for the (then) swelling cod fisheries, but also to provide improved social services such as health care, education, and transportation. These well-meaning reforms have led to a number of problems, particularly modern unemployment and the infamous Blok P housing project. The attempt to introduce European-style urban housing suffered from such inattention to local detail that Inuit could not fit through the doors in their winter clothing and fire escapes were constantly blocked by fishing gear too bulky to fit into the cramped apartments.[38] Television broadcasts began in 1982. The collapse of the cod fisheries and mines in the late 1980s and early 1990s greatly damaged the economy, which now principally depends on Danish aid and cold-water shrimp exports. Large sectors of the economy remain controlled by state-owned corporations, with Air Greenland and the Arctic Umiaq ferry heavily subsidized to provide access to remote settlements. The major airport remains the former US air base at Kangerlussuaq well north of Nuuk, with the capital unable to accept international flights on its own, owing to concerns about expense and noise pollution.

Greenland's minimal representation in the Folketing meant that despite 70.3% of Greenlanders rejecting entry into the European Common Market (EEC), it was pulled in along with Denmark in 1973. Fears that the customs union would allow foreign firms to compete and overfish its waters were quickly realized and the local parties began to push strongly for increased autonomy. The Folketing approved devolution in 1978 and the next year enacted home rule under a local Landsting. On 23 February 1982, a bare majority (53%) of Greenland's population voted to leave the EEC, a process which lasted until 1985.

Greenland Home Rule has become increasingly Greenlandized, rejecting Danish and avoiding regional dialects to standardize the country under the language and culture of the Kalaallit (West Greenland Inuit). The capital Godthåb was renamed Nuuk in 1979; a local flag was adopted in 1985; the Danish KGH became the locally-administered Kalaallit Niuerfiat (now KNI A/S) in 1986. Following a successful referendum on self-government in 2008, the local parliament's powers were expanded and Danish was removed as an official language in 2009.

International relations are now largely, but not entirely, also left to the discretion of the home rule government. After leaving the EEC, Greenland signed a special treaty with it, granting it special access to the market as a constituent country of Denmark, which remains a member. Greenland is also a member of several small organizations[which?] along with Iceland, the Faroes, and the Inuit populations of Canada and Russia. It was one of the founders of the environmental Arctic Council in 1996. The US military bases on the island remain a major issue, with some politicians pushing for renegotiation of the 1951 US–Denmark treaty by the Home Rule government. The 1999–2003 Commission on Self-Governance even proposed that Greenland should aim at Thule Air Base's removal from American authority and operation under the aegis of the United Nations.[39]

See also



  • Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking, 2005. ISBN 0-14-303655-6.
  • Seaver, Kristen A The Frozen Echo Stanford University Press, 1996 ISBN 0-8047-3161-6
  • Grove, Jonathan. "The place of Greenland in medieval Icelandic saga narrative", in Norse Greenland: Selected Papers of the Hvalsey Conference 2008, Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 2 (2009), 30–51
  • Kendrick, Thomas Downing. A History of the Vikings. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1930.
  • The Complete sagas of Icelanders. Edited by Vidar Hreinsson; editorial team led by Robert Cook et al.; introduction by Robert Kellogg. Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Publishers, 1997.
  • Vikings: the North Atlantic Saga. Edited by William W. Fitzhugh and Elisabeth I. Ward. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press in association with the National Museum of Natural History, 2000.
  • Grønlands forhistorie, ed. Hans Christian Gulløv, National Museum of Denmark, Gyldendal, 2005. ISBN 87-02-01724-5.

External links

  • The cultural history of Greenland – Information about the various cultures, from the Greenland Research Centre and the National Museum of Denmark
  • National Museum of Natural History
  • Archaeological Institute of America
  • History of Greenland – Traces the history of Greenland for 10th century to the present.
  • Broken Arrow – The B-52 Accident – Account of the 1968 cleanup process
  • Greenpeace report.
  • Timeline of the history of Norse Greenland
  • History of Medieval Greenland and associated places, like Iceland and Vinland.
  • (Danish) Grönlands historiske Mindesmærker
  • Introduction of Greenland - Lessons from the far north

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