Greenland - Facts and Information
History
Twenty five centuries of settlement by Inuit people from the north and Scandinavians from the south
Perhaps one of the most inhospitable countries in the world Greenland has now achieved Home Rule and is increasingly accessible to visitors from elsewhere.


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Inuit from the north
The first proto-Inuit settlers originated in Siberia, moved east through Alaska and Canada arriving in the north of Greenland about 2400BC, but these people died out after 700 years. Later there were probably two other waves of settlers before the arrival of the Thule people from Canada about 900 years ago. The Thule culture, with harpoons, dogsleds and kayaks, was more advanced than those already in Greenland and became dominant.

By about 1200 the Thule hunters were well established along the coasts of north Greenland. However global cooling led to migration south along both the east and west coasts. By the time the two coastal movements met at the south of Greenland in the 1800s their languages had changed to such an extent that they were virtually different languages.

Scandinavians from the south
At about the time the Thule people were coming into the north Norsemen were arriving in the south. The first to arrive in 930 was a Norwegian by the name of Gunnbjørn Ulfsson who got blown off course while sailing to Iceland. However he had little regard for the land he had discovered. About 50 years later Eiríkur Raude Thorvaldsson (better known to us as Erik the Red) had to flee Norway for Iceland which he also had to leave or run the risk, as an outlaw, of being murdered. Erik arrived in Greenland in 982 and established a farm at a place he called Brattahlid. Most historians consider this to have been at Qassiarsuk near Narsarsuaq, but it may have been at Narsaq.

In 985 Erik returned to Iceland and with glowing reports of a fair country called 'Greenland' encouraged settlers to return with him. The settlement in the south and north along the milder west coast was successful and some 300 farms were estblished. Greenlanders petitioned the Norwegian king to establish a bishopric in Greenland, a bad move as the church imposed high taxes and became the major landowner. The country was annexed by Norway in 1261.

Disappearance of the Norse
Despite a reasonable degree of prosperity and good trade with Norway decline set in and at some time after 1408 the Greenland Norse just disappeared. The reason is not known. The deteriorating climate made farming more difficult, the country's products were becoming of less value to Norway, increasing amounts of sea-ice, the loss of the supply ship and the destruction of Bergen (which handled Greenland's trade) by the Hanseatic League probably all played a part. There is no evidence of epidemic or slaughter by Inuits (although there had been skirmishes as the Inuit concept of hunting grounds was at odds with Norse ideas of land ownership). They may have been absorbed by the Inuit, but there is little credence given to other theories such as plagues of caterpillars and wholesale kidnap by Barbary pirates looking for slaves. They vanished - nobody knows how or why.

Northwest passage, whalers and the Danes
By 1600 Europe was seeking trade routes to the Orient and navigators sought a route round the north of Canada. This led to the mapping of Greenland's west coast and contact with Inuit people. In the late 1600s Scots, Dutch and Basque whalers began to arrive. They traded with Inuit colonies but often exploited them and spread disease, they certainly seriously depleted marine mammal stocks.

In 1605 Denmark claimed Greenland but did not begin to colonise it until 1721. As well as trade the intention was to impose Christianity and its values on the Inuit, a mission which did harm to the social structures of the Greenlanders. In 1774 Denmark imposed a trade monopoly with the country being closed to foreign vessels until the 1940s. The increase in trade encouraged the Inuit to be less dependent on nomadic hunting and many began to settle near trading posts.

Twentieth century
Hitler's occupation of Denmark in 1941 led to the USA (even before its entry to WW2) establishing air bases at Søndre Strømfjord (now Kangerlussuaq), Narsarsuaq and Thule. A naval base was also built at Grønnedal to protect the cryolite mines whose output was essential to the aluminium industry's war effort. In return for cryolite the US agreed to supply Greenland with essential supplies. Further bases were built, but only Thule in the far north remains as a USAF base today.

In 1953 Denmark offered Greenlanders Danish citizenship and the country became a county of Denmark. In the 1960s the 'G60' policy saw people moved from unpleasant turf houses to comfortable tenement blocks. Many smaller villages were regarded as being no longer viable and their occupants relocated. Whilst all this was well-intentioned (and indeed desirable in some respects) the overnight change from nomadic hunter to flat-dwelling factory worker was too rapid and major social problems resulted. These were compounded about 20 years later when a sudden decline in cod led to factory closures and unemployment.

In 1972 Denmark voted to join the EEC, although in Greenland the people resoundingly voted 'no'. Their fears were realised when European trawlers began to fish extensively in Greenland waters. Faroe, another Danish territory, had enjoyed Home Rule since 1946 and had not become part of the EEC. Greenland wished to follow its example. In 1979 Greenland gained its own Home Rule Government. It withdrew from the EEC in 1985 but remains part of Denmark. As part of the social unrest in the 1980s there were feelings against the Danes and isolated instances of violence for a while.

Greenland, like Faroe, aspires to independence but the reality is that neither country is economically viable without heavy subsidies from the Danish government and those aspirations are unlikely to be realised in the forseeable future.


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