Greenland (Kalaallit Nunaat in Greenlandic and Grønland in Danish) is an autonomous constituent country within the Danish Realm between the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans, east of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Though physiographically a part of the continent of North America, Greenland has been politically and culturally associated with Europe (specifically Norway and Denmark, the colonial powers, as well as the nearby island of Iceland) for more than a millennium. The majority of its residents are Inuit, whose ancestors began migrating from the Canadian mainland in the thirteenth century, gradually settling across the island. Greenland is the world’s largest island (it is smaller than Australia, which is considered a continent). Three-quarters of Greenland is covered by the only permanent ice sheet outside Antarctica. With a population of about 56,480 (2013), it is the least densely populated country in the world. The Arctic Umiaq Line ferry acts as a lifeline for western Greenland, connecting the various cities and settlements. The capital, Nuuk, held the 2016 Arctic Winter Games. Greenland leads the world in renewable energy. 70% of its energy is from renewable sources, particularly hydropower.
The early Viking settlers named the island as Greenland. In the Icelandic sagas, the Norwegian-born Icelander Erik the Red was said to be exiled from Iceland for manslaughter. Along with his extended family and his thralls, he set out in ships to explore an icy land known to lie to the northwest. After finding a habitable area and settling there, he named it Grœnland (translated as “Greenland”), supposedly in the hope that the pleasant name would attract settlers. The name of the country in Greenlandic (Kalaallisut) is Kalaallit Nunaat (“land of the Kalaallit“). The Kalaallit are the indigenous Greenlandic Inuit people who inhabit the country’s western region.
In prehistoric times, Greenland was home to several successive Paleo-Eskimo cultures known today primarily through archaeological finds. The earliest entry of the Paleo-Eskimo into Greenland is thought to have occurred about 2500 BC. From around 2500 BC to 800 BC, southern and western Greenland were inhabited by the Saqqaq culture. Most finds of Saqqaq-period archaeological remains have been around Disko Bay, including the site of Saqqaq, after which the culture is named. From 2400 BC to 1300 BC, the Independence I culture existed in northern Greenland. It was a part of the Arctic small tool tradition. Towns, including Deltaterrasserne, started to appear. Around 800 BC, the Saqqaq culture disappeared and the Early Dorset culture emerged in western Greenland and the Independence II culture in northern Greenland. The Dorset culture was the first culture to extend throughout the Greenlandic coastal areas, both on the west and east coasts. It lasted until the total onset of the Thule culture in 1500 AD. The Dorset culture population lived primarily from hunting of whales and caribou.
From 986, Greenland’s west coast was settled by Icelanders and Norwegians, through a contingent of 14 boats led by Erik the Red. They formed three settlements — known as the Eastern Settlement, the Western Settlement and the Middle Settlement — on fjords near the southwestern-most tip of the island. They shared the island with the late Dorset culture inhabitants who occupied the northern and western parts, and later with the Thule culture that entered from the north. Norse Greenlanders submitted to Norwegian rule in the thirteenth century under the Norwegian Empire. Later the Kingdom of Norway entered into a personal union with Denmark in 1380, and from 1397 was a part of the Kalmar Union.
The Norse settlements, such as Brattahlíð, thrived for centuries but disappeared sometime in the fifteenth century, perhaps at the onset of the Little Ice Age. Apart from some runic inscriptions, no contemporary records or historiography survives from the Norse settlements. Medieval Norwegian sagas and historical works mention Greenland’s economy as well as the bishops of Gardar and the collection of tithes. A chapter in the Konungs skuggsjá (The King’s Mirror) describes Norse Greenland’s exports and imports as well as grain cultivation.
Icelandic saga accounts of life in Greenland were composed in the thirteenth century and later, and do not constitute primary sources for the history of early Norse Greenland. Modern understanding therefore mostly depends on the physical data from archeological sites. Interpretation of ice core and clam shell data suggests that between 800 and 1300, the regions around the fjords of southern Greenland experienced a relatively mild climate several degrees Celsius higher than usual in the North Atlantic, with trees and herbaceous plants growing, and livestock being farmed. Barley was grown as a crop up to the 70th parallel. What is verifiable is that the ice cores indicate Greenland has had dramatic temperature shifts many times over the past 100,000 years. Similarly the Icelandic Book of Settlements records famines during the winters, in which “the old and helpless were killed and thrown over cliffs”.
These Icelandic settlements vanished during the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. The demise of the Western Settlement coincides with a decrease in summer and winter temperatures. A study of North Atlantic seasonal temperature variability showed a significant decrease in maximum summer temperatures beginning in the late thirteenth century to early fourteenth century — as much as 6 to 8 °C (11 to 14 °F) lower than modern summer temperatures. The study also found that the lowest winter temperatures of the last 2000 years occurred in the late fourteenth century and early fifteenth century. The Eastern Settlement was likely abandoned in the early to mid-fifteenth century, during this cold period.
Theories drawn from archaeological excavations at Herjolfsnes in the 1920s, suggest that the condition of human bones from this period indicates that the Norse population was malnourished, maybe due to soil erosion resulting from the Norsemen’s destruction of natural vegetation in the course of farming, turf-cutting, and wood-cutting. Malnutrition may also have resulted from widespread deaths due to pandemic plague; the decline in temperatures during the Little Ice Age; and armed conflicts with the Inuit. However, recent archaeological studies somewhat challenge the general assumption that the Norse colonization had a dramatic negative environmental effect on the vegetation. Data support traces of a possible Norse soil amendment strategy.
The Thule people are the ancestors of the current Greenlandic population. No genes from the Paleo-Eskimos have been found in the present population of Greenland. The Thule Culture migrated eastward from what is now known as Alaska around 1000, reaching Greenland around 1300. The Thule culture was the first to introduce to Greenland such technological innovations as dog sleds and toggling harpoons.
In 1500, King Manuel I of Portugal sent Gaspar Corte-Real to Greenland in search of a Northwest Passage to Asia which, according to the Treaty of Tordesillas, was part of Portugal’s sphere of influence. In 1501, Corte-Real returned with his brother, Miguel Corte-Real. Finding the sea frozen, they headed south and arrived in Labrador and Newfoundland. Upon the brothers’ return to Portugal, the cartographic information supplied by Corte-Real was incorporated into a new map of the world which was presented to Ercole I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, by Alberto Cantino in 1502. The Cantino planisphere, made in Lisbon, accurately depicts the southern coastline of Greenland.
In 1605–1607, King Christian IV of Denmark sent a series of expeditions to Greenland and Arctic waterways to locate the lost eastern Norse settlement and assert Danish sovereignty over Greenland. The expeditions were mostly unsuccessful, partly due to leaders who lacked experience with the difficult arctic ice and weather conditions, and partly because the expedition leaders were given instructions to search for the Eastern Settlement on the east coast of Greenland just north of Cape Farewell, which is almost inaccessible due to southward drifting ice. The pilot on all three trips was English explorer James Hall.
After the Norse settlements died off, the area came under the de facto control of various Inuit groups, but the Danish government never forgot or relinquished the claims to Greenland that it had inherited from the Norse. When it re-established contact with Greenland in the early eighteenth century, Denmark asserted its sovereignty over the island. In 1721, a joint mercantile and clerical expedition led by Danish-Norwegian missionary Hans Egede was sent to Greenland, not knowing whether a Norse civilization remained there. This expedition is part of the Dano-Norwegian colonization of the Americas. After 15 years in Greenland, Hans Egede left his son Paul Egede in charge of the mission there and returned to Denmark, where he established a Greenland Seminary. This new colony was centered at Godthåb (“Good Hope”) on the southwest coast. Gradually, Greenland was opened up to Danish merchants, and closed to those from other countries.
When the union between the crowns of Denmark and Norway was dissolved in 1814, the Treaty of Kiel severed Norway’s former colonies and left them under the control of the Danish monarch. Greenland was ceded to Denmark on January 14, 1814.
Norway occupied then-uninhabited eastern Greenland as Erik the Red’s Land in July 1931, claiming that it constituted terra nullius. Norway and Denmark agreed to submit the matter in 1933 to the Permanent Court of International Justice, which decided against Norway.
The first postage stamps of Greenland were issued on November 1, 1938.
Greenland’s connection to Denmark was severed on April 9, 1940, early in World War II, after Denmark was occupied by Nazi Germany. On April 8, 1941, the United States occupied Greenland to defend it against a possible invasion by Germany. The United States occupation of Greenland continued until 1945. Greenland was able to buy goods from the United States and Canada by selling cryolite from the mine at Ivittuut. The major air bases were Bluie West-1 at Narsarsuaq and Bluie West-8 at Søndre Strømfjord (Kangerlussuaq), both of which are still used as Greenland’s major international airports. Bluie was the military code name for Greenland.
Following World War II, the United States developed a geopolitical interest in Greenland, and in 1946 the United States offered to buy the island from Denmark for $100,000,000. Denmark refused to sell it. In the 21st century, the United States, according to Wikileaks, remains highly interested in investing in the resource base of Greenland and in tapping hydrocarbons off the Greenlandic coast.
During this war, the system of government changed: Governor Eske Brun ruled the island under a law of 1925 that allowed governors to take control under extreme circumstances; Governor Aksel Svane was transferred to the United States to lead the commission to supply Greenland. The Danish Sirius Patrol guarded the northeastern shores of Greenland in 1942 using dogsleds. They detected several German weather stations and alerted American troops, who destroyed the facilities. After the collapse of the Third Reich, Albert Speer briefly considered escaping in a small airplane to hide out in Greenland, but changed his mind and decided to surrender to the United States Armed Forces.
In 1950, Denmark agreed to allow the US to reestablish Thule Air Base; it was greatly expanded between 1951 and 1953 as part of a unified NATO Cold War defense strategy. The local population of three nearby villages was moved more than 62 miles (100 kilometers) away in the winter. The United States tried to construct a subterranean network of secret nuclear missile launch sites in the Greenlandic ice cap, named Project Iceworm. It managed this project from Camp Century from 1960 to 1966 before abandoning it as unworkable. The Danish government did not become aware of the program’s mission until 1997, when they discovered it while looking for records related to the crash of a nuclear-equipped B-52 bomber at Thule in 1968.
Greenland had been a protected and very isolated society until 1940. The Danish government had maintained a strict monopoly of Greenlandic trade, allowing only small scale troaking with Scottish whalers. In wartime Greenland developed a sense of self-reliance through self-government and independent communication with the outside world. Despite this change, in 1946 a commission including the highest Greenlandic council, the Landsrådene, recommended patience and no radical reform of the system. Two years later, the first step towards a change of government was initiated when a grand commission was established. A final report (G-50) was presented in 1950: Greenland was to be a modern welfare state with Denmark as sponsor and example. On June 5, 1953, Greenland was made an equal part of the Danish Kingdom.
With the 1953 Danish constitution, Greenland’s colonial status ended as the island was incorporated into the Danish realm as an amt (county). Danish citizenship was extended to Greenlanders. Danish policies toward Greenland consisted of a strategy of cultural assimilation—or de-Greenlandification. During this period, the Danish government promoted the exclusive use of the Danish language in official matters, and required Greenlanders to go to Denmark for their post-secondary education. Many Greenlandic children grew up in boarding schools in southern Denmark, and a number lost their cultural ties to Greenland. While the policies “succeeded” in the sense of shifting Greenlanders from being primarily subsistence hunters into being urbanized wage earners, the Greenlandic elite began to reassert a Greenlandic cultural identity. A movement developed in favor of independence, reaching its peak in the 1970s. As a consequence of political complications in relation to Denmark’s entry into the European Common Market in 1972, Denmark began to seek a different status for Greenland, resulting in the Home Rule Act of 1979.
This gave Greenland limited autonomy with its own legislature taking control of some internal policies, while the Parliament of Denmark maintained full control of external policies, security, and natural resources. The law came into effect on May 1, 1979. The Queen of Denmark, Margrethe II, remains Greenland’s Head of state. In 1985, Greenland left the European Economic Community (EEC) upon achieving self-rule, as it did not agree with the EEC’s commercial fishing regulations and an EEC ban on seal skin products. Greenland voters approved a referendum on greater autonomy on 25 November 2008.
On June 21, 2009, Greenland gained self-rule with provisions for assuming responsibility for self-government of judicial affairs, policing, and natural resources. Also, Greenlanders were recognized as a separate people under international law. Denmark maintains control of foreign affairs and defense matters. Denmark upholds the annual block grant of 3.2 billion Danish kroner, but as Greenland begins to collect revenues of its natural resources, the grant will gradually be diminished. This is generally considered to be a step toward eventual full independence from Denmark. Greenlandic was declared the sole official language of Greenland at the historic ceremony.
Scott #1 was released on November 1, 1938, the lowest denomination (1 ore) of the first set of six definitive stamps issued by Greenland, all of which portray King Christian X. Two additional stamps of the same design were released on August 1, 1946. The engraved stamps are perforated 13×12½.