Greenland: History


The earliest Palaeo-Eskimo cultures had already arrived in Greenland from Canada by c.2,500 b.c. The Thule Eskimo culture first arrived in N Greenland c.a.d. 900 and in the following 1,000 years spread to both W and E Greenland. From Iceland, Greenland was discovered and colonized by Norsemen (980s), led according to the sagas by Eric the Red, who named it Greenland in order to make it seem attractive to potential settlers. Local walrus tusks, valuable as ivory, were an important source of trade goods for the Norse. Two areas of settlement, in the south and southwest, were established; archaeologists now believe that the Norse population never numbered more than 2,500. It was in sailing to Greenland (c.1000) that Leif Ericsson, the son of Eric the Red, probably reached North America. Greenland became a bishopric c.1110, and ruins of churches of that period remain.

Greenland became self-governing, with its own Althing, but failed to achieve political stability. In 1261 the colony came under Norwegian rule, but in the 14th and 15th cent. it suffered from the cooling of the climate and the collapse of the ivory trade, and was neglected; the colonists either died out, gradually returned to Iceland, or assimilated with the Eskimos. The British explorers Martin Frobisher and John Davis rediscovered Greenland in the 16th cent. but found no trace of Norsemen. Other explorers looking for the Northwest Passage subsequently charted much of the coast.

Modern colonization was begun (1721) by the Norwegian missionary Hans Egede. Danish trading posts were established shortly afterward, and colonization was furthered by deporting undesirable subjects to Greenland. Soon, the native Greenlanders began to suffer from European diseases; tuberculosis remained a problem into the 1960s. In 1814, with the Treaty of Kiel, Denmark retained Greenland and other Atlantic possessions when Norway was ceded to Sweden, which, for strategic reasons, was interested in control of the Scandinavian peninsula but not in overseas commitments of the outlying Norwegian possessions.

In the 19th and 20th cent., Greenland was explored and mapped by numerous arctic explorers. In World War II, after the German occupation (1940) of Denmark, the United States invoked the Monroe Doctrine for Greenland and reached an agreement (1941) with the Danish minister at Washington that permitted the establishment of U.S. military bases and meteorological stations. A Danish-American agreement for the common defense of Greenland was signed in 1951, and U.S. bases were retained, notably at Thule. Thule is now the sole remaining U.S. military base in Greenland.

Greenland joined the European Community (now the European Union [EU]) with Denmark in 1972 but withdrew in 1985 after a controversy over stringent fishing quotas. Since then, relations with the EU have been based on special agreements. Jonathan Motzfeldt, of Forward (Siumut) became premier of Greenland when home rule was established in 1979. In 1991, Lars-Emil Johansen, also of Forward, succeeded him; in 1995 he remained in power as head of a coalition that favored increased autonomy from Denmark and greater internal economic development.

Johansen retired in 1997 and was replaced by Motzfeldt, who retained office after the 1999 elections. Following elections in 2002, Motzfeldt was replaced as premier by fellow party member Hans Enoksen. A political scandal involving misuse of funds forced an election in Nov., 2005; Enoksen remained prime minister of an expanded coalition. In 2008, Greenlanders approved a plan for increased autonomy, including increased control over natural resources; the changes, which were also supported by the Danish government, took effect in June, 2009. Elections that month resulted in a victory for the left-wing Community of the People party (Inuit Ataqatigiit; IA); party leader Kuupik Kleist became prime minister of a coalition government.

The 2013 elections resulted in a plurality for Forward, which formed a coalition with two smaller parties; Aleqa Hammond became Greenland's first woman premier. In Oct., 2014, a new scandal over the misuse of government funds led to early elections; Hammond resigned as Forward's leader. Forward won a narrow plurality and formed a coalition government, with Kim Kielsen as premier. Although Forward lost seats in the Apr., 2018, elections, it won a plurality and was able to form a coalition government; Kielsen remained premier. Later in 2018 one of the parties withdrew from the government, and Kielsen then formed a minority government.

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