The Land at the Edge of the World: Greenland and our Future.
Greenland is perhaps the only late colony of a European state that after a referendum decided to become an integral and semi-autonomous part of that state, in this case the Kingdom of Denmark. According to the 2009 Act giving Greenland its self-government, Greenland additionally gained the right to have a referendum and maybe decide one day to leave the Kingdom of Denmark and be an independent sovereign state.
Accordingly, I feel it is very interesting and instructive to read Spencer Apollonio's book about Greenland in colonial time, which gives a better understanding of the development in Greenland from the first colonization until the change in the constitution in 1953. Spencer Apollonio visited Greenland three times in the early 1950s. He was surprised by what he learned about the transformation of a 19th century native people to an essentially westernized 20th century culture. In The Land at the Edge of the World, Apollonio has selected 23 personal accounts of visits to Greenland during the period from 1850 to 1900. Most are from English-speaking explorers from the United Kingdom or the United States passing Greenland on their way to other duties, but a few accounts are from Scandinavians with duties in Greenland.
Spencer Apollonio provides some personal comments on each account, but he has functioned more as an editor, selecting the accounts presented from those that were available.
His choices seem good to me, but I must admit that I do not have an overall knowledge about the possibilities. Although I dealt with the same time periods in my own paper on the early exploration of Greenland (Taagholt, 1991), my focus was on scientific exploration. I used several references also used by Apollonio, but I appreciate all the new, more detailed information I found about Inuit life at that time by reading this book.
The authors of the 23 accounts all seem to be fascinated by Greenlandic nature, from the green valleys in the narrow fjords between the high mountains in the south to the Arctic deserts in the high northern regions. Their accounts include information about plants and wildlife (not only fish and marine mammals, but also hares, reindeer and muskoxen) and Inuit hunting techniques.
Focusing on the small towns and settlements, the accounts describe the three to four Danish houses in each one: wooden houses build in Denmark and shipped to Greenland. They tell about Danish family life in the settlements. But most of the accounts focus on Inuit life. They describe the construction of turf huts--the material used, the entrance through a long, low and narrow tunnel to keep the warmth inside, the interior dwelling arrangement including "furniture," and the blubber lamps used for illumination, heating, and cooking. The book contains detailed descriptions of the unique hunting and transportation gear, especially the kayak and its equipment.
For those interested in Inuit life 150 years ago--anthropologists, historians, sociologists, and people interested in political science--the many accounts in the book provide valuable information about everyday life in this remote Arctic island, including information about the local administration, the trade and catch-and-export figures, as well as health conditions, as some of the writers had backgrounds as surgeons.
The book has a small map of Greenland that includes the names of several locations mentioned in the accounts. The general reader might have difficulty finding all the named locations, as I, with 55 years involvement in Arctic research and access to all maps at the Danish Arctic Institute, had some difficulties with my navigation. On the other hand, if all the relevant maps had been included, the book would likely have had many more pages. Apollonio points out some discrepancies between the accounts, and I found a few minor errors.
Spencer Apollonio notes the evolving relationship between Greenlanders and Danes, which began as a typical missionary and trading colonization and then became something quite different. As anthropologist Hubert Schuurman points out, Greenland may be the only colonized area in the world that chose integral ties with the colonizing power. As stated in the account by Sir George Nares in Apollonio's book (p. 190-191), "Since 1721, the year of Hans Egede's settlement at Godthaab in South Greenland, the Danes have consistently endeavoured to improve and ameliorate the condition of the Eskimo inhabitants of Greenland. Their efforts have been crowned with marked success."
Other accounts contain more critical remarks. According to the Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen (p. 225), "We have undoubtedly done the Greenlander considerable harm by importation of various European products--coffee, tobacco, bread...." But, as stated by Nansen, if Denmark had not taken responsibility over Greenland, others would have taken over. It is unrealistic to suppose that Greenland at that time could have continued an isolated existence.
At present there exists a logical (but maybe economically unrealistic) movement in Greenland for complete independence from Denmark. Apollonio's book gives readers a better understanding of the colonial history leading up to the political changes from colony to self-government as part of the Kingdom of Denmark. The future will show how cooperation between the Greenlanders and the Danes will develop.
Taagholt, J. 1991. The early exploration of Greenland. Earth Sciences History 10(2):247-258.
Danish Arctic Institute
DK-1401 Copenhagen K, Denmark