Greenland, Victim of Denmark's Linguistic Colonialism
Noa Agnete Metz
COPENHAGEN — In the picturesque Danish capital, it's easy to overlook the men lying on public benches with a beer in hand, or assume they're immigrants from Southern Europe. Listen carefully, though, and you'll notice that they speak fluent Danish, a task almost impossible for foreigners. These men, it turns out, are Danish citizens; indigenous Inuit people from the Danish territory of Greenland.
Inuit in Copenhagen mainly live among themselves and are marginalized from broader Danish society, with its emphasis on gender equality and the welfare state. These men are from a culture very different from the one that surrounds them. Danes even have an expression for it: being “drunk as a Greenlander." The homeless Inuit who live on the streets of Danish cities are a symbol of Denmark's failed colonial policy that, although it never resorted to blatant violence, has been anything but successful.
Greenland has high levels of unemployment and suicide rates; life expectancy is 10 years lower than in mainland Denmark. The enormous North American island has significant autonomy, but the Danish central government provides 500,000 euros a year ($536,000) to Greenland and manages its security, judicial system, and foreign policy. Most jobs in Greenland that require training and education also require applicants to speak Danish, making life difficult for locals who don’t speak the language. Such a requirement also contributes to a greater Danish presence on the island.
In 1952, the Danish government's Greenland Department went about implementing a radical set of policies to "civilize" the Inuit and to allow them to survive autonomously.
Eleonora is an Inuit woman in her 50s who lives in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. Under these policies, the state shipped her 4,000 km away from her family to Denmark to study Danish. She was 13 years old at the time.
"We wanted to go and so did our parents. You have to understand that, in those days, we aspired to become exactly like the Danes: tall, beautiful, and efficient," she says. "Life was not too bad in Denmark. But it was difficult to be so far away from my siblings, and I was shy when seeing my mother again a year later. After returning to Greenland I never lived at home again, and we were placed in boarding schools with other children who learned Danish, so we spoke little Inuit."
They don’t teach you how to hunt. They don’t tell you our stories.After attending university in Denmark, Eleonora returned home but things were never the same. "When I went to see my family in the summers during boarding school, often I couldn’t understand what they were saying," she says. "We grew apart."
The Danish government’s language policy was a key element in its plan to "open up" Greenland to the outside world. In the 1950s, Copenhagen also embarked on a radical experiment to create a Danish-educated Inuit "elite" who could act as a bridge between Greenland’s population and the Danish government. In 1951, the government selected 22 children between the ages of 5 and 8 from Greenland — with varying degrees of consent from their parents — and sent them to Denmark to learn Danish language and culture.
The policy was a disaster and none of them went on to form an Inuit elite. Instead, they forgot their mother tongue and their cultural and emotional attachment to the island. Half of the children died in their youth, their lives destroyed by frequent moves between orphanages and Danish foster homes. In 2015, the Red Cross, which had participated in the policy, made a formal apology to the children and their families. The Danish government, on the other hand, has merely called the policy an "error."
In the 1960s, Copenhagen replaced the policy with one to two years of mandatory Danish language courses in Denmark for Inuit children aged 8 and above. This program, which Eleonora took part in, continued in different forms until the 1990s.
"The problem is that when you don’t see your loved ones often, you lose your sense of family. I learned Inuit again while studying Inuitology at university in Copenhagen," says Eleonora. "My generation lost some of its identity because when you live with other children in boarding school you lose your roots. They don’t teach you how to hunt. They don’t tell you our stories."
Denmark’s language policies caused a rupture in Greenland’s cultural fabric and generated a social crisis that continues to this day. Today, children are no longer shipped to the mainland, but the island’s pressing issues remain unresolved.
For Eleonora, the new policies aren’t much better than the old ones. "Young people now speak Inuit well but traditional Inuit life barely exists anymore," she says. "And if they can’t speak Danish well, how are they going to find a job in Greenland?"
Just like their parents and grandparents 60 years ago, people in Greenland today must still learn their former colonizer's tongue to succeed at home.
"Why is Greenland a Part of the Danish Kingdom?"
by Iben Bjornsson
June 9, 2016
The Arctic Journal
Most Danes don’t know why Denmark and Greenland are connected, even though many of us have some sort of relation to Greenland: family or friends, knowing some of the many Danes that have lived and worked there for longer or shorter periods of time or even having lived there ourselves. Still others only hear about Greenland when the queen mentions it in her New Year’s address. The subject is mysteriously, and remarkably, absent from the school curriculum.
Those who know and love Greenland often speak of the community, common destiny and shared history between the two countries. But what is this history, and why does little Denmark speak of a common destiny with a large Arctic territory thousands of miles away?
Usually, the start of the Danish-Greenlandic relation is dated to 1721, the year in which Danish-Norwegian missionary Hans Egede (pictured above) arrived in Greenland and started colonising it. But according to Ole Marquardt, associate professor emeritus in history at Ilisimatusarfik/the University of Greenland, we have to go further back to understand why Denmark started taking an interest in Greenland. We need to go all the way back to 1380, when Denmark and Norway became a united kingdom.
With the union, Denmark gained access to the Norwegian tax territories, Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands. At this time, Greenland was inhabited in part by Norse settlers (more popularly known as the Vikings), who arrived at the end of the 10th century. They lived there for some 500 years before disappearing in the 15th century.
The Norsemen set the scene for Egede’s quest in 1721. His official mission was to find their descendants and reform them. They had been Catholics, and after the Reformation in Europe (and Denmark) he thought they should reform as well. But while the Norsemen thus provided Egede with an official mission, Inge Høst Seiding, a PhD in Arctic society and culture at Nunatta Katersugaasivia Allagaateqarfialu/the Greenland National Museum & Archives, reckons he might have had another agenda as well: missionary work amongst heathens who worshipped neither the Catholic nor the reformed version of the Christian God.
“At this time, Danish missionary work had already begun in other colonies, for example Tranquebar (now Tharangambadi) in India. We know that Hans Egede was very interested in the missionary work carried out there,” she says. “So the thought of missionary work among heathens was definitely not foreign to him when he left for Greenland.”
Establishing the relationship
Egede didn’t find any Norsemen. Instead he was met by the Inuit. They were no strangers to Europeans arriving in ships: both the British and the Dutch had whalers sailing the shores of Greenland in the 1600s, going ashore to trade with the Inuit. But whereas the English and Dutch went away again, Egede and his people stayed and started a mission.
Egede’s mission was backed financially by the Bergen Company, an association of traders, but it failed to turn a profit, and the company closed in 1726. King Christian VI took it over, but when the colony continued to operate at a loss he decided to close the whole thing down in 1731. Egede pleaded to keep it going though: a number of people had already been baptised and the mission, he argued, was going well. He was allowed to stay, and, just two years later, the king had a change of heart. Why?
Mr Marquardt explains: “Both then and now, one does not willingly give up territory. Colonisation had already begun and there was also the notion that Greenland was an old crown territory.”
And then there was the mission. That was not something to be taken lightly.
“No doubt, Hans Egede thought he, as a Christian, had a responsibility for the people he had met,” Ms Seiding says. “It shows in the reports he sent back to Denmark. He saw the mission as an obligation, and that it was actually an integrated part of the pietistic Christianity that the king also professed to. So he might not have been very difficult to talk back into it.”
The funding of the colony’s operations was taken over by Danish landowner and tradesman Jacob Severin in 1734, and a number of stations and colonies were established along the western coast. In the years leading up to the Napoleonic Wars, Greenland was colonised in earnest.
Having the Christian mission come before the trading stations is a bit unusual in colonial history. But that was soon corrected, so to speak. Ms Seiding explains: “While missionary work was the focal point in the first years, it quickly became secondary to trade.”
Wheeling and dealing
Denmark was drawn into the Napoleonic Wars by way of British attacks in 1801 and 1807 and it was a weakened Denmark that sat down at the negotiating table with Sweden and Great Britain in 1814. When Sweden, supported by the British, demanded Norway from Denmark, Denmark could not do much but concur.
But even if Norway had given Denmark its claim to the North Atlantic colonies, Sweden didn’t get them in the deal. There is some disagreement amongst historians as to why. There are those who claim that neither Britain nor Sweden was interested, that Denmark kept the colonies out of weakness, because it had no other choice. Then, there are those who claim that Britain didn’t want Sweden to grow too strong and saw to it that the colonies remained Danish. However, the most common and established explanation is that the Danish negotiator tricked the others by claiming that the colonies had always been Danish. This version was confirmed by the Swedish negotiator.
This wheeling and dealing with overseas territories might sound strange, even absurd, today. But such was the nature of colonialism. Most colonial powers thought that they were doing the people living in those territories a favour, or even acting out of some sacred duty, like Egede and his Christian responsibility. In their own eyes, they were civilising and developing. As the most physically brutal aspect of colonialism, slavery, had been banned by most European nations by the mid 19th century, no-one doubted the morality of colonialism’s “civilising mission”. And of course, as Mr Marquardt explains, having colonies didn’t exactly hurt a European nation either; it contributed to its power and reputation.
We might not like the way this sounds, but it is essential to understanding why the world looks like it does today. And it also explains how and why nations traded territories.
And trading territories was exactly what Denmark did in 1917, when it sold three West Indian islands, St Thomas, St John and St Croix, known today as the US Virgin Islands, to the US for the price of $25 million. The colonies hadn’t made money for Denmark since the abolition of slavery there in 1849, and Denmark no longer wanted the cost or the hassle of owning them.
What is puzzling is that by this time Greenland was also costing Denmark money, after a prosperous period in the 1800s when train oil had been used to light up most of Europe. But instead of getting rid of Greenland, like it did with its West Indies possessions, Denmark used the sale to have its sovereignty over Greenland internationally acknowledged. So by the beginning of the 20th century, Denmark had two colonies running at a deficit. One was sold, but the other it tightened its grip on. Why? What was the difference?
Mr Marquardt explains: “There are several reasons for this. Firstly, as mentioned, Denmark had looked at Greenland as a crown colony since the Middle Ages, whereas the Danish West Indies didn’t become Danish until the mid-1600s. Secondly, there is a great deal of international power and security policy involved: the only possible buyer after the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, when Washington declared the Western Hemisphere as its sphere of interest, was the US. The Americans would not have accepted a large European power right at its doorstep in Greenland, where they could possibly build naval, military and air bases.
“On the other hand, selling Greenland to the US, having the strategic position it has, would have upset a number of European nations. Thirdly, and finally, it is true that Greenland wasn’t financially lucrative at this time, but for a long time – and even today – Denmark hoped to find riches in Greenland, especially minerals. As opposed to the small islands of the West Indies, Greenland is a huge territory known to be full of minerals. The only question was whether they could be dug out at a profit. There was always a hope of wealth there.”
Ms Seiding agrees: “It is a recurring theme through the Danish presence in Greenland, the idea that something can come of this. Even if it hasn’t materialised yet.”
This is related to another factor in the Danish insistence on keeping Greenland, even if this must also be viewed as a reason in itself: the fascination with technology, science and discovery that also marked the decades around the turn of the century. Here, Greenland was the Danish ticket to play in the big leagues.
Ms Seiding explains: “The Commission for Scientific Research in Greenland was founded in 1878 and the scientific interest in Greenland was huge – the big expeditions and the attention and culture surrounding them. Greenland was Denmark’s place to do this, and that meant something for a nation. In this period, it probably meant as much as a surplus on the lard trade.”
To stress this point, Ms Seiding cites geographer and textbook author Sophie Petersen. She wrote in 1928: “The Danish colonisation and exploration of Greenland is unmatched in the colonial history of nations. It has caused admiration and done our reputation in the cultural world tremendously good.”
And Denmark hung on: when Norway claimed parts of eastern Greenland in 1931, the issue went all the way to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which confirmed that Greenland was indeed a Danish territory. In 1953 it was reinforced in a new Danish constitution, which made Greenland an official a part of the Kingdom of Denmark, giving it representation in the Danish parliament. With that, the UN acknowledged, Greenland was no longer a colony. Officially this was the case, but whether the arrangement led to actual equality between the parts of the kingdom is at best doubtful. But that is another story for another day.
Finally, in the question of “why did Denmark hold on to Greenland?”, Mr Marquardt has one last, but equally important, point to make: “We should also remember that many Danes really like Greenland, both the island and its population. It’s sentimental, emotional, if you will. Quite a large number of Danes have some sort of connection to Greenland.”
And the bonds aren’t just about economics, religion or politics; blood and family are involved. “There has always been significant intermarriage,” Ms Seiding says. “Almost all those employed as tradesmen, especially in the lower ranks, married Greenlandic women. That obviously creates a very close relationship, which means that Danes were very present, even if the number of Europeans in Greenland was relatively small, they very quickly became family. Thus, this distant Arctic country became very close to Denmark.”
She makes another point about the sentimental bonds: top officials and political advisers in the Danish political administration of Greenland, located in Copenhagen, were often people who had lived and worked there for many years. So the people formulating the Danish Greenlandic policy had a sentimental connection to Greenland.
And speaking of emotions and sentimentality, with the emergence of romantic nationalism in the 19th century, emotions and emotionality became political currency. Ms Seiding says: “The play on emotions becomes valuable. Danish nationalism takes this part of identity to heart, equal to the way people speak sentimentally about their native regions. Greenland becomes a part of this phenomenon as well. The blows suffered by Danish pride in the wars of the 19th century were partially remedied by the pride that was mobilised as a colonial power in Greenland.”
And sentimental bonds only get stronger with time; the longer the relationship, the more connections, exchanges, mixed families. Initial footsteps in the snow, if you excuse the analogy, have been trampled into an ever deeper and wider track.
So there you have them, the reasons why Greenland is a part of the Kingdom of Denmark. It’s not simple. It never is. Rather, it is a mix of economic interests, colonial logic, sentimentality and power politics. But the relation has never been, and nor is it now, at a standstill. The latest major development was the transition to Self-Rule in 2009 a feature of which is Greenland’s right to leave the kingdom if it wishes. What the future holds for the Danish realm is up to its individual parts.
The article above is the first in a series published in collaboration with Arktisk Institut/The Danish Arctic Institute, which seeks to inform the public about Danish-Greenlandic history.
The articles are based on the institute’s Arctic Stories podcast series, which is produced by the author.
The original version of this podcast (in Danish only) can be heard below. All of the episodes in the series are available for download from most podcast platforms, including iTunes and Soundcloud.
"Greenland commission will probe Danish abuses"
May 2, 2014
A new commission will begin this month to investigate the abuses, which also include removing children from Inuit families in the 1950s for better integration into Danish society. But the creation of the commission has already stirred anger in Denmark.
The overwhelming majority of Greenland's 57,000 people are of Inuit decent, thinly spread out across the vast, barren North Atlantic island that is a quarter the size of the United States.
"Reconciliation is very important on a path where Greenland strives for independence," Prime Minister Aleqa Hammond, herself born to an Inuit family, told Reuters in an interview in Copenhagen on Thursday.
"For a country that moves toward greater autonomy and independence its people need to know about their own story," said the 48-year-old Hammond, who has tried to reassert Greenland's Inuit identity since her election last year.
Greenland, which ceased to be a formal Danish colony in 1953, has started tentatively to open up to new investment in mining, despite local concerns about rising Chinese influence and about environmental damage.
Many Danes still work as civil servants and business leaders in Greenland and there have been inter-marriages. But tales of colonial-era abuses still provoke anger among the Inuits.
For example, scores of Inuit children were removed from their families in 1951 as part of a Danish government program. Most of them never returned to their families but were eventually sent to an orphanage in the capital Nuuk, according to published histories and documentaries.
In 1953, the Danish government removed more than 100 people from their homes in Thule to make room for the installation of anti-aircraft defenses to protect a newly-built U.S. air base. The Inuits was given three days to pack their belongings and move, according to historians.
"They were not even allowed to hunt in their own hunting grounds. Such things are in the minds of people and hurt many families that have been relocated," said Hammond.
The new commission has caused controversy in Denmark.
"I see the Danish realm as a family. We've made mistakes together, we have created progress together, and therefore I see no need for a reconciliation commission," said Christian Friis Bach, a senior member of the Social-Liberal Party which is part of Denmark's ruling coalition.
"I think (the commission) is a deadly insult to Denmark," said Soren Espersen, spokesman on Greenland for the right-wing Danish People Party.
Denmark provides an annual grant to Greenland of about 3.6 billion Danish crowns ($668.77 million) - equal to about half the island's national budget.
But despite such economic dependency and its continued reliance on NATO member Denmark for defense, Greenland has begun to steer a more assertive course under Hammond.
Last year it removed a ban on exporting uranium, a byproduct of rare earths processing, in a move that irked Denmark, worried about the security and environmental implications.
Hammond said the commission's aim was not to blacken Denmark's image but to allow a frank evaluation of the past.
"This is not a question of making Denmark (look) bad, this is a question of bringing our lives and a discussion of our history to a higher level," said Hammond, speaking in English.
"It would be nice with openness and a reaching hand, but instead I met a wall."
"I'm working toward independence," she said, adding that she did not know when that would come.
"I hope it will be at a time when I still can dance".
($1 = 5.3830 Danish Crowns)
(Additional reporting by Ole Mikkelsen; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Gareth Jones)