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Greenland



Atlas Greenland

Full country name: Greenland (Grønland) or Kalaallit Nunaat (local name)

Area: 2,175,600 sq km (848,484 sq mi); estimated 341,600 sq km ice-free, 1,834,000 sq km ice-covered

Population: 56,000

Capital city: Nuuk (Godth? (pop. 14,000)

People: 87% Greenlander, 13% Danish and others

Language: Inuit dialects, Danish, Greenlandic

Religion: Evangelical Lutheran, shamanism

Government: Self-governing Danish territory since 1979

Head of State: Queen Margrethe II of Denmark

Prime Minister: Jonathan Motzfeldt

GDP: US$1.1 billion
GDP per capita: US$20,000
Annual Growth: 0.6%
Inflation: 1.2%
Major Industries: fish processing (mainly shrimp), handicrafts, furs, small shipyards, tourism
Major Trading Partners: EU (esp. Denmark), Iceland, Japan, Norway, USA
Member of EU: No

History
Although Danish sovereignty was established in the 1600s, in 1924 Norway made an ambitious claim for it based on the Icelandic colonists of the second century. The claim was lost and in 1953 the international court ratified Denmark's sovereignty over Greenland. This state of affairs lasted for another 20 years before Greenland agitated for, and received, more autonomy. In 1979 the Danist parliament granted Greenland home rule, and in 1998 the right to full, uncontested independence, if they want it.

Greenland's history would read something like this: 'Nothing much happened, nothing much happened, nothing much happened. A couple of blokes arrived but left pretty much straight away. Several decades went past - nothing much happened - and then another bloke with red hair arrived and stayed a bit longer but then after that, for about four centuries, things got really quiet and nothing much happened.' As an historical entity Greenland lacks the Grand Narratives: it's light on when it comes to all-out bloody wars, pukka colonels with muttonchop whiskers, tinpot dictators, throne-wrestling and other Shakespearian dramas. This can be put down to two things: a minuscule population spread over a vast area; and the effort of surviving under hostile conditions that left precious little time for politicking.

Greenlandic history is a slippery beast; an amalgam of legendary sagas, anecdotal evidence, scientific fact and supposition. Best guesses are that, 5000 years ago, there were two distinct tribes that either melted into each other or sequentially died out, although not much is known about either of them. They were followed by the Saqqaq tribe, who kindly left behind a plethora of artifacts that were subsequently dug up and fussed over by the archaeologists. Scientific data and hypotheses have failed to explain why they also died out.

Time passed...and then a bit more time passed...and then in the 10th century Greenlandic history lumbered to its feet again when the Thule culture arrived on the scene and rapidly spread eastward. This is when, culturally and historically speaking, things really got going. The Thule were relatively sophisticated, responsible for introducing those two Greenland icons, the qajaq (kayak) and the dogsled, and it was probably these two inventions that saved them from going the same way as the hapless tribes before them. The Thule are direct descendants of the modern-day Greenlandic Inuit.

Greenland did not have sustained contact with Europeans until Eric the Red, the legendary Viking, used it as a home-away-from-home during his years of exile. It was Eric the Red who called the country Greenland but the naming proved to be more lyrical than factual; most of the time Greenland was anything but. This did not deter the boatload of Icelanders who promptly set about colonising the land and for a couple of centuries the colonists herded, farmed and hunted while the country slipped back into its usual comatose state. Norway got around to annexing the country in 1261, but it was a futile attempt at control; 130 years later a big chill set in and by the time the country thawed out and the outside world made contact again, the colonists had gone, either fully acculturated into, or killed by, the Thule.

Greenland slipped out of mind for another three hundred years until a combination of interest in a passage between Europe and the Far East, the lure of money to be made in whaling and missionary zeal put it back on the map. The conversion rate for the missionaries was fairly high: to the Inuit any religion that punished wrongdoers with heat had a lot going for it.

Norway had lost its claim on Greenland in 1605, when Denmark sent an expedition to claim the country in the king's name. Shortly after this it became the focal point for mad dogs, Englishman and Americans, as every explorer worth his salt raced toward the farthest point north. The history books record American overachiever Robert Peary as the first person to reach the North Pole, although his claim remains largely unsubstantiated, and there is enough doubt about the veracity of the trip to suggest that Frederick Cook may have beaten him to it. The Inuit reserve their admiration for Greenland-born expeditionist by the name of Knud Ramussen. Not only was he a skilled explorer possessed of enormous stamina and survival skills, he was genuinely attached to the Inuit and their culture.

Although Danish sovereignty was established in the 1600s, in 1924 Norway made an ambitious claim for it based on the Icelandic colonists of the second century. The claim was lost and in 1953 the international court ratified Denmark's sovereignty over Greenland. This state of affairs lasted for another 20 years before Greenland agitated for, and received, more autonomy.

While the territory's status was unravelling as fast as an avalanche toboganning down a mountainside, Greenland unwittingly became a pawn in the Cold War. US bases established in WWII became permanent within the framework of Denmark's membership of NATO, and when the Danes joined the EU, so too did the Greenlanders, even though they'd voted against doing so.

In 1979 the Danist parliament granted Greenland home rule, and in 1985 they voted to pull out of the EU, although this was a largely symbolic act which made little practical difference. Internationally, most of Greenland's energies have been focused on preserving its whaling industry.

In 1995, it was revealed that, despite the territory's nuclear-free status, the Americans had been bringing in nuclear weapons after 1968. Soon after, a Danish court ordered the Danish government to compensate Inuit Greenlanders forcibly removed from their lands to allow for the expansion of Thule US base in 1953. In the meantime, there are plans afoot to tap the island's most obvious resource by developing an ice industry - Greenland is said to hold about a fifth of the world's drinkable water - and to curb smoking rates, as Greenlanders hold the world record for lung cancer incidence.