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An island stretching from within the Arctic Circle south to about 59 degrees N. latitude, being between 20 degrees and 75 degrees W. longitude. In shape it more or less resembles a triangle, its apex pointing south, its base facing north, in which direction its extent has not been precisely ascertained. It is bounded on the north by the Arctic Ocean; on the west, by Smith Sound, Baffin's Bay and Davis Strait; on the east by the Arctic and the Atlantic Oceans. Its area has been estimated at about 512 square miles. The interior of this huge island is a plateau rising gradually towards the east, above which a few mountain peaks tower to a height of more than 13,100 feet. Immense fields of ice, varying in thickness, are lodged on the island, and, on the coast here and there, form steep walls launching mighty glaciers towards the ocean, where, caught by the currents, they drift southwards. These ice-fields and the continually moving masses of ice, which are diminished only in the month of July, constitute the main difficulty in approaching the coast, which is indented with numerous fiords and lined with small islands. The mineralogical composition of Greenland is varied and comprises granite, sandstone, syenite, porphyry, and some brown coal, tin and iron. Ivigtut is the only locality outside of Siberia which is known to produce the mineral kryolite (or kryolith) used in the manufacture of aluminum. The valleys in the south-west, traversed by rivers, and the hills facing towards the south-west, are the only sections of the country where vegetation finds a soil to nourish it, hence, as well as by reason of the severity of the long wingers, the flora is comparatively insignificant. In the north the only vegetation consists of lichens and mosses, in the milder regions of the south berries and various dwarfed plants are met with, while the most sheltered localities produce willow, alder, and birch trees, which, however, seldom attain the height of twelve to fifteen feet. Farming is not to be thought of; even the hardy potato yields only here and there a small return. On the other hand, some vegetables, especially lettuce and cabbage, thrive comparatively well. The dog is the only domesticated animal. Chickens, sheep, goats, and horned cattle are bred only occasionally. For game there are the reindeer, moose, and arctic hare, besides numberless bears and foxes which are constantly hunted for their valuable skins. Numerous species of birds furnish the habitants with food — the flesh of the ptarmigan and the eggs of the sea gull — while the eider duck yields its down. Whaling, seal-hunting, and fishing are of vital importance. Navigation on any considerable scale is possible only during the summer. Communication between the different settlements is maintained by means of the umiak, a boat made of sealskin generally about thirty feet in length. For hunting and fishing the Greenlander uses the "kajak", a boat propelled by means of paddles. The staple exports of Greenland are whale-oil, the skins of seals, bears, and foxes, eiderdown, and kryolith, all amounting to about 500,000 kronen. The value of the imports-coal, foodstuffs, and articles of common use-is about double that of the exports.

The original inhabitants of Greenland, the Eskimos, belong to the Mongolian race and are for the most part at least nominal Christians, under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Zealand. A number of the inhabitants residing on the east coast are still pagans. The creed of the latter shows pantheistic tendencies, and the exercise of their religion consists in certain forms of prayer and curious ceremonies. Without any clear conception of their responsibility to a supreme being they have, nevertheless, rude notions of heaven and hell. Their priests are at the same time teachers, judges, and doctors. Naturally amiable, though somewhat irascible and vindictive, and careless of cleanliness, the Christian Eskimos need constant guidance to prevent their relapsing into the general disregard for morality, which formerly obtained among them. The lords of the land are some 300 Danes. Politically, the country is divided into the North and South Inspectorates. The most notable settlements are: Godthaab, Neuherrenhut, Christianehaab, Jakobshavn, Fredrikshaab, Claushavn, Fiskernas, Sukkertoppen, Ritenbenk, Sydbay, Nosoak, Holstenborg, Egedeminde, Upernivik.


Greenland can hardly be said to possess any political history as the small number of its inhabitants precluded its exerting any influence on the destiny of other countries. Although many historians claim that the Norse colony, which flourished there during the Middle Ages, was destroyed by the Skralings (Eskimos), proof is wanting, and, considering the pacific character of the Eskimos, it is more probable that the colonists, relatively few in number, lost their identity by intermarriage with the aborigines. It is, however, an established fact that the Eskimos were in Greenland (at least transiently) at the time the Norseman Gunnbjorn set foot on the island and when Eric the Red of Iceland settled there (983). Eric gave the island its name. In the "Islendingabok", written about a century later by Are Frothi, it is stated that there were found on the island numerous deserted huts, parts of boats, and various stone implements such as are in use even unto this day in the north-east and the west around Disko Bay and the Umanak Fiord. Eric named his first settlement (the site is unknown) Brattahild. Kinsmen and friends soon joined him, and in a short time the Norse population grew considerably. With Christianity a higher civilization entered the island. When Norway took possession of Greenland there were more than three hundred farms, supporting a population of over three thousand, partly in Ostrabygd, partly in Westrabygd (both places on the western coast.). The means of subsistence were practically the same as those of today, except that cattle-raising was more general.

Greenland was considered a possession of the Norwegian Crown as late as the time of the Union of Kalmar (see Styffre, Skandinavien under Unionstiden, II, Stockholm, 1880, p. 355). The continued disturbances in the Scandinavian kingdoms caused these remote colonies to be forgotten. Eventually, all relations between the Norse settlers and their mother country ceased, and Greenland kept only a shadowy existence in the European geographies. Tradition had it that the island was rich in game (reindeer, polar bears, sables, marten, fish, and certain monsters" — perhaps walrus), and that it abounded in marble, crystals, and so on. Its inhabitants were unhappily lost to Christianity. The efforts of Archbishop Walkendorf of Trondhjem, to assist the lost Norse brethren, ended in failure. A general permission to settle there, granted by King Christian III, was also fruitless; the perils of the sea journey deterred his subjects. The honour of having practically rediscovered Greenland belongs to the English. Commissioned by Queen Elizabeth, Frobisher made several voyages northwards, between 1576 and 1578, and at last succeeded in reaching his goal. The work begun by him was continued by his countryman, Davis. The Danish Kings, who, as sovereigns of Norway, claimed Greenland, also sent expeditions there, the most successful of which was that of Dannels (1652-54). In the beginning of the eighteenth century the settlement and Christianization of Greenland recommenced. Factories were erected in Christianehaab (1734), Jacobshavn (1741) and Fredrikshaab (1742). Commerce was developed partly by individuals (e.g. the merchant Severin, 1734) and partly by commercial companies (allmindelig Handelskompani, 1774). Since then the Government itself has assumed control of the Greenland trade. In addition to the settlements established by the Government, the Moravian Brethren have founded several stations. The eastern coast of Greenland was not properly explored and described until the nineteenth century — by Scoresby (1822), Clavering (1823), Graah (1829), the German expedition (1869), and the Danish expedition (1883-85).

The church history of Greenland naturally divides itself into two periods: the Catholic period, from about 1000 to 1450, and the Protestant period, since 1721. Leif the Happy (Hepni), son of Erik the Red, visited Norway in 990, where he was won over to Christianity by King Olaf Trygvesson, who sent some missionaries to accompany him to his country. In a remarkably short time these missionaries succeeded in converting the Norse colonists, at least outwardly, and in establishing an organized Church. Sixteen parishes were founded successively, together with churches and even a few monasteries. As the distance to Europe made communication very difficult, Greenland, in spite of the small number of souls which it contained, was formed into the Diocese of Gadar, suffragan first to the Archbishopric of Hamburg-Bremen, then to that of Lund, and ultimately to that of Trondhejm The succession of its bishops is variously listed by Gams and by Eubel, and can hardly be ascertained with certainty at present. But this much seems certain that, before the colony perished, sixteen to eighteen bishops of various nationalities occupied the See of Gadar or at least were nominated to it. Their doings are unknown to history. Tradition has it that Bishop Erik Gnupson joined an expedition in 1121 for the purpose of locating again the eastern coast of North America which had been discovered 100 years previously. During the reign of Bishop Arnes (1314-43) Greenland contributed its quota in natural products (walrus teeth) toward the Peter's-pence and the expense of the Crusades. It appears that no bishop visited Greenland after the beginning of the fifteenth century. The succession of titular bishops closes with Vincenz Kampe (1537). As mentioned above, the settlers received no reinforcements, and either perished or, by intermarriage, were assimilated by the pagan Eskimos. European manners and religion thus gave way to pagan barbarism. From the standpoint of the history of civilization it is remarkable that daring navigators had penetrated to the 73rd degree north latitude as early as 1135, and that the first Arctic expedition was undertaken in 1266 under the guidance of Catholic priests. Numerous stone monuments and ruins recall this early Norse Christian period. Of special importance are the ruins of a Romanesque church at Kakortok which, although comparatively small, warrant us in making inferences as to the style and size of other places of worship. Tombstones with runic inscriptions have also been discovered. A few documents have been preserved to which are attached the seals of the Bishops of Gadar (see Cronau, "Amerika", I, 114).

Christianity having disappeared from Greenland for the space of two hundred years, and when Denmark had ceased to give the island any thought, Hans Egede, a Lutheran pastor at Vaagen, conceived the idea of visiting his forlorn countrymen who had lapsed into paganism, and of preaching the Gospel to them. After overcoming all difficulties, he handed in his resignation as pastor and, together with his wife and children, went first to Bergen to establish a Greenland trading company and then, failing in this, to Copenhagen. When presented to the king he managed to interest him in his cause and succeeded in launching the trading company. In his capacity of supreme bishop, the king appointed Egede missionary. After many hardships he reached Greenland, but soon perceived that no descendants of the ancient colonists remained, and that his whole duty would consist in converting the savage Eskimos. By diligent application he acquired their language and, supplementing the spoken word with pictures, induced these people to embrace Christianity. He remained fifteen years in Greenland and formed a small congregation. After Egede's departure, his son Paul continued his pastorate, completed his father's translation of the New Testament, and compiled a catechism in the Eskimo language. The elder Egede founded a Greenland seminary in Copenhagen and also wrote considerably. In 1740 he received the title of Superintendent of Greenland. He died, 5 November, 1758, at Stubbekjoping on the island of Falster. Since that time a number of preachers have endeavoured to Christianize the aborigines with more or less success. They were assisted in this work by German Moravian brethren, of whom Stack, David, Bohnish, and Beck had already (1733-34) laboured in the field. Their first followers were a certain Kajarnak, his wife and children, who were baptized in 1739. After fourteen years' work a small congregation was established, and a mission house built. The Lichtenfels mission was established in 1766; that of Lichtenau, in 1774; that of Frederiksdal, in 1824. After a century of existence there were four mission stations (twenty-seven male and female missionaries) with 1799 wards (of whom 1715 were baptized, and 736 communicants), to which number were added in 1861 the Umanak mission, and in 1864 the Idlorpait. The largest membership was attained in 1857 (1965 members; about 900 adults). Since then decay has set in, ascribed variously to differences of opinion among the brethren, millennarian tendencies among the neophytes, and friction with the Lutheran ministers of the established Church. Without doubt the action of the Government in dispersing the Greenlanders over their extensive hunting territories was an obstacle to their conversion, as their concentration during the winter season would naturally make them more amenable to spiritual influences. It is apparent that, under these circumstances, their conversion to Christianity was in most cases rather superficial — a fact also confirmed by reliable witnesses. The history of the Moravian brethren admits that the entire education of the Eskimos (Lutheran) is limited to reading, writing, and the singing of songs; that thrift and benevolence are almost unknown among them, and that their morality in general is, to say the least, questionable. The first volume of the work describing the second German Arctic expedition of 1869-70 contains (pp. 160 and 195) an account of the church at Lichtenau and the cemetery at Fredrikshaab, which throws much light on the religious conditions of that time and also corroborates the opinion that even the descendants of Danes and aborigines most commonly revert to barbarism — a poor result for the self-sacrifice of such men as Kleinschmidt and Cranz, the former a translator of the Bible and composer of various hymns, and the latter an historian of Greenland. In 1900 the Moravian mission resigned their parishes to the preachers and instructors of the Danish National Church, which had nominally about 8000 members, and left the scene of their thankless labours. Although Greenland, like the adjacent islands, is subject to the jurisdiction of the Vicar Apostolic of Copenhagen, all missionary activity has been suspended.


HAYES, "The Land of Desolation, being a personal narrative of adventure in Greenland" (London, 1871)-not very scientific, but instructive in its illustrations; PEARY, "Northward over the Great Ice" (2 Vols., London, 1898) LOEFFLER, "The Vineland Excursions of the ancient Scandinavians" (Copenhagen, 1884); HORSFORD, "The Discovery of America by Northmen" (Cambridge, 1888); GRAAH, "Undersogelse Reise til Ostkysten af Gronland" (Copenhagen, 1832, with coloured copper plates and three views of the church ruins of Kakortok); RINK, "Gronland geogr. og. statist. beskrevet" (with pictures, maps, and contributions of various scientists concerning its history and nature, 2 vols., with index. Copenhagen, 1855-57); "Meddelester om Gronland, udgivne af Commis. for Ledelsen af de geol. og geog. Understogelser i Gronland"-with many maps and illustrations. The third section of the seventh part is of especial interest (Copenhagen, 1902); CORNELIUS, "Kristna Kyrkana historia", III (Stockholm, 1890); CORNELIUS, "Det nittonde arhundratess kyrkohistoria" (2nd ed., Stockholm, 1891); STORM, "Hist. Top. Skrifter om Norge og Norske Landsedele forfattede i Norge i det 16de Aarhundrede (Christiania, 1895); DAHLMAN AND SCHAFER, "Geschicte der europaischen Staaten: Denmark" (5 vols., Gotha, 1840-1902); HERGENROTHER, "Handbuck d. allgem. Kirchengeschicte" (3rd ed., 3 vols. Freibourg, 1884-6); MAYER in "Kirchenlex., s.v. "Egede"; PERGER in "Kirchenles., s.v. "Gronland"; "Realencyk". (Protestant) (Leipzig, 1896), s.v. "Egede"; GAMS, "Series ep." (Ratisbon, 1873); EUBEL, "Hierarchia catholica medii avi" (Ratisbon, 1989); SCHULZE, "Abriss einer Geschicte der Brudermission" (Herrnnhut (1901); FENGER, "Bidrag til Hans Egedes og den gronlandske Missions Historie 1721-30" (Copenhagen, 1879); CRONAU, "America", I (Leipzig, 1892); FORST, "Geschichte der Entdeckung Gronlands" (Worms, 1908), with bibliographical references in foot-notes; MAURER, "Die zweite deutche Nordpolarfahrt in den Jahren 1869 u. 70" (Leipzig, 1874); DRYGALSKI, "Gronlandexpedtion der Gesellshaft fur Drdkunde zu Berlin, 1891-93" (Berlin, 1897), excellent geographical and scientific bibliography on pp. 374-80; NORDENSKIOLD, "Gronland und seine Eiswuste im Innern u. seine Ostkuste" (Leipzig, 1886); NANSEN, "Auf Schneeschuhen durch Gronland" (Hamburg, 1891); SOLBERG, "Beitrage zur Geschicte der Osteskimo" (Christina, 1907); BEAUVOIS, "La chretiente de Gronland au moyen age" in "Rev. des. Quest. Hist.", I (Paris, 1902), 538-82.

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APA citation. Wittman, P. (1909). Greenland. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Wittman, Pius. "Greenland." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by John Looby.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. September 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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