GREENLAND : Contemporary history


Greenland - Kalaallit Nunaat in Greenlandic – has been inhabited for at least the past 4,500 years by the peoples of the Arctic, whose ancestors migrated from what is now Canada.

Four cultures (Saqqaq, Independence I and II, and Dorset) preceded the arrival of the Vikings, which began in the 10th century. They settled in the (then uninhabited) southern part of Greenland, founding medieval colonies there numbering no more than 2,000 inhabitants. They disappeared around 1500 AD, very likely due to a failure to adapt their means of subsistence, based on livestock farming and agriculture. The current Inuit peoples arrived in the 13th century.

The Kingdom of Denmark and Norway, merged by this point, claimed rights over Greenland for centuries, before Norway, weakened during the dissolution of the Union of the Kingdom, lost its sovereignty over Greenland territory to Denmark in 1814. Greenland then became first a Danish colony, then part of the Kingdom of Denmark in 1953.

The colonization period

Beginning in the 17th century, many Dutch, German and English whalers arrived on the southern coast of Greenland, where fierce competition ensued. This was the start of an unbridled plundering of Greenland’s natural resources, the ill-treatment of local populations and the transmission of diseases, including tuberculosis, which would not be eradicated until the 1960s. Hans Egede, a Dano-Norwegian pastor, organised the first evangelisation expeditions in 1721, and the establishment of trading posts along the coast. This marked the beginning of Danish colonisation and a trade monopoly that was not abolished until 1950

Although the conditions of health and education of the population were considerably improved during the colonial period, the indigenous people did not benefit from any representation or consultation in the political and economic decisions concerning their lands. It was 1862 before the first regional elections were held.

The Second World War, then the Cold War, gave Greenland strategic importance on the geopolitical chessboard. Located on the boundary between the American and Soviet ports responsible for monitoring the Arctic and the Atlantic Ocean, Greenland was an important observation point for watching military and trade shipping routes, and for monitoring intercontinental ballistic missiles.

In 1951, a treaty signed with the United States placed Greenland in a NATO military zone, the defence of which was to be guaranteed jointly by Denmark and the United States. In 1953, when Greenland officially became a Danish province (and no longer a colony) the Inuit from the Thule region were forced to leave the area by Denmark to permit the extension of a strategic American base, which gained unfortunate notoriety in 1968 after an American B-52 carrying four hydrogen bombs crashed near the base, spreading large quantities of plutonium across the ice. Although most of the plutonium was able to be recovered, the Inuit still talk about the malformations from which certain animals still suffer. This base became a source of friction between the Danish government and the Greenlanders. Today there is talk of Thule becoming an international satellite tracking and monitoring station, under the authority of the United Nations. The United States would like to be able to establish one of its anti-missile shield stations there.

Greenland is the second-biggest island in the world (around five times the size of France). Although physiographically it is part of the North American continent, Greenland has been politically and culturally linked to Europe – particularly the colonial powers, Norway and Denmark, and its neighbour, Iceland – for more than 1,000 years. With a population of 55,847 as at 1 January 2016 (around 65% of them in urban areas), it is the most-sparsely populated country in the world.

Eighty-one per cent of Greenland is covered in an ice cap or ice sheet, which can be up to 3 km thick. Because of the weight of the ice, the earth’s crust has sunk by 800 meters. This phenomenon, known as isostasy, is thought to have been undergoing reversal for the past 10 years, like a cork held in the water, then released, as the ice cap melted. The ice sheet holds an overall volume of 2 million km3 of ice, in other words 10% of the fresh water on the earth’s surface (the remainder is made up almost entirely of the Antarctic ice cap, apart from 2% for the lakes and rivers of other continents.

From the status of Danish province to political autonomy

Greenland joined the European Community in 1973 (despite the clear disagreement of Greenlanders - 75%), but withdrew in 1985, following a dispute over the fisheries sector and fishing quotas, in what remained a unique case to this day, until the recent British "brexit" decision. The fact that it was a member of the European Union in fact permitted European fishermen to operate in Greenland’s waters, to the detriment of local fishermen. Since then, relations with the European Union have been based on special agreements.

A Danish-Greenlandic joint committee was set up in 1975 at the request of Greenland’s political parties, with a view to establishing the framework for territorial autonomy. In 1978, the Danish parliament granted this autonomy (Home Rule), which entered into force after receiving the Greenlanders’ approval, by referendum, on 17 January 1979. Administration of the local authorities was returned to Greenland.


In 1980, it was the turn of education, the Church, taxation and social affairs, and then health in 1992. In 2008, the Greenlanders voted by referendum (with 75% approval) for a plan providing greater autonomy, including increased control over natural resources and the adoption of kalaallisut as the main official language. This plan was approved by the Danish government in June 2009.

Since this date, the local government (naalakkersuisut) has been responsible for central administration (education, health, fisheries, environment, etc.) under the leadership of a prime minister. Certain spheres still fall under Danish authority, however: justice and the police, defence and national security, the financial and monetary sectors, civil law (family and inheritance) and foreign affairs. Greenland may however itself be represented in certain countries or institutions that have a commercial interest in the island. Representation was thus established with the European Union in 1992 and Greenland maintains close direct ties with the Nordic and Arctic countries.

The local elections that followed the declaration of enhanced autonomy ended with victory for the left-wing Inuit party, Ataqatigiit, after 30 years in power for the Siumut party, but the 2013 elections then saw the return of this veteran party, heading a coalition government. Aleqa Hammond became the first female prime minister, but was suspended the following year as a result of a financial scandal, leading to new early elections, which forced the outgoing (Siumut) government to form a coalition with the Demokraatit and Atassut parties.

Political Partis overview

Siumut (Forward), the biggest Inuit political party, was founded in 1977. It ran the country for 30 years, until the government changed hands in 2009. Siumut returned to power in March 2013. A social democratic party, it advocates considerable autonomy for the present time and independence in the long term.

Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA) (Inuit Community) is a party that is socialist in origin and pro-independence in orientation. The party was launched in the late 1970s, following the radicalisation of Greenlandic youth seeking recognition of Inuit particularities. It wants to make Greenland an independent state based on increased collaboration with the Inuit Circumpolar Council. It governed in partnership with Siumut from 2005 to 2009, then alone from 2009 to 2013. 


Demokraatit (The Democrats) is a social-liberal party founded in 2002. It emerged as the third-biggest political force in the country following the early parliamentary elections held in 2014, in which it won 4 seats.


Atassut (Solidarity) is a liberal political party that is part of the current government coalition. This conservative party, which is committed to ties with Denmark, draws its electorate above all from among civil servants, craftspeople, tradesmen and business people.


The Inuit Party. A left-wing, separatist party, founded in 2013 by former leaders of the Ataqatigiit party disappointed with their party’s policies. They had 2 seats in parliament at the time of their founding and lost them afterwards in the 2014 elections.


The Naleraq Party -The last party to be founded - in 2014, by former Siumut Prime Minister Hans Enoksen. It is made up of the most radical separatists of the Greenlandic political spectrum. They support a policy to "give equal opportunities" to the whole of the population, in every region, in terms of economic development and social services, and have shown themselves to be strong supporters of fishing and hunting. In 2014, the party won three seats in parliament, based on its 11.6% share of the vote.