Two Fools and the Delusions of their Time: the tragic promise of Greenland

Greenland rarely stirs the imagination. As the song goes:

Greenland is a barren land

A land that bares no green

Where there’s ice and snow and the whalefishes blow

And the daylight’s seldom seen.

Yet it is the world’s second largest island and one of increasing geopolitical importance as the Arctic threatens to become the next arena of great power competition.

The first English impressions we have of Greenland come from Sir Martin Frobisher’s three voyages between 1576 and 1578. Frobisher was sailing in search of a famed Northwest Passage, a purported shortcut between Europe and the riches of the Orient.

Frobisher’s voyages were a total failure in terms of their actual ambitions and the commander – though he has left no written record of his own – seems to have been rather deluded.

Sir Martin Frobisher: gentlemen, explorer, privateer

On his initial voyage in 1576, Frobisher convinced himself that he had found the Northwest Passage, though this turned out to be a large inlet that now bears his name as Frobisher Bay. He also became one of the first Europeans of his age to encounter the Inuit people, of whom he brought back to London a captured ‘specimen’. This poor person was subsequently toured around the noble courts before quickly dying in an alien land.

A second voyage in 1577 got Frobisher no further in his search for Asia but he was able to bring home vast quantities of ‘gold ore’, not to mention another Inuit splendidly depicted in the drawings of John White.

An Inuit wearing sealskin by John White

By this point Frobisher had become intrigued by the possibility of establishing a human plantation in this Meta Incognita, as he termed Greenland. If the primitive Inuit could survive then why not the civilised Europeans? His third voyage in 1578, therefore, set off with the intention of establishing a colony, in addition to mining more ‘gold’.

Of course, he failed again. The brutal Arctic conditions wreaked havoc with his ships, and repairs were almost impossible to make in the inhospitable climes, where dreams of a colony quickly dissipated. He returned disillusioned to live out his days as a privateer against the French. His ‘gold’ turned out to be Iron Pyrite. We now know it as Fool’s Gold.

Frobisher’s voyages would spur on the Greenland whale fisheries, lucrative hunting preferred to perilous colonisation

Almost 450 years later and a man of surely greater delusion than Frobisher has brought Greenland to people’s attention once more. For all that Frobisher misjudged his ‘discoveries’, he can be cut some slack given the limits of sixteenth century knowledge and technology. Donald Trump, on the other hand, does not benefit from such excuses.

His suggestion that he could purchase Greenland was thought at first to be a joke. However ridiculous some of the President’s suggestions, this one seemed to stretch credulity. After all, Greenland belongs to Denmark and has a proud indigenous population of its own who would probably be keen to have a say over their futures.

Alas, President Trump was not joking, and he even responded to Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen’s denouncement of his proposal by throwing a customary tantrum. He cancelled a plan trip to Copenhagen and began to insult Denmark via Twitter.

Ironically, Trump’s interest in Greenland is not wholly dissimilar to what motivated Frobisher in the late 1500s. The largely unexplored territory is thought to be resource-rich, potentially hosting vast reserves of coal, zinc, copper and iron ore.

As ice melts due to a changing climate, there is also the possibility that a new Northwest Passage will open up in the region, improving America’s maritime access between continents.

What’s more, whilst it is unlikely that America would ever want to try and establish a civilian colony on Greenland, it would serve as a convenient military base at a time when Washington’s competitors, including Russia and China, are taking a keen interest in Arctic exploration.

Tragically forgotten amongst the political maelstrom caused by the President are the Greenlandic people. They have limited prospects on an island that relies on most of its income from Denmark, where rates of alcoholism and suicide are high, where autonomy is granted but impossible to put into practice.

As Frobisher’s Inuit captives soon died off when they were brought to England, the people of Greenland are today being threatened by an unforgiving geopolitical climate where their land is seen as little more than a commodity to be bargained with.

It seems that little has changed since that unintended and misconstrued first contact with the English privateer and President Trump would be wise, however unlikely, to leave Greenland be.

A Disc on the Seabed of History: Vasco da Gama’s Astrolabe and the Beginning of Empire

The discovery of a late 15th century astrolabe on a Portuguese shipwreck off Oman provides a fascinating insight into an exciting period of the Age of Discovery.

Found within the wreckage of the Esmeralda, a carrack that sailed in Vasco da Gama‘s 1503 fleet to India, it is one of the most unique of more than 3,000 bronze artefacts so far found on the vessel since its discovery in 2015. Indeed it is reckoned to be the oldest such instrument found to date.

Laser scanners have revealed the etches on the astrolabe

Better known as an astronomer’s tool, the astrolabe was miniaturised and adapted for navigational purposes in the 15th century, at a time when mariners and explorers began plying their trades further and further from home. No longer safe to rely on their navigational experience and dead-reckoning, these pioneers began to turn to ‘scientific’ instrumentation to supplement their knowledge of the treacherous seas.

Early attempts at measuring the position of a ship away from the coast relied on the Pole Star, ‘the most easily observable heavenly body…The altitude of the Pole Star – its angle above the horizon – grew less as a ship sailed further south, and so gave an indication of how far south she had sailed’. (Parry, 1963, p.107)

Initially calculated by rough-eye estimates, these ‘measurements’ were enhanced during the 15th century by the popularisation of the mariner’s quadrant.

A mariner’s quadrant

The quadrant was soon superseded, amongst the Portuguese at least, by the astrolabe, which:

Consisted of a brass disk engraved with a stereographic projection of the heavens and a rotatable grill, by means of which the movements of the more conspicuous heavenly bodies could be followed. It was principally intended as a calculating device for the use of astronomers; but on its reverse side it was graduated in degrees round the perimeter and fitted with a rotating sight bar or alidade for observing altitudes…Only the reverse side of the instrument was useful – or indeed comprehensible – to seamen. (Parry, 1963, p.108)

That said, da Gama is recorded to have used a larger astrolable on his breakthrough voyage to India than the one found on board the Esmeralda. This was primarily for use on shore to determine his latitude. How much benefit he derived from the device is not wholly clear, its limitations in uncharted lands and inclement weather unlikely to have filled him with confidence.

It is not even clear how skilled a navigator da Gama was, for little is known of his life prior to setting off on that historic voyage around the Cape of Good Hope in 1497. There are snippets of information suggesting that he studied mathematics and navigation at an inland school in the 1480s, which may have enabled some familiarisation with instruments such as the quadrant and astrolable.

Yet one of the most enduring stories of da Gama’s voyage ironically centres on him dispensing with all of his navigational tools, when a mutiny broke out amongst his fearful crew. It is worth repeating the account in some detail, if only in the words of da Gama’s chronicler:

Crew: We have had enough. This is indeed a terrible and evil place as we were told.

Da Gama: No! We go on! We go to India.

As the crew threatened open rebellion, da Gama slipped away to his cabin, returning with a bundle of his charts and his navigational instruments.

Da Gama: What are these?

Crew: Your charts and instruments, Captain.

The Captain stepped forward and threw his possessions into the sea.

Da Gama: Now there is no returning! We go on with da Gama and with God!

That was the last of the dissension in the ranks.

Ordering his men to trust in God – not to mention in his own divine leadership – da Gama freed himself of the burden of science, his successful landfall near Calicut in 1498 testament to the holy honour bestowed upon him by his patron Dom Manuel I.

At least that’s how the chronicle portrays it, for such a foolhardy act would surely have been beyond even a man of da Gama’s fiery temperament.

Dom Manuel I of the House of Aviz

In addition to being able to read and compile maps and charts as a way of plotting their course, the late medieval mariners needed to adapt to the new tools of their trade and this required some schooling.

For many it was a case of learning on the job, the seaman’s apprenticeship an invaluable if brutal introduction into life on the open ocean. The Portuguese developed navigational schools in the 15th century, with Prince Henry the Navigator’s semi-mythical institution at Sagres both a practical training centre and a somewhat primitive think tank at the same time.

Vasco da Gama’s voyages to India encompassed all of this 15th century learning, not to mention the personal characteristics that mattered; an explorer possessed of a character befitting of his mission, a master whose ambition for the House of Aviz was unbounded, and the navigational tools that guided the way.

The discovery of the astrolabe points to a time when maritime culture was undergoing profound changes, enforcing a level of exactitude and professionalism previously unattainable. This in turn opened up the globe to the processes of mercantilism and imperialism, with the benefits and detriments these brought to so many far-flung peoples.

A fleet of the Carreira da India departs Lisbon in a 1593 engraving by Theodor de Bry

Beautiful and beguiling, the astrolabe has stood the test of time, a marker in the ocean upon which Portugal, that impoverished cousin of Spain, created the first global maritime empire.

Within a few years of its inception the Carreira da India was in full flow, exotic spices and magnificent beasts flowing back to Lisbon along with troves of gold and treasure. A template had been created for Western Europe to grow rich, to upend its backward and unenlightened reputation and propel its states towards a glory hitherto unseen.

The world was truly never the same again.


Parry, J. H. The Age of Reconnaissance: Discovery, Exploration and Settlement, 1450-1650 (1963)