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.
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.
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.
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.