Once I heard a person not born in Greenland tell that Australia was the world’s largest island and its population was proud of it. Not so strange because a globe shows that the country appears to be an island. However, Greenlanders do not agree with that opinion because in geography classes in school we learned that Australia is considered to be a continent and they therefore claim their island, Greenland to be the largest. This indicates that probably, Greenlanders and Australians will never be able to agree on which of the two countries occupy the world’s largest island.
The Greenlanders however already knew of the size of their country long before there was a more or less exact calculation, namely 2,174,400 km2. In the Greenlandic saga material we meet a couple of fellows who set off on a journey taking off in opposite directions in the belief that they will meet again after having traveled around the country. Before the journey began they cut water cups from the horns of the musk ox in order to recognize one another when they met again. After many years a pair of dog sledges crossed paths upon which sat two very old men each on his own sled. One of them had a very worn out cup with practically only the tip left. When the other man saw this he was reminded of their agreement. In that way they had traveled around their land and they met again in order to depart this earth and they marveled at how unimaginably large the earth really was.
To travel around the country has for many years been a challenge for many. A few years ago a Greenlander tried to turn the dream into reality rowing a canvas covered dinghy. He was able to row around a large portion of the coast and for the remainder, which could not be sailed, he hiked until he reached a point where all difficulties seemed to have gathered in one place just to hinder him from achieving his goal. He used several summer and spring seasons on the task.
One could ask why people choose to live in such a land. Science relates that people have lived here for more than 4000 years and that some populations disappeared and others moved in. It is speculated that the hunt after game provides the reason for the habitations. Those that continued their journey to Greenland from the Canadian side arrived in a land that was surrounded by ocean.
They observed the good possibilities to maintain life in the new location. However, they understood that the land could not sustain a large population which would result in pushing the game away.
From a modern perspective it could appear that the locations chosen for settlement are indeed strange. Visitors from other parts of the world are surprised to discover a settlement where a few houses cluster in an unexpected spot. However, it is no surprise for the Greenlanders whose premise lies in choosing the best hunting location. Even islands where there were no sources of drinking water were chosen because it was known that with the passing of drifting sea ice came potable water. A study of the placement of settlements shows that an unobstructed view of the hunting grounds prior to the hunt provided good reason for establishing a settlement. The hunters quickly learned the routes and habits of the hunted game and their knowledge of nature’s behavior was considerable.
During the last 100 years the Greenlandic society has undergone major changes. At the beginning of the 20th century the population was spread amongst approximately 200 locations and there were not over 20,000 individuals. At the end of that century the population was on its way to 60,000 and the number of locations down to around 80. In the middle of the century just after the world war the country’s development began in earnest. Industry based solely on hunting was no longer profitable.
The sale of the hunters’ products around the world were hard hit. The temperature of the ocean rose and affected the hunted stocks but produced other ocean catch. Cod came and later disappeared from the Greenlandic waters to be replaced by shrimp.
The production offish products was increased but was continually hindered by difficulties as the catch was affected by many factors from one year to the next. In south Greenland sheep farming was established as a viable industry which has now consolidated its hold through three generations of hard work.
There are many who imagine that this huge country must be rich in minerals. Quite a bit of mining of different minerals took place during the colonial period – primarily cryolite in Ivittuut in the south of the country. However, at the end of the 20th century the mines closed because, as claimed, there were no more minerals or mining was no longer profitable. Lately, the locals began to explore for minerals and small mines began to appear providing a source of optimism amongst the population.
If you look at a globe it appears that Greenland includes a portion of the North Pole ice cap and drops down like a huge nose pointing south, shown in white because of the ice which covers it. The Greenlanders often find it curious that people of the world do not know that people live here and that those who come from warmer climes always seem to arrive with their warmest clothes on. We, however, are happy to live along the coast in spite of the fact that the country bears the world’s largest water reservoir in solid form and we don’t always understand all the talk about the cold here. When traveling outside the country we can not escape the longing inside us to return and peace is not to be had before we come home again.