Mapping Ultima Thule
Representations of North Greenland in the Expedition Accounts of Knud Rasmussen
Table Of Contents
- Title Page
- About the author
- About the book
- Citability of the eBook
- I Introduction
- 1 Greenland and Greenlanders in Danish Discourse
- 2 Knud Rasmussen
- 3 Research on Knud Rasmussen’s Literary Work
- 4 The Structure of the Book
- 5 Terminology
- 5.1 Cultural and telluric Other
- 5.2 Inuit, Inughuit, Eskimos and Greenlanders
- 5.3 North Greenland
- 5.4 The spelling of local names and words in the Greenlandic language
- 5.5 The primary literature
- 1 Postcolonial Studies
- 1 Colonial Discourse and Representation Analysis
- 2 The Split Subject and Ambivalence
- 3 Colonialism and the Discourse of Polar Expeditions: Polar Literature as a Product of Their Liaisons
- 2 Encounters with the Cultural Other in the Land of the New People
- 1 The Literary Expedition to Greenland, 1902–1904
- 2 The Subject’s Preconceptions about North Greenland and the Inughuit
- 3 North Greenland and the Inughuit as the Other
- 3.1 The Eskimo Arcadia and Arcadians: Disrupting the Idealisation Trope
- 3.2 The Eskimos are Primitive: Subverting the Essentialisation Trope
- 3.3 We and Others: Reversing and Interrogating Binary Oppositions
- 3.4 The Inughuit as the “Infinitely Other”: (Missing) Exoticisation
- 4 North Greenland and the Inughuit: An Indigenous Myth Perspective
- 5 The Narrator’s Voice vs. Native Voices: Master Narrative and Heteroglossia
- 6 The New People in the Historical Context
- 3 Mapping Ultima Thule: Encounters with the Telluric Other
- 1 The First Thule Expedition, 1912–1913
- 2 The Split Subject: The Scientist’s Authority vs. the Arctic Hunter’s Instinct
- 3 The Male Journey and the Male Adventure
- 3.1 The Icesheet and North-East Greenland as a Dangerous Wilderness: Heroisation and Sensationalism
- 3.2 A Place “Away from Home”: Home vs. Away
- 3.3 Chasing the Scholarly Goals: The Activity-vs.-Passivity Opposition
- 3.4 The Inughuit as Representatives of Nature: The Culture-vs.-Nature Opposition
- 3.5 Destabilising Binary Oppositions at the Basis of the Polar Explorers’ Male Heroism
- 4 North Greenland as Terra Feminarum
- 4.1 Scientific Masculinity: Erasing, Charting and Measuring
- 4.2 Aesthetic Masculinity: East Greenland and the Icesheet as a Source of the Sublime
- 5 Resistance to Othering through Scientific and Aesthetic Masculinity
- 5.1 North Greenland as a Source of the Telluric Horror and a Measurement-Resisting Place
- 5.2 North Greenland as a Place with a History of Its Own: Language, History and Inughuit Voices
- 5.3 “Being within the Landscape” and Dismantling the Primacy of Visual Perception
- 5.4 The Space of the Indigenous Myth
- 6 My Travel Diary in the Historical Context
- 4 Conclusion
Let us not be discouraged if they fail once,
Let us not be discouraged if they fail again,
They will not lose!
They will win!
For themselves! And for us!
We fellow countrymen will defend them,
They will win2
In a New Year address delivered on 1st January 2016, the Prime Minister of Greenland [Greenlandic: Kalaallit Nunaat] availed himself of this passage from Greenland’s bard Augo Lynge (1899–1959) to appeal to his compatriots for social solidarity and sustained effort for the sake of the island’s economic independence despite all the odds and adversities. The political leaders of Greenland, which has enjoyed substantial autonomy within the Danish Commonwealth since 2009, realise that the complete independence they seek will stand a chance of success only if Greenland stops being dependent on funding from Denmark, which currently accounts for more than half of Greenland’s overall budgetary spending. Given that the narrative of Denmark as a land of universal felicity, social prosperity and an exceptionally humanitarian colonial past is widespread indeed, we should enquire why Greenlanders have actually been so consistent and vocal in their efforts not only to manifest their national distinctiveness but also to win complete independence from Denmark.
Although research into Danish colonialism has long been part and parcel of Danish academia, the fact that public debates and controversies erupt time and again over artists’ attempts to address this multifaceted issue suggests that colonialism is, in fact, partly or fully suppressed in the general public self-consciousness.3 This suppression readily translates into a growing incongruity between the perceptions of Denmark within and without its borders. While Danes are only too eager to embrace the idea of Denmark as a humanitarian nation and a leader in developmental aid for underprivileged countries, this flattering self-perception ←15 | 16→is increasingly being undermined by counter-narratives that proliferate in the world media as the migration crisis sweeps across Europe.4 Admittedly, the gist and validity of some interpretations of Denmark’s current political situation can be disputed, yet the cracks in Denmark’s image as a “small country in the North of Europe” that rushes to help the vulnerable and the threatened cannot be doubted.
Denmark’s colonisation of Greenland should be studied in a comprehensive socio-historical context, for the processes unfolding at the northernmost periphery of Europe cannot be adequately explored without considering the political, economic and ideological developments that determined the course of events at the centre of Northern Europe. Missionary Hans Egede would not have set off for Greenland in 1721 had the absolute monarchy in Denmark not acquired overseas territories in quite different parts of the world in the 17th century. Denmark’s imperial past, which has only recently been retrieved from the murkiness of the nation’s collective oblivion by Danish historians, comprises the colonisation of the West Indies (the present-day Virgin Islands), the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) and Tranquebar (present-day Tharangambadi) as well as a robust Danish slave trade, which ranked seventh-biggest among all the colonial powers.5 With Greenland’s west coast colonised up to Upernavik in the north of the island, 18th-century Denmark was an empire that extended over the overseas territories, Norway, Schleswig, Holstein, Iceland and the Faroe Islands.
However, the Danish colonisation of Greenland hardly resembled the manner in which colonies were administered in hotter parts of the world. As the geographical conditions were challenging in the extreme and revenues depended heavily on the raw materials which could only be delivered by the indigenous population of the colonised areas, Danish colonial rule of Greenland did not involve a ruthless exploitation of its people and natural resources. Rather, it was founded on holding a monopoly on Greenland’s trade throughout the 19th century and on keeping Greenland’s traditional, hunting-based economy in place ←16 | 17→at all costs, while at the same time Denmark itself was gradually disposing of its other colonies, the monopoly on trade with Iceland and the Faroe Islands was being abolished, liberalism and the market economy were on the rise in Europe, and the world superpowers were asserting their imperial ascendancy in the non-western parts of the world. Moreover, the Royal Greenland Trading Company, which was charged with administering Greenland, came to prioritise self-maintenance rather than financial revenues, with potential profits redirected to improve the education and living standards of Greenlanders.6
A distinctive feature of the colonisation of West Greenland was that it was non-violent and did not meet a lot of resistance from Greenlanders themselves.7 Importantly, the Christianisation of Greenland proved effective largely because the new religion was preached in the language of the indigenous population. It was in the interest of the Trading Company to make Greenlanders stick to hunting and to keep them from adopting the European ways, yet changes precipitated by the colonial system could not be stopped. As a result, Greenland’s society faced considerable impoverishment in the 19th century, the population grew more and more dependent on European commodities, the sedentary mode of life spread, and social stratification increased significantly.8
The 19th century saw Denmark suffer two military losses. One of them was related to an enforced alliance with Napoleon Bonaparte’s France and resulted in the Treaty of Kiel in 1814, which stripped Denmark of Norway, handing it over to Sweden. The other took place in 1864, when Denmark, overpowered by the Prussian-Austrian coalition, lost Schleswig and Holstein. In the long run, these defeats were not only to determine the current topography of the Kingdom of Denmark but also to permanently transform the self-perception of Danes, who came to think of themselves as citizens of “a small country threatened by the powerful German neighbour from the south.”9 The society of what had once been an ←17 | 18→empire (and which still possessed the West Indies and Atlantic territories) came to focus on domestic development, following the popular slogan that “what was lost on the outside must be won on the inside” [Danish: hvad udad tabes, skal indad vindes].10 The catchphrase did not affect Denmark’s actions vis-à-vis Greenland, a fact that has gone unmentioned or ignored for decades in line with the narrative of Denmark’s history as a small and poor country. Towards the end of the 19th century, an interest in East and North Greenland, areas that had remained outside the Danish colonial system till then, emerged and grew in Denmark. This was closely linked to an increasing preoccupation on the part of the world’s powers, as well as of neighbouring Sweden and Norway (which worked hard to manifest its national separateness), with those territories, which had until then escaped Western colonisation. Denmark made its first important move in this regard when the so-called Danish Umiaq Expedition [Danish: Konebådsekspeditionen] was dispatched to East Greenland in 1883. Led by Danish naval officer Gustav Holm (1849–1940), the expedition resulted in the founding of a Danish trading station at Ammassalik on the east coast in 1894, which fell under the trade monopoly covering the entirety of West Greenland. Denmark’s slightly later interest in North Greenland was associated with the world-famous feats of American polar explorer Robert Edwin Peary (1856–1920), who chose the surroundings of present-day Thule as a base for his expeditions to the North Pole.11 In 1909, Greenland-born Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen set up a mission station and, a year later, a Cape York Thule Trading Station [Danish: Kap York Handelsstation Thule], whose establishment should be construed as a strategic step of on the part of the Danish state, which had no intention of engaging in any explicit attempts at expanding its sovereignty over the entire territory of Greenland before selling the West Indies to the US in 1916. Only after the US government had officially declared that it would not object if Denmark extended its political and economic influence to include the whole of Greenland did other ←18 | 19→countries accept Denmark’s rule of Greenland, which was formally announced by Denmark’s Minister of Interior on 12th May 1921.12
Denmark’s actions towards validating its political sovereignty over the entirety of Greenland clashed with the aspirations of Norway, which – independent since 1905 – laid claim to Erik the Red’s Land, a part of its former colony on the east coast of the island. The dispute between Denmark and Norway, an unprecedented development in 20th-century intra-Scandinavian relationships, escalated throughout the 1920s, culminating in Norway’s occupation of East Greenland in the early 1930s. The contention was settled by the Permanent Court of Justice in the Hague, whose verdict of 5th April 1933 ultimately granted Denmark sovereignty over the entire area of Greenland. The territorial expansion of a country whose official motto espoused domestic development became a reality.
Danish policy vis-à-vis Greenland changed after a period of isolation caused by the outbreak of the Second World War and the American occupation of the island. Both Danish state officials and the Greenlandic elite demanded the abolition of the trade monopoly, opening the country to external influences and implementing a process of modernisation. As Denmark’s constitution was amended in 1953, the status of Greenland as a Danish colony was lifted and the island became an integral part of Denmark. However, the accelerated modernisation of Greenland, which involved the development of the infrastructure, industry, housing, health care, courts of law and education and was effected mainly through the efforts of a mass workforce from Denmark, did not bring about equality between the “South Danes” and the “North Danes” [Danish: norddanskere], as Greenlanders came to be referred to in official Danish discourse. Consequently, Greenlandic society grew more and more frustrated, the disgruntlement combining with the increasing population and better means of mass-communication to spark the rise of the first organisations that advocated the urgent need for any further development to follow guidelines and priorities set by the Greenlanders themselves.
Despite the efforts of Danish reporters and film directors,13 general public opinion in Denmark is still inclined to pass over some of the post-war decisions ←19 | 20→which Danish cabinets made without consulting or seeking consent from the representatives of Greenland. The building of an American air base in Thule, in the wake of which local residents were forcefully displaced 130 kilometres north of Qaanaaq, and the seizing of twenty-two Greenlandic children, who were separated from their families, brought to Denmark and then placed for many years in an orphanage in Nuuk as a social experiment in transplanting Danish customs and culture to Greenland, still count as highly symbolic to Greenlanders as evidence of the wrongs committed by the Danish authorities in less than good faith.
The debates and protests which Greenlanders started to organise in the 1960s and 1970s were dominated by the voices of young Greenlandic politicians educated at Danish universities, who began to champion a Faroe-like model of autonomy for Greenland. This time, Denmark’s administration did not protest, and a commission was set up to collaboratively develop a future Act of Autonomy. The Act came into effect on 1st May 1979, giving Greenland the status of an overseas territory as well as a local government.14 However, some contentious issues, such as rights to Greenland’s raw materials and independent foreign politics in matters directly pertaining Greenland, were not resolved. As a result of calls for the expansion of the existing autonomy, further negotiations were held until solutions were put in place for Greenland to remain part of the Danish Commonwealth as long as it deemed it necessary itself.
Commencing on 28th June 2009, this expanded autonomy opened a new chapter in the history of Greenland and propelled the processes of nation-building. The development was marked by establishing national institutions of culture (e.g. the National Theatre, founded in 2011), vigorous debates on the shape of Greenland’s future constitution and, importantly, enhanced Danish and Greenlandic media attention to Denmark’s prospective relations with its former colony and ways of interpreting their shared past. One answer to the opening question of this Introduction is the rejection by consecutive ←20 | 21→Danish cabinets of the proposal made by Greenland’s Naalakkersuisut (Local Government) that representatives of both countries should work together within the Reconciliation Commission. Despite formal proclamations of partnership, mutual respect and the equality of the two parties involved, Greenland is still denied the right to define its own history. Denmark’s doubts about Greenlanders’ capacity to make pronouncements on blame or blamelessness in the context of colonial ramifications, which have directly affected a lot of Greenland’s citizens, exemplifies the asymmetrical nature of the mutual relations between the countries, a problem which is continuing despite the passage of time. Given these complications, it should hardly be considered surprising that the recognition of Greenland’s complete independence by their former coloniser is the Greenlanders’ supreme goal.
In our age of Anthropocene, when no place on earth can any longer be called “virgin” and untouched by the human hand, historical narratives about both imaginary and real places which are secluded or practically inaccessible to travellers and, as such, resist the practices of direct representation, kindle more nostalgia than ever before. Although the Arctic and, in particular, North Greenland with its indigenous Inughuit population are certainly natural locations that anybody can reach with relative ease today, they are also cultural phenomena which have long been a predominantly discursive construction in the Western discourse. This is aptly grasped by Canadian author John Moss, who insists in his Enduring Dreams that “[t];he Arctic of outsiders is a landscape of the mind, shaped more in the imagination by reading than by experience and perception,”15 which highlights the prevalence of outsider views in representations of Arctic regions. The construct was fuelled by two entirely dissonant ways of perceiving the North.16 Namely, associations with ←21 | 22→its brightness produced representations of its virginal nature, purity and innocence, while associations with its darkness bred visions in which it was marked with peril, menace and devilishness.17 As noticed by Norwegian scholars Johan Schimanski, Cathrine Theodorsen and Henning Howlid Wærp, such representations of the North generated stereotypically ambivalent perceptions of the dwellers of northern areas as “the epitomes of purity, authenticity and naturalness,” on the one hand, and agents of “dark powers, dangerous and defying any control,” on the other.18 Alternately – or, for that matter, simultaneously – a paradise and a dystopia, the Far North has attracted and fascinated, but has also evoked fear and awe as the non-Western Other,19 serving ←22 | 23→as an antithesis to the familiar Western world. American anthropologist Ann Fienup-Riordan likens Western attitudes to the Arctic to Edward W. Said’s (1935–2003) definition of Orientalism and calls them “Eskimo Orientalism,”20 while Danish researcher Kirsten Thisted refers to them as “Arctic Orientalism.”21 Similarly to the Orient that was constructed as the antithesis of the West, the Arctic was imagined and represented as the opposite of the Occident which in the Nordic context denoted the Scandinavian countries.22
Within the European world-image, Greenland was first invested with meanings by old-Icelandic settlers. Eiríkr Þorvaldsson, called Erik the Red, called the newly found territory a “green land,” whereby he imposed meaning-producing expectations on the area and laid the imaginary foundation for its “discovery” by land-hungry Icelandic settlers, who arrived there time and again, starting in 985. They referred to themselves as Greenlanders – dwellers of that “green land.” This intellectual or metaphorical “reinvention”23 of Greenland by Erik the Red survived and thrived even when the island became known across Europe. Greenland remained a “green land” while Iceland, despite its more southerly location, remained a “land of ice.” The Inuit that “Greenlanders” encountered ←23 | 24→came to be called skrælingar, which can be translated either as “weaklings” or as “people wearing animal skins.”24
Over the following centuries, a variety of texts about the remote island and its inhabitants contributed to the production of a coherent discourse on Greenland. The development of such discourse was fostered by increasingly closer relationships, which intensified with the onset of colonisation initiated by the Danish-Norwegian missionary Hans Egede (1696–1758) and the continued Danish presence on the western coast that it brought about. As a result, several tropes appeared and became entrenched, reducing things Greenlandic to a kind of “tropological commodity”25 which, repeatedly used by writers of travel reports, made the texts similar in vocabulary and imagery.26 As convincingly shown by historian Hanne Thomsen, the dominant representations of Greenland and Greenlanders were linked to colonial policies of the Danish state,27 which is consistent with Michel Foucault’s (1926–1984) theory of the power-knowledge nexus, in which, as Foucault claims, “the power relations give rise to a possible corpus of knowledge, and knowledge extends and reinforces the effects of this power.”28 In the 18th century, the describing and interpreting of Inuit culture became the sole monopoly of professional missionaries, whose narratives painted the (largely baptised) Greenlanders as living proof of the progress and success of Danish missionary and colonial pursuits, while Greenland was primarily depicted in scientific terms within the frameworks of geography ←24 | 25→and natural history, aligned with the classifying and cataloguing spirit of the Enlightenment.29
In the 19th century, texts about Greenland authored by travellers, educated officials and scientists started to appear side by side with the accounts of missionaries. The prevalent representations of Greenlanders resulted chiefly from the locally anchored critique of absolute power in Denmark, a related criticism of the colonial governance of the Royal Greenland Trading Company in Greenland and the Zeitgeist-coloured European belief that traditional societies were doomed to perish in a clash with Western civilisation.30 The staple images of Greenlanders included, on the one hand, “a noble savage” embodied in a hunter pursuing the traditional, independent lifestyle and, on the other, “partly civilised” colony dwellers in need of support from others as they were too indolent and spoilt by too much contact with the West.31 Greenland was further discursivised in systematic geographical depictions and in the writings by officials and travellers affiliated with the colonial apparatus, which devoted a lot ←25 | 26→of attention to the potential industrial uses of the Danish “dependent territory” [Danish: Biland], about which Danish public opinion still did not know much.32
Eskimologist Erik Gant encapsulates the Danish “reinvention” of Greenland and Greenlanders in an apt commentary: “Strikingly, the scale is meagre indeed: virtuous Hyperboreans got themselves their own Hyperboreans, a harmless addendum to the monstrous history of European colonialism.”33 Representations, as an ideological process resulting both from expectations and imaginings concerning the unknown Other and from real cultural encounters with that unknown Other, contributed thus to the construction and subordination of the northern peripheries by the economically and discursively stronger centre. Paradoxically enough, that centre itself remained (and to a degree still remains) a periphery in the perception of dominant Western countries.
Nonetheless, the 18th- and 19th-century representations of Greenland and Greenlanders of the island’s west coast had little of the one-sidedness that Said suggests in his Orientalism. As Hans Egede and later missionaries were actually steeped in Greenlandic culture and felt at home in the Arctic, their descriptions of the realities they experienced were highly heterogeneous34: despite their negative traits, which were particularly underscored in early accounts, the Inuit were portrayed as independent and individual human beings, while their culture was depicted in its own right through scientific discourse.35 Brought forth from the realm of myth and anonymity, Greenlanders were recognised by the writers as humans who, endowed with a certain morality, understanding and reason, could ←26 | 27→abandon the state of savagery and, through the mediation of Danes, become converted inhabitants of a European colony. Even those early accounts characteristically disrupt colonial univocality through regular recourse to indigenous knowledge (e.g. in animal descriptions), reliance on Greenlandic terminology and/or the incorporation of letters written by literate and baptised Greenlanders into European texts.36 Later accounts put ever more stress on the contribution that Greenlandic catechists made to the work of European missions and ever more vocally expressed an understanding of and sympathy for the people of Greenland and its culture.37 Some writers communicated authentic admiration for and amazement at Greenland’s nature and wondered at the abundance of its resources, which defied the sternness of its natural conditions.38 The writers of 18th-century accounts largely headed to Greenland with strong intentions of settling down for lengthy stints, considered the island their home and devoted considerable periods of their lives, if not their entire lifetimes, to this engagement.39 For this reason, although the images of Greenland and its inhabitants they produced were embroiled in the colonising project, they are hardly one-dimensional, diverging quite considerably from the first European representations of the American New World. The reports of missionaries imply that Greenland, rather than being “new” to the Danish settlers, was reinvented by them and integrated with their Enlightenment-inflected image of the world.
In the mid-19th century, attitudes to the yet-unexplored areas of Greenland changed: while in the first half of the 19th century they were shrouded in silence, in the second half attention was turned to the interior of Greenland ←27 | 28→and the regions situated north and east of the borders of the Danish colony.40 This shift resulted from the increased interest of the world’s superpowers in the last uncharted territories of the globe. Such preoccupations spurred scientific expeditions into the polar regions and fuelled the rise of a new discipline, which came to be referred to as “polar studies” and garnered prominence in Denmark as a source of the country’s international prestige.41 As a matter of fact, polar explorers and their accounts were primarily responsible for the discursivisation of the previously unknown regions of the Arctic and their inhabitants, a process which also effected a shift in the perceptions of Greenlanders and Greenland in general.42 As Western expeditions took on indigenous techniques of travelling by land in winter and their supplies grew dependent on hunting, the nomadic people that called themselves Inughuit became indispensable helpers of European leaders on the road. The two hundred or so members of this nomadic people were greatly admired, especially for their coping capacity amidst the extremities of the Arctic climate, which led to their idealisation as heroic superhumans.43 In keeping with the principles of 19th-century Darwinism, people who were ideally adapted to their environment came across as remarkable and easily lent themselves to idealisation.44 In stark contrast to the representations of Greenlanders from the colonised areas of West Greenland as verging on extinction, it became common practice to represent the Inughuit, called polar Eskimos, as “noble savages” – natural, unspoilt, primaeval people who had a symbiotic connection to nature and needed no help from others; people who enjoyed true freedom and independence and, as the evolutionist world-perception had it, stood at the very origin of humankind, representing Europe’s remote past.45 Moreover, ←28 | 29→successive accounts produced by polar explorers portrayed the Inughuit as if they had never met white people before; each encounter entailed a new beginning, with the Inughuit being discovered anew time and again.46 Reports from North Greenland stressed that although they were purportedly uncivilised, those “free children of nature” were immensely intelligent and resolutely indefatigable in coping with the unfriendly environment (their home as it were), which was later fixed as a staple element of their image.47 The emphasis that well-known polar explorers put in their narratives on the harshness of the natural conditions in North Greenland amplified the heroic stature awarded to its indigenous population as well as aggrandising the accomplishments of the Europeans whose pursuits were part of a broader national project aimed at augmenting the international glory and prestige of their homelands.48 It was precisely in the last decades of the 19th century that Greenlanders acquired an indisputably favourable image which has survived into our times, a romanticised image of “nature people” [Danish: Naturfolk],49 perpetuated as the Other for the outsiders who described them.50 This effect was produced, to a large degree, ←29 | 30→by the enormous popularity of Knud Rasmussen and his vivid expedition accounts.51
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- 2020 (May)
- Colonial discourse Postcolonial theory Representation theory Arctic discourses Danish literature Greenlandic Other
- Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 284 pp.,