Greenland is an autonomous country within the Danish Realm, located between the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans, east of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Though physiographically a part of the continent of North America, Greenland has been politically and culturally associated with Europe (specifically Norway and Denmark, the colonial powers, as well as the nearby island of Iceland) for more than a millennium. In 2008, the people of Greenland passed a referendum supporting greater autonomy; 75% of votes cast were in favour. Greenland is the world’s largest island, over three-quarters of which is covered by the only permanent ice sheet outside of Antarctica. With a population of about 56,480 (2013), it is the least densely populated country in the world.
Greenland has been inhabited off and on for at least the last 4,500 years by Arctic peoples whose forebears migrated there from what is now Canada. Norsemen settled the uninhabited southern part of Greenland beginning in the 10th century, and Inuit peoples arrived in the 13th century. The Norse colonies disappeared in the late 15th century. Soon after their demise, beginning in 1499, the Portuguese briefly explored and claimed the island, naming it Terra do Lavrador (later applied to Labrador in Canada). In the early 18th century, Scandinavia and Greenland came back into contact with each other, and Denmark-Norway affirmed sovereignty over the island.
Denmark–Norway claimed Greenland for centuries. Greenland was settled by Norwegians over a thousand years ago, who had previously settled Iceland to escape persecution from the King of Norway and his central government. It was from Greenland and Iceland that Norwegians would set sail to discover America for Europeans almost 500 years before Columbus and attempt to colonize land. Though under continuous influence of Norway and Norwegians, Greenland was not formally under the Norwegian crown until 1262. The Kingdom of Norway was extensive and a military power until the mid-14th century. Norway was dramatically hit with a larger death toll than Denmark by the Black Death, forcing Norway to accept a union in which the central government, university and other fundamental institutions were located in Copenhagen. Thus, the two kingdoms’ resources were directed at creating Copenhagen, resulting in Norway becoming the weaker part and losing sovereignty over Greenland in 1814 in the dissolution of the union. Greenland thus became a Danish colony in 1814, and a part of the Danish Realm in 1953 under the Constitution of Denmark.
In 1973, Greenland joined the European Economic Community with Denmark. However, in a referendum in 1982, a majority of the population voted for Greenland to withdraw from the EEC (later expanded into the EU), which was effected in 1985. In 1979, Denmark had granted home rule to Greenland, and in 2008, Greenlanders voted in favour of the Self-Government Act, which transferred more power from the Danish royal government to the local Greenlandic government. Under the new structure, in effect since 21 June 2009, Greenland can gradually assume responsibility for policing, judicial system, company law, accounting, and auditing; mineral resource activities; aviation; law of legal capacity, family law and succession law; aliens and border controls; the working environment; and financial regulation and supervision, while the Danish government retains control of foreign affairs and defence. It also retains control of monetary policy, providing an initial annual subsidy of DKK 3.4 billion, planned to diminish gradually over time as Greenland’s economy is strengthened by increased income from the extraction of natural resources.
It was the early Norwegian settlers who gave the country the name Greenland. In the Icelandic sagas, it is said that the Norwegian-born Icelander Erik the Red was exiled from Iceland for manslaughter. Along with his extended family and his thralls, he set out in ships to explore icy land known to lie to the northwest. After finding a habitable area and settling there, he named it Grœnland (translated as “Greenland”), supposedly in the hope that the pleasant name would attract settlers. The name of the country in Greenlandic (Kalaallisut) is Kalaallit Nunaat (“land of the Kalaallit”).The Kalaallit are the indigenous Greenlandic Inuit people who inhabit the country’s western region.