Danish colonization of the Americas

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Denmark and the former political union of Denmark–Norway had a colonial empire from the 17th through the 20th centuries, large portions of which were found in the Americas. Denmark and Norway in one form or another also maintained land claims in Greenland since the 13th century.



Greenland, which had been settled by the Norsemen in the 980s,[1] submitted to Norwegian rule in the 13th century. Norway entered into the Kalmar Union with Denmark and Sweden in 1397, and its overseas territories including Greenland became territories of the Union.[2] Scandinavian settlement in Greenland declined over the years and finally vanished in the 15th century, though the Norwegian claims to the land remained. After the Kalmar Union split in 1521, Norway and Denmark reorganized into Denmark–Norway in 1536, and the Norwegian claims to Greenland were taken up by the new kingdom.

Despite the decline of European settlement and the loss of contact, Denmark–Norway continued to maintain its claim to lordship of Greenland; in the 1660s a polar bear was added to the royal coat of arms. Around this same time Dano-Norwegian ships, joined by ships from various other European countries, began journeying to Greenland to hunt bowhead whales, though no formal recolonization was attempted.

In 1721, Lutheran minister Hans Egede sought permission from King Frederick IV to seek out the old Norse colony, presuming that if it still existed it would have remained Roman Catholic after the Protestant Reformation, or else abandoned Christianity altogether. Frederick consented to at least a partial colonization attempt, and Egede set out to evangelize the island. He found no Norse survivors, but did encounter the Inuit and started a mission among them. Founding the settlement of Godthåb (now Nuuk), he baptized the first children in 1724. In 1730, the new king Christian VI recalled all Europeans from Greenland, but Hans Egede, encouraged by his wife Gertrud, remained, opening the way for further settlement and trade. After 15 years in Greenland, Hans Egede left his son Paul Egede in charge of his mission in Greenland and returned to Denmark where he established a Greenland Seminary. In 1733, German missionaries from Herrnhut, followers of the reformer Nicolaus Ludwig Zinzendorf, were allowed to found the settlement of New Herrnhut south of Nuuk.

In 1814, Norway was separated from Denmark by the victors of the Napoleonic Wars and granted to Sweden at the Treaty of Kiel. Denmark retained all colonial possessions, including Greenland. Beginning in 1861, Denmark allowed elections for district assemblies in Greenland, but most decisions were made by the Danish parliament, in which the Greenlanders had no representation. Discoveries made by the American explorer Robert Peary in the 1880s and 1890s were used as the basis for territorial claims by the United States; these land disputes were settled with the American purchase of the Danish Virgin Islands in 1917. Additionally, Norway, which gained full independence from Sweden in 1905, challenged Danish claims to Greenland and supported the occupation of uninhabited eastern Greenland by the Norwegian whaler Hallvard Devold in 1931, calling the area Erik the Red's Land. In 1933, the Permanent Court of International Justice ruled in Denmark's favor.[3]

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