Red paint instead of celebrations

The statue of Hans Egede towers over Nuuk the Capital of Greenland. Controversy over the statue has overshadowed the 300th anniversary of the arrival of the Danish-Norwegian missionary to Greenland.

On the occasion of the International Day of the World´s Indigenous Peoples, 9 August, we focus on the Inuit of Greenland, who along with the Sami are the indigenous people of the Nordic countries.

After the statue of Egede was splashed with paint and the word ‘decolonize’ written on it on 21 June, the National Day of Greenland, it was decided to consult  voters in the capital on its future.

Photo: Greenland. UNRIC/Árni Snævarr
Photo: Greenland. UNRIC/Árni Snævarr

Although a majority voted against tearing down the statue in a referendum marked by absenteeism,  Greenlandic authorities decided not to celebrate the 300-year anniversary of Egede´s arrival in Greenland 3 July 1721.

This is not the first time the statue has been vandalized – it was even beheaded at one point. Egede is controversial not only because his arrival marked the beginning of the colonization of Greenland, but also because of his role in eradicating the culture of the Inuit of the island, including their old beliefs.

Aki-Matilda Høegh-Dam, a Greenlandic member of the Danish Parliament suggested that the statue should be taken down and moved to a museum. “This statue stands upon a hill and watches over Nuuk. At the end of the day it is a symbol of colonial power,” she told DR, the Danish Radio.


Annus horribilis for statues

Children play in Nuuk close to the statue of Egede - Photo: UNRIC
Children play in Nuuk close to the statue of Egede | Photo: UNRIC

The first years of the third decade of the 21st century were not kind to statues, least of all the statues of alleged colonizers. However, the lion´s share of Greenlanders are Lutheran and perhaps that is one of the reasons that Egede was spared. Although Greenland seems to be moving slowly towards more autonomy or even independence from Denmark, the independence movement is far from being anti-Christian. The first Prime Minister of the Greenlandic self-rule in 1979 was Jontathan Motzfeldt, a Lutheran priest.

It is an interesting fact that 50 years ago the 250th anniversary of Egede´s arrival was celebrated with festivities in Greenland, including a rare visit by the Queen of Denmark. According to Aviaq Fleischer, researcher at the University of Greenland, Egede was at the time considered „a mild colonizer“ and people were grateful to him for bringing Christianity to Greenland.

“For a long time the Greenlanders were very religious, and didn´t question authorities so there was no criticism of Hans Egede, because people were grateful to him as the person who brought Christianity to Greenland. However, soon after the movement that lead to home-rule in 1979 started. With the so-called Greenlandization Egede was criticized, and his authority and the Christianization of Greenland were questioned,” Fleischer says in an interview with UNRIC.


Come-back of the past

Masks in the Greenland museum. Lebatihem/Flickr/ Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Masks in the Greenland museum. Lebatihem/Flickr/ Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The role of Egede has come under increased scrutiny in Greenland both in literature and in music. The rock group Unneraarsuit wrote a song praising the ancient indigenous culture and accusing Egede of being “the devil“ who eradicated it.

He has also been the subject of critical rethinking in Denmark in the prize winning novels of the Danish/Norwegian author Kim Leine.

It is ironic that the arrival of Hans Egede was based on a misunderstanding. Egede expected to conduct missionary work, not among the Inuit, but among the Nordic settlers who had emigrated to Greenland mostly from Iceland in the 11th century. At this time they had been without contact with the outside world for over two centuries. Egede had intended to preach Lutheranism to Catholics, but found no living Nordics. They are now believed to have become extinct around 1500.

90% of the population of Greenland are Inuit. The first arrived 4,000 – 5,000 years ago from Canada, but in total there have been six different cultures that have immigrated in several waves.  The final Inuit wave was virtually simultaneous with the arrival of Nordic settlers under the leadership of Erik the Red just before the year 1000. The Nordic population disappeared at the end of the fifteenth or the beginning of the sixteenth century.



Graveyard in Greenland. Photo: UNRIC/Árni Snævarr
Graveyard in Greenland. Photo: UNRIC/Árni Snævarr

The first word that Egede thought he had learnt was also based on another misunderstanding. When Egede pointed at pictures of God the Greenlanders lifted their hands up and said “asune“, and he took this for their acknowledgement of the existence of god. Modern day historians have suggested that the Inuit said “asuki“ which means “I don´t know“.

With no Nordics to convert, Egede turned to the local Inuit. He fought a hard battle against the old beliefs, not least against the Angakkuq or Inuit Shamans. It is well documented that he spoke badly of the Inuit, using threats and punishments and even recommended turning them into slaves.  The challenges he had to overcome included the fact that the locals did not have bread. This meant that the prayer “Give us today our daily bread.“ had to be adapted instead to “Give us today our daily seal.“


The story of the mummies

Mummies in the National museum. Photo: David Stanley/Flickr/ Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Mummies in the National museum. Photo: David Stanley/Flickr/ Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Extraordinarily well preserved mummies believed to be 500 years old in the Greenland Museum in Nuuk are a silent reminder of customs that have disappeared. The faces and bodies of the mummies were tattooed with symbols that are believed to be related to coming of age and spiritual beliefs. Part of the “civilizing“ mission of missionaries such as Egede was to ban such symbols. Early Inuit values are making a come-back in Greenland, the most obvious example being the reappearance of traditional tattoos in the style of the mummies.

Fleischer says that Greenlanders look both toward the Nordic countries and to other Inuit and indigenous people for ideas and inspiration. „There is no denying history,“ she says. „We have been influenced a lot by Denmark and the Nordic countries.  It is evident in our daily lives. If someone gets very sick they will be flown to Iceland or Denmark. However, we also feel kinship towards indigenous people. This is evident, not least in paintings and song, for instance in the lyrics and images of the music video of the group Uyarakq – Move, I’m Indigenous (Official Music Video) – YouTube

The controversy over whether to celebrate Egede´s arrival is far from over. The municipality of Nuuk only decided not to celebrate this year. However, the establishment of Nuuk by Egede will be celebrated in 2028 the year he moved his mission to Nuuk, which he called Godthåb.


Sources: Hans Christian Gullöv (editor), Grönland. Den Arktiske Koloni. Gads Forlag, 2017. and media.

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