By Professor Charles Norchi
Excerpt from an op-ed published in the Portland Press Herald
To President Trump’s offer to buy Greenland, the Danish prime minister responded “absurd.” After all, Greenland is under the sovereignty of Denmark. But how did Denmark acquire dominion over all of Greenland?
Europeans first encountered Greenland in the year 900 when Eric the Red, an Icelander of Norwegian origin, arrived on the southwest coast. By 1500, the Nordics had disappeared. They were replaced by Inuit people traveling from North America, and today Greenland is 90 percent Inuit. But in the language of the international law of the time, Greenland was “terra nullius” – land belonging to no one. In 1380, Denmark and Norway were united under one crown and the king claimed sovereignty over the territory long after the Nordics disappeared.
After the union of Norway and Denmark was dissolved, the 1814 Treaty of Kiel conceded certain territory to Norway, with the exception of the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland. The Danes assumed that their sovereignty applied to the entire island. In 1909, Robert Peary, Matthew Henson, and four Inuit men – Oatah, Egingwah, Seegloo, and Ookeah – reached the North Pole. The age of Arctic exploration was spurring European and American interest in the High North. And Norway had commercial interests in Eastern Greenland.
During the Great War of 1914-1918, Denmark ceded its West Indian islands to the U.S. under the Antilles Treaty. The U.S. government declared it would not object to the Danish government extending political and economic interests to all of Greenland. Denmark then placed the matter of its sovereignty before a committee of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. On July 22, 1919, Norwegian Foreign Minister Nils Claus Ihlen told his Danish counterpart that “the Norwegian Government would not make any difficulties in the settlement of this question.” Whereby the Danish minister reported to his government that “the plans of the Royal Danish Government respecting Danish sovereignty over the whole of Greenland would meet with no difficulties on the part of Norway.”