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Present day Ilulissat
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The land of the ‘icefjord people’

Many archaeological finds, and saga narratives and legends in more recent years, testify to the long history of settlement in the harsh wilderness of the Ilulissat region, where hunting and fishing have always been the basis of life. In modern Ilulissat, fishing and the fishing industry continue to be the most important business enterprise in what is Greenland’s third-largest town.

Cultural changes amongst the people living near Bering Strait, between Siberia and Alaska, about 6000-5000 years ago appear to have led to the development of a new culture adapted to the arctic environment, and this culture spread eastwards. This Palaeo-Eskimo group is known internationally as ‘the Arctic Small Tool Tradition’. The first representatives of this culture reached West Greenland 4500 years ago and are known as the Saqqaq people.

The Saqqaq people settled in the Ilulissat area about 4400 years ago. They lived around the icefjord Kangia for 1500 years, and a little longer at other places, before they disappeared. Then there was a gap in the human settlement of West Greenland until the arrival of the Dorset people in the area about 2800 years ago. After 700 years of settlement, the Dorset culture in its turn disappeared, and the Disko Bugt region was uninhabited for a thousand years until the people of the Thule culture settled at Sermermiut and Qajaa 800 years ago.

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Present day Ilulissat, Greenland´s third largest town and the place in Greenland visited by the largest number of tourists. (Photo:Walter Rayher)


Traditional winter house
Traditional winter house from the Thule culture, mo­d­ified by a glass window. The Thule people, ancestors of today’s Inuit, settled at Kangia 800 years ago.

Chronology of the different cultures that have colonised Greenland
Chronology of the different cultures that have colonised Greenland, and a generalised climate curve for the last 4500 years.

Click here to enlarge.

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Palaeo-Eskimo settlements

Palaeo-Eskimos, equivalent to the Stone Age cultures of Europe, are represented by four cultures in Greenland. The Saqqaq and Dorset people lived in West Greenland, while the Independence I and Independence II people settled in the northern and north-eastern parts of Greenland. All of the palaeo-eskimo cultures migrated eastwards across Canada, reaching North-West Greenland in the Thule area. From here the Saqqaq and the Dorset people moved down the west coast and established settlements at suitable locations.

Palaeo-Eskimos lived by hunting and fishing. Archaeologists have investigated a large number of settlements, especially along the coast south of Ilulissat, but none of them are as large or as important as Sermermiut and Qajaa near Kangia. These large settlements, and the dense pattern of smaller settlements, indicate that the resources available around the icefjord were both rich and stable.

For hunting, the Palaeo-Eskimos used lightweight harpoons, sometimes fitted with a tip of stone, as well as lances, knives and bows; bows and arrows are not known from the Dorset period. At the settlements, tools such as scrapers, augers, knives and needles of bone were used, while knives and burins were used both at home and outside. Weapon tips and cutting tools were made of silicified slate in the Saqqaq period and of chalcedony in the Dorset period. Most of the tools had wooden shafts, but in some cases the shaft was made of bone with lashings of sinew or baleen.

The Saqqaq probably used kayaks, while sledges drawn by the hunter himself or by a few dogs are known first from the Dorset culture. Their homes were skin tents used all year long, which were anchored to the ground using stones or poles. In the centre of the tent was a fireplace, sometimes placed in the middle of a rectangular stone framework with room for the fire and firewood, and which divided the tent into two equally large parts. The Saqqaq people used small round lamps of soapstone, while those of the Dorset people were oval.

At the midden at Sermermiut, bones and tools made of wood and bone in the lower layers were poorly preserved. The Qajaa midden is in the permafrost, and preservation conditions are unusually good. The bone remains show that the Palaeo-Eskimos made good use of the resources of the area. Bone remains of ringed and harp seals dominate, but they also hunted arctic fox, polar bear, arctic hare, walrus, narwhale, beluga and sea birds.

Driftwood was a very important resource, and was a necessity for making tents, kayaks, sledges, bows and lances. The ocean currents provide a continuous supply of driftwood, derived from Canadian and Siberian forests.


Seal bones from a midden at Sermermiut
Seal bones from a midden at Sermermiut.

A 3500 years old burin from the Saqqaq culture
A 3500 years old burin from the Saqqaq culture, found at Qajaa. The flint blade is attached to the wooden handle with baleen. Burins were used for splitting bone and wood. (Photo: Erik Holm)

Archaeological excavations at Qajaa
Archaeological excavations at Qajaa. The layers in the midden date from the Saqqaq, Dorset and Thule cultures.

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Thule people at the icefjord

The Thule people arrived in Greenland about 1100 AD, and settled at Sermermiut 100 years later. Their winter houses were built of stone and peat with a roof construction of driftwood or whale ribs. During the summer they lived in tents. The Thule people exploited the same animals as earlier cultures, but they also hunted large whales and fished with long lines and nets made of baleen.

The Thule people were much more mobile than their predecessors thanks to their sophisticated kayaks, their dog sledges and the large skin boat, the umiaq, which was used during whale hunting, or for transporting the whole camp from place to place.

Finds from Sermermiut and Qajaa indicate that the Thule people had contact with the Norse, who came from Iceland and northern Europe and who lived in South-West and western Greenland from about 985 AD. The Inuit probably obtained iron partly from the Norse, and partly from meteorites in the area south of Thule. The Norse are thought to have disappeared from Greenland around 1450 AD, and their fate is unknown.

In the 16th century, European explorers visited Greenland waters, followed by whalers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Both groups had contact with the local Inuit, and around Disko Bugt there were several meeting places where trade was carried out. A few settlements along Greenland’s west coast became centres with quite large populations, and that at Sermermiut was the largest of them all.

Sermermiut in Greenlandic means ‘the place of the glacier people’, and it was a good place. The highly productive and stable eco-system of the icefjord formed the foundation for the success of Sermermiut and Qajaa for thousands of years. With its location at the central part of the icefjord, Qajaa was vulnerable to the advances of the glacier front, and the settlements here coincide with periods when the glacier had retreated, and living conditions were most favourable for human existence.

The long but sporadic contact with Europeans became more regular after the Danish colonisation, which started in 1721 with the foundation of Godthåb, the present day Nuuk. Jakobshavn, now Ilulissat, was established as a colony in 1741 a few kilometres north of Sermermiut. In the course of the next century, Sermermiut was gradually abandoned by its inhabitants, most of whom moved to the new town; the last inhabitants left about 1850, and many aspects of their former lifestyle vanished with them.

View of the Sermermiut valley
View of the Sermermiut valley, with Isfjeldsbanken in the background.
(Photo: Hans Kapel)

Map of the Ilulissat region
Map of the Ilulissat region, with circles marking former eskimo settlements. The largest and most important settlements were Sermermiut (14) on the northern side of the icefjord and Qajaa (2=Qajâ) on the south side about 25 km east of the mouth. The various Thule settlements around Kangia, including Sermermiut and Qajaa, date from about 1200. The map uses many, now absolute Danish place names.

Click here to enlarge.

Inuit at their winter house.
Inuit at their winter house. After the Danish colonisation of 1721, it became more common for the Inuit to use their winter houses throughout the year.


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Rich archaeological finds

Archaeological excavations at Sermermiut and Qajaa have played a major role in our understanding of the history of human settlement in West Greenland.

Sermermiut is exceptional because the site had been inhabited during all three of the cultural phases of West Greenland. The former inhabitants of Sermermiut were very much aware that they lived in a special place. In 1737, the Danish missionary Poul Egede wrote in his diary:

“I found here the largest group of people I have seen anywhere in Greenland, with about 20 very large houses, like a little village. They boasted about this and asked if I had seen so many people at one place elsewhere. I felt immediately from their speech and manners that they were proud of their number and the good catches they had.”

The middens at Sermermiut and Qajaa contain an outstanding sequence of three cultural layers separated by sterile peat layers. The bottom layer, from the Saqqaq people, is clearly separated from the middle Dorset culture layer. A new sterile layer follows, and is succeeded by a layer with remains from the Thule culture. At Sermermiut the stratigraphy is visible in a low coastal cliff that is slowly being eroded by the sea.

Archaeological excavations at Sermermiut started after the Second World War. At that time it was believed that Greenland’s pre-history was only about 1000 years old. The excavations at Sermermiut showed without doubt that Greenland’s cultural history was much longer and more complex than previously thought, a conclusion supported by contemporary investigations in North Greenland. The oldest layer at Sermermiut was dated to be almost 4000 years old. Later excavations at Qajaa confirmed the existence of three different cultures in West Greenland.

The pre-historic cultures at Qajaa were actually discovered as early as 1871, when a Greenlander, Carl Fleisher from Ilulissat, made the first excavations there. The same summer he reported the presence of several midden layers, and of his finds from the bottom of the midden wrote that they represented a time when ‘the old Greenlanders used stones for their tools’. Carl Fleisher was the first to formulate the idea that another cultural lifestyle had preceded the traditional lifestyle of his day. Unfortunately, no-one had knowledge of his important finds and interpretations until his letters were rediscovered more than 100 years later.

Qajaa was abandoned at the beginning of the 18th century, while Sermermiut was inhabited until about 1850. The ruins of the turf houses that can still be seen at Sermermiut reflect the latest period. From an archaeological point of view these houses are especially valuable, because finds from excavations can be compared with information from written Danish sources and the oral traditions of the Inuit. Both Sermermiut and Qajaa still offer great potential for studies of the pre-history of Greenland.


Visitors to the sensitive and valuable Sermermiut site are guided by information posters
Visitors to the sensitive and valuable Sermermiut site are guided by information posters. (Photo: Kirsten Strandgaard)

Map of the Sermermiut valley with ruin sites indicated, mostly winter houses from the Thule culture
Map of the Sermermiut valley with ruin sites indicated, mostly winter houses from the Thule culture.

The coastal cliff at Sermermiut
The coastal cliff at Sermermiut.

Ruin of winter house at Sermermiut
Ruin of winter house at Sermermiut. (Photo: Joel Berglund)
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Eqi - a settlement at the mouth of the icefjord

There are several smaller settlements around the icefjord that have not yet been thoroughly excavated. These sites are often only known from surface finds of tools that give an indication that the Saqqaq or the Dorset people have been at the place. The smaller settlements are found in particular on the south side of Kangia near its mouth, and down along the coast to the far side of the village of Ilimanaq.

One of these sites is Eqi, which lies on the south side of Kangia’s mouth opposite Sermermiut. Eqi is a windswept place with few possibilities for shelter. However, in sunny calm weather the place has a harsh beauty of its own, with polished granite rocks, knee-high green grass and lyme-grass forming a contrast to the blue water and the chalk-white icebergs that tower over the coast. The location was very well situated for hunting and fishing in the icefjord.

The deserted settlement of Eqi lies on a small ledge beside the fjord, with its back to the undulating hinterland. One can still see the collapsed ruins of the last turf houses, which resemble low grassy hillocks. The whole of the former settlement area is one enormous midden that dates from the period from 4000 years ago up to about 1950.

In 1933, the archaeologist Therkel Mathiassen visited Eqi. He recorded several ruins of winter houses from which material had been taken to construct later buildings, and he also found bone remains of whales and other animals. In 1953, the archaeologists Helge Larsen and Jørgen Meldgaard dug a quick test trench in which they, not unexpectedly, found flint refuse but no tools. Close to the trench, in the tidal zone where the sea washes the soil away, the archaeologists found the remains of a fireplace and numerous tools of slate and a flint-like material.

By far the majority of the tools found are from the Dorset period. They include knives, burins and micro-flakes. Only two items dating from the Saqqaq culture were recovered, a burin and a narrow knife blade.

During a visit to Eqi in 2003, it was still possible to collect flint refuse in the tidal zone, and there is no doubt that the site still has valuable archaeological potential. The locality was probably chosen primarily on the basis of the good hunting possibilities, but one cannot ignore the possibility that the majestic view and the fascination of the ice played a role in the selection of this site.

Vivid first-hand descriptions of contacts with the people of Eqi are available to us from Poul Egede, who described several visits to the settlement during the 1730s in his diary. The descendants of the Thule people are given form and voice, as the missionary discusses theology with the settlement’s heathen shaman. The people talk of their hunger, and of dogs that run about with the bones of the dead, due to careless internment of people without family to bury them properly. During another visit to Eqi, Poul Egede hears about a woman who mysteriously disappeared. Apparently some people believed the moon had taken her, while others more prosaically thought that her husband had got rid of her by pushing her under the ice.

During his visits, Poul Egede told them about Christianity, and the people of Eqi were reportedly eager to hear the word of God. Egede describes a large sacrificial stone, which some boys showed him. Sacrifices were made by spreading blubber on the stone, and placing sealskin and fish in cracks in the stone. The sacrifices were made in order to secure a good catch, and the stone was still an object of heathen-worship as late as 1778.

Unfortunately Poul Egede says nothing about how many houses there were at Eqi, nor how many people lived there, but just reports that the place was populous. Available records indicate that in 1811 a total of 40 people lived in the settlement, in 1915 there were 33 people and in 1933 there were 57 inhabitants. Now nobody lives at the icefjord’s ‘southern corner of the mouth’, the English translation of Eqi.


Map of the Ilulissat region
Map of the Ilulissat region, with circles marking former eskimo settlements. The largest and most important settlements were Sermermiut (14) on the northern side of the icefjord and Qajaa (2=Qajâ) on the south side about 25 km east of the mouth. The various Thule settlements around Kangia, including Sermermiut and Qajaa, date from about 1200. The map uses many, now absolute Danish place names.

Click here to enlarge.

Excavations at Qajaa
Excavations at Qajaa, seen from the leader’s tent where the finds are registered and drawn. (Photo: Jørgen Meldgaard)


FAITH AND STORY-TELLING TRADITION
Scene from art-cartoon Solen og Månen
Illustration: Naja Abelsen, Scene from art-cartoon Solen og Månen, Milik Publishing, Nuuk.

The oral tradition in Greenland is rich and flourishing and can often provide more information than scientific investigations based on written sources and archaeological finds.
For example, there is a story of the first man to settle at Sermermiut. His name was Qingernilik, and he and his family experienced a harsh first winter. Suffering from hunger, they crossed the icefjord to reach the village of Eqi, where there was plenty of food, and Qingernilik ate so much that he almost died. Qingernilik returned to Sermermiut, but he never visited Eqi again because he did not want to take the risk of dying through over-eating.
Another important person in the history of the icefjord is the great angakkoq, or Eskimo shaman, who taught the people where they could fish for halibut. It is said that when Inuit people from Sermermiut were on their way home from Eqi on the south side of the icefjord, the angakkoq suddenly collapsed on the ice with a loud crash. He told the people travelling with him that they should fish at this point. The people made a line of baleen, hacked a hole in the ice and started to fish, and immediately caught some good hali­but. Thus began the fishing tradition that has since been a source of wealth and survival for the population.

Myths and religion
The story of their creation is the story of a brother, Anningat, and a sister, Ajut, who before they became the moon and the sun lived at the icefjord. Their transformation arose because Anningat lusted after his beautiful sister, and he continued to hunt Ajut until they were both sucked up into the air where he, the moon, still hunts her, the sun.

This story is a part of Inuit mythology and religion. Although the sun is the driving force in the world, the moon is the dominant person in the myths. He is more changeable than any other heavenly body as he grows, becomes round and shrinks before disappearing for a period. In West Greenland it was believed that when the moon disappeared he was down on the ice-covered sea hunting seals. That the moon brings about the changes in the tide and influences women’s menstruation was an observation that was common knowledge all over Greenland.

The Inuit believed that the world was divided into two - a visible world, which everyone could see with the naked eye, and an invisible world, which could only be seen by people who had an inner eye. The angakkoqs, the shamans, could use their inner eye to replace normal vision so they could see what was hidden, although they could not see both worlds clearly at the same time. However, in a trance-like state induced by traditional drum ceremonies the angakkoq could direct his inner eye at another person and see that person’s hidden world and inner circumstances, which could be in trouble and require treatment.

The most skilled angakkoqs could travel in the invisible world. The two worlds were mutually connect­ed, and it was the life in the other world that put limitations on the visible world, manifested through the movements of the heavenly bodies and the changes of the seasons.

All the Inuit in Greenland had more or less the same understanding of their environment. When people from near and far gathered, they would entertain each other with stories and participate in the same shamanatic seances without problems of understanding.

De gamle fortællinger
The Inuit differentiate clearly between newer and older stories. The newer stories dealt with events that they had second-hand or third-hand knowledge about from the person who had experienced the events. On the other hand, the older stories (or legends) were handed down from their fore­-fath­ers through many generations and - unlike the newer stories - had to be told without any changes.

That the stories nevertheless developed is inevitable in a verbal tradition. Different versions of the same basic story were written down in the colonial age. Every storyteller had his own personal style, but it was vital that the storyteller told his own version as he or she had understood it. The requirement was not so much a word-for-word rendition but a reproduction with unconditional respect for the original.

The idea was that the legends contained the wisdom of their forefathers, which should not be lost under any circumstances. The oldest of these forefathers, who lived when the world acquired its ­ final form, were considered to be stronger and cleverer than the people of today. They had contributed to the world becoming what it is. It was these respected forefathers who had discovered the secret of how people should live with each other and with their prey, so that the Earth could continue to exist and life continue for their children, and their children’s children, for ever.



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Colonisation and the Napoleonic Wars (1800-1830)

The colony of Jakobshavn (now Ilulissat) was established in an area where there were already a number of settlements. The Inuit population lived from traditional hunting, but was naturally attracted by goods such as the firearms, hardware and pearls available in the colony. Barter was widespread outside the regime of ‘Kongelige Grønlandske Handel’ (KGH - The Royal Greenland Trading Company). The colony Ritenbenk (now Appat) was established north of Jakobshavn in 1755.

In 1805 there were 86 people living in Jakobshavn, but about twice as many still lived in Sermermiut and the other settlements around the colony. The people of Sermermiut slowly started to move from the turf houses of their settlement to Jakobshavn, in part because of improved possibilities of trade with Europeans.

This was towards the end of the great whaling period, when blubber was rendered into whale oil, and provided the fuel to light the lamps of Europe. However, whales were close to extermination in the area and the whaling installations at Jakobshavn closed down in 1800. During the Napoleonic Wars supplies from Denmark were limited, and the time from 1807 to 1814 in particular was a period of great hardship. In Jakobshavn, the hunters were forced to re-melt the lead from the roof and windows of the Zion Church in order to make rifle bullets. At the same time the British took over the Dutch role of illegal whaling and trading, and thus became competitors to the Danish trade monopoly in Greenland.


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Recovery, whale oil and education
(1830-1850)

The 1830s were characterised by contemporary thoughts of free trade and free competition as well as the start of industrialisation. It became a time of recovery, when production was improved, and increasing numbers of people moved to Jakobshavn from the surrounding settlements. In fact there were so many new arrivals that the colonial administrators were forced to attempt to counteract the centralisation tendency. This was mainly because the hunting focus was now increasingly on catching seals rather than the scarce whales, and sealing was most effective when the hunters hunted along the whole length of the coast. To encourage the wider distribution of hunting, the trading station Paakitsoq was established north of Ilulissat in 1832, although Paakitsoq never had any great importance.

The good times continued, and in the 1840s Jakobshavn could boast of having the third-largest production of blubber in the region. The large trade of seals had, however, a negative aspect: in their eagerness to buy new, cheap goods, the Greenlanders sold far more seal skins and blubber than they needed to maintain their means of existence. The result was empty winter larders, hunger and a lack of clothing, tents and boats. The trade records for Jakobshavn in 1844 show that of 809 seals caught, the skins from 798 were sold. The 300 people in the colony thus had only 11 skins left for their own use.

In 1848 the training college at Jakobshavn was built and, together with the college at Godthåb (now Nuuk), these were the first higher education establishments in Greenland. The catechists trained at the colleges created a cultural advance that gave the Greenlanders a special position in relation to the Inuit populations elsewhere in the Arctic. However, the college in Jakobshavn closed in 1907 due to declining numbers of pupils, and today the building is a museum.


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The exodus from Sermermiut and the tuberculosis epidemic (1850-1890)

The excessive sale of skins and blubber vital to their way of life had serious consequences for the inhabitants of Sermermiut. Their reserves were exhausted, and since the catch fell at the same time, many were plagued by hunger and epidemics, which were more serious because of poor housing conditions.

The last inhabitants of Sermermiut moved to Jakobshavn in 1850, bringing the population up to 262. Thirty years later the population had increased to 418. In a new attempt at attracting people away from Jakobshavn, the trading station Ataa, north of Jakobshavn, was created successfully in 1852. A blubber house was built and trade in blubber and shark livers was started. In 1939, 35 people still lived there, but it has now been abandoned.

Foreign ships called regularly at the colony and the trading stations and, unfortunately, the shipping traffic brought more than commodities. In 1867 there was an outbreak of tuberculosis in Jakobshavn, and a third of the population were carried to the cemetery. Such large losses naturally affected fishing and hunting, and it was difficult to keep
the small community running.

Three of Jakobshavn’s great personalities were born in these difficult times. The catechist Jørgen Brønlund entered the world in 1877; he participated in several polar expeditions, but lost his life during the Danmark Expedition in 1907. Knud Rasmussen, the renowned arctic explorer, was born in 1879 in the former college building. He died in 1933 of an illness contracted during the 7th Thule Expedition. Mathias Storch was born in 1883 near Aasiaat; he was trained and worked as a priest in Jakobshavn and became the first Greenlander to be appointed viceprovst (rural dean) in 1928.
Mathias Storch later wrote the first Greenlandic novel and was particularly active in politics and social debate.


Churchyard in Ilulissat
Churchyard in Ilulissat. (Photo:Walter Rayher)

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Halibut for export (1890-1930)

By the 1890s, fishing for Greenland halibut and the Greenland shark had become the main occupation of the population of Jabobshavn and the nearby trading stations. The Greenland shark was an important source of income, as its liver was sold to The Royal Greenland Trading Company (KGH), while halibut was then only eaten and traded locally. It is worth noting that the communities around the icefjord became skilled fishermen while the rest of Greenland’s population primarily depended on catching marine mammals for income and food.

Halibut acquired new significance for the local economy about 1900. The colony managers, or ‘factors’, had started to export a few hundred kilograms of halibut fillets to their friends and families in Denmark, which they were allowed to do as halibut was not covered by the KGH monopoly. The private export grew markedly after Poul Müller, the colony manager at Jakobshavn from 1892 to 1901, established contact with smokehouses in Copenhagen. Following his initiative, the landings of halibut in Jakobshavn increased to more than 22 tons in 1899.

Then KGH imposed strict restrictions on the private export of halibut, and actually took over the trade in 1903. Less than two tons were exported in the early years under the KGH monopoly, but the export grew quickly again, and halibut exports have since become vital for the economy of Jakobshavn (now Ilulissat). Halibut fishing saw further advances at the end of the 1920s, when Marius Sivertsen invented a so-called ‘glider’ that revolutionised long line fishing at the icefjord.

The change from hunting to fishing halibut that occurred in the 1890s had a marked impact on the pattern of settlement in the district. The authorities had to reverse the decision to spread the population to encourage hunting, since the new developing main trade required a concentration of the fishermen where there were fish and fish processing possibilities. At the same time, the concentration on fishing meant that the population changed from barter to a money economy, as fish do not give the same possibility for self-sufficiency as sealing.

The period was an active one for new construction and enterprise. In 1924, the coal mine Qullissat was opened on Disko island, and the mine became a major employer that attracted labour from the whole of the Disko Bugt region. The production of coal at Qullissat was so large that it satisfied most of Greenland’s needs, but competition from cheaper British coal imports led to the mine’s closure just under 50 years later in 1972.

The first part of the present hospital in Ilulissat was built in 1926, and it was decided to move the Zion Church 50 m away from the sea in 1929-1932, presumably to avoid influence from the sea.


Halibuts are stored on the dog sledge
Two fishermen on the sea ice. Halibuts are stored on the dog sledge.
(Photo: Dieter Zillmann/Elke Meissner)



HALIBUT, HUNGER AND SURVIVAL
Long-line fishing
Long-line fishing
Long-line fishing for Greenland halibut as practised at Kangia since the beginning of the 19th century. Note the glider, and the length of the line. (Drawing: Jens Rosing)


Throughout history, the rich eco-system of the icefjord has made it possible for a rela­ti­vely large population to live by the fjord. At the end of the 19th century over 60% of the people in the district lived within a distance of 3 km from the icefjord.

All of the Palaeo-Eskimo cultures that settled here have doubtless caught halibut, but despite numerous archaeological excavations around Disko Bugt not a single bone of the fish has been found. This may be because halibut bones have a poor preservation potential compared to other fish bones, as they are rich in fat and are more cartilage than bone.

The earliest written documentation of fishing for halibut in Kangia is from February 1739, and comes from Poul Egede’s diary. When he travelled between Qasigiannguit and Sermermiut he met fishermen on the fjord ice at the mouth of Kangia who fished with lines of baleen. Poul Egede measured a line, which was no less than 684 metres long.

During hard winters, when famine threatened, a large part of the population living in the Disko Bugt region would make long journeys to the icefjord to fish for halibut. B.J. Schultz, the colonial inspector of Qeqertarsuaq, described the situation in the hard winter of 1792-1793. Hungry Greenlanders, who lacked dogs, walked the 150-225 km from Qeqertarssuaq and Aasiaat over the sea ice to Kangia to reach the halibut fishing grounds. Similar journeys were also recorded during later periods of famine.


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World war, reform and centralisation (1930-1960)

Denmark had anticipated the Second World War was coming, and extra supplies were sent to Greenland as early as the summer of 1939. When the war broke out, it soon became clear that Greenland could not do without support from abroad. A direct diplomatic connection was therefore negotiated with the USA, which took over the responsibility for supplying Greenland with necessities. The war had great importance for Greenland, which experienced the period as a time of prosperity. At the same time the disparity between Greenland and the outside world became obvious as the Americans overcame the problems of the arctic environment to build military bases, and introduced modern consumer goods.

After the war there came a time of change. The comprehensive complex of laws, ‘Nyordningen’, made Greenland an integral part of Denmark in 1953. One aspect of ‘the reform’ aimed at concentrating the population geographically, so that fishing could be intensified. At the same time it was decided that the traditional primitive houses in which most of the Greenlanders lived would be replaced by modern houses, and the door was opened for private initiative, although still under state control.

‘Nyordningen’ was the trigger for the greatest technological development Greenland has ever seen, and ten years later the country was almost unrecognisable. An effective infrastructure, numerous new installations and mod-ern facilities were turned into reality at great speed. The reform awoke hopes in the community for equality between Greenland and Denmark, but those hopes were not realised despite the great progress - partly because Denmark in the same period went through an larger development, an partly because there were great differences in pay conditions between Denmark and Greenland.

The influx of large numbers of cod to West Greenland in the period after the war led to development of the cod fishery. In Disko Bugt the cod fishing led to an expansion of facilities at Jakobshavn. The children’s home was built in 1953- 1954, the quay to service ships crossing the Atlantic to fish and trade came in 1960, and the fish-processing factory and the Vandsø dam in 1961.


Containership entering Ilulissat harbour with supplies
Containership entering Ilulissat harbour with supplies. (Photo:Walter Rayher)

Fish factory in Ilulissat
Fish factory in Ilulissat. (Photo:Walter Rayher)

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Shrimp bonanza, population explosion and tourism (1960-2000)

The cod eldorado did not last long. There was a general reduction in cod stocks along the coast of West Greenland in the 1960s, but, very fortunately, a new and even more profitable catch had been discovered - enormous stocks of shrimps. In Ilulissat people adapted quickly, the necessary production installations were established and the new business attracted many migrants from the outlying villages. By 1974 there were nearly 1500 people in the town, while the population 20 years later had risen to 3800.

The intense economic development of the fishing industry, the centralisation and the improved living conditions resulted in something close to a population explosion, which was further strengthened when, in the middle of the 1970s, large numbers of workers from Denmark were recruited to Greenland. Many of the modern facilities in Ilulissat date from that time. The town’s two large schools were established in 1974 and 1977, the Hotel Hvide Falk is from 1971 and the sports hall was added in 1976. At the same time several large housing complexes were built. The hospital was extended in 1980.

As noted above, the coal mine at Qullissat on Disko closed in 1972, and many of the former workers moved to Ilulissat. The new area of the town where they were housed acquired the name ‘Little Qullissat’; this area was close to the present road known as Mathias Storchsvej. The closure of Qullissat, and the forced movement of so many workers, created much unrest, and became a symbol of how the authorities in far-away Denmark made decisions over the heads of the Greenlanders.

In 1979, Greenland acquired home rule following a referendum, turning Greenland into an autonomous part of the Kingdom of Denmark on equal footing with the Faeroe Islands. Home rule means increased responsibility in terms of self-administration and public matters. However, Denmark continues to provide Greenland with substantial economic subsidies via the so-called block grants, which are of the same size as before the introduction of home rule. With home rule, the Greenlanders acquired a new self respect, and one result of this was the deliberate policy to abandon the Danish names formerly used in conjunction with the Greenlandic names for towns. Jakobshavn became Ilulissat.

Tourism came to Greenland in a big way in the 1980s, and especially to Ilulissat, which is today the country’s most-visited tourist town. Annually Ilulissat has more than 10,000 tourists. Ilulissat puts a lot of effort into tourism, especially in providing opportunities for fishing. Other forms of tourism are limited by the expense of air flights, a very short tourist season and the limited hotel capacity.

Tourists on dog sledges
Tourists on dog sledges. (Photo: Dieter Zillmann/Elke Meissner)

The airport in Ilulissat
The airport in Ilulissat opened in 1984. (Photo: Ivar Silis)

Useful road sign in Ilulissat.
Useful road sign in Ilulissat.

The hospital in Ilulissat.
The hospital in Ilulissat. (Photo:Walter Rayher)


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