Popular Science Monthly/Volume 8/February 1876/Life in Greenland
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Life in Greenland
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THE Danish settlements in Greenland date from the year 1721, when a colony was established at Godthaab, in latitude 64 north. The country had been visited and colonies settled there as early as the tenth century by Icelanders; but these Icelandic colonies were utterly destroyed, probably by the pestilence known as the "black-death" in the fourteenth century, or early in the fifteenth. The present Danish settlements are all situated on the west coast, and contain about 10,000 inhabitants, all Esquimaux with the execution of a few hundred, who are Danes. The region of Disco Bay may be regarded as the type of the entire western coast of Greenland. The aspects of Nature and the conditions of human life, as presented in this region, are graphically portrayed by Dr. Robert Brown, F.R.G.S., in the Geographical Magazine, and in the following pages we purpose to epitomize, for the benefit of our readers, the account given by this very competent observer. Dr. Brown, we would add, is probably the highest living authority on all scientific questions connected with Greenland; he has written a number of memoirs upon the geology, meteorology, etc., of the country, which are held in the very highest esteem by men of science.
Disco Bay is situated between the parallels of about 68° and 70° north latitude. On the west lies Disco Island, and on the east Greenland. Nowhere are the cliffs high, and the southern shore is in general flat and uninteresting. About Christianshaab (latitude 69°), and farther to the north, the shores are backed by bare rocky hills of about 1,000 or 1,200 feet—rounded knolls of gneiss, ice-shaven and worn. Between these higher grounds run birch and willow-covered mossy valleys, bright with running streams and waterfalls during the brief arctic summer. Everywhere are indubitable signs that the extensive mer de glace, which is believed to cover the whole interior of Greenland, once covered at least the greater part of what is now the uncovered or "fast-land" of the Danes. The ice is again beginning to encroach on the land, and everywhere in this vicinity there are proofs of a gradual subsidence of the ground.
From the fossil remains of numerous land-plants and a few insects found in the Miocene beds of Disco Island, it appears that in comparatively recent times a luxuriant vegetation, somewhat similar in character to that of California or the Southern United States, flourished in these arctic wastes. Luxuriant evergreen-oaks, magnolias, and sequoias, grew where now is found only the dwarf-willow, creeping along the ground with a stem not over half an inch in diameter. Among the fossil trees of Greenland, Prof. Heer has discovered three distinct species of sequoia, nine of oak, four of which were evergreen, like the Italian oak, two beeches, a chestnut, two planes, and a walnut. "Besides these," writes Prof. Heer, "American species, such as the magnolias, sassafrasses, and liquidambars, were represented there; and the characters of the ebony-tree are to be distinguished in two of the species. The hazel, the sumach, the buckthorn, and the holly, the guelder-rose, and the white, probably formed the thickets at the borders of the woods; while the vine, the ivy, and the sarsaparilla, climbed over the trees of the virgin forest, and adorned them with garlands. In the shadow of the wood grew a profusion of ferns, which covered the soil with their elegant fronds. The insects which gave animation to these solitudes are not all lost. The impressions of these which have reached us show that Chrysomelas and Castilldæ enjoyed themselves in the sun, and large Trogsitæ pierced the bark of the trees, while charming Cicadellæ leaped about among the herbage." In all, about 167 species of Miocene plants have been discovered in Greenland.
The coal found on Disco Island is, like all tertiary lignites, of poor quality, but yet, when mixed with English coal, it forms a good fuel for household and even for steaming purposes. It is mined to a small extent for the use of the settlements around the bay. Soapstone is found in some places in the primitive rocks, on the southern shores of Disco Bay; it was at one time extensively employed by the Esquimaux for making various domestic utensils, but is now much less used, owing to the introduction of vessels of iron, copper, and tin. There is no other economic mineral, cryolite being only found in one locality, Arsut Fiord, in South Greenland.
In the winter the cold is extreme in the region of Disco Bay, and the ground is generally thickly covered with snow from September till May or early June. During this period the whole sea is covered with ice, and the Danes and Esquimaux visit from settlement to settlement in sledges drawn by dogs. During the summer, under the four months of continual daylight, the snow soon melts over the lower lands, and the heat is often extreme. Mosquitoes are troublesome, and, there being no shelter from the rays of the sun reflected, from the snow, ice, and bare rocks, traveling is frequently attended with great discomfort. The day may be bright and sunny in the morning, and in the evening snow, sleet, and all the concomitants of spring or winter. During the short summer season vegetation springs up apace and soon comes to maturity. In September the weather is uncertain and the nights are very dark and cold.
The trade of Danish Greenland is a strict crown monopoly, and is administered by government officials solely for the benefit of the natives. The principle adopted is to buy the natives' blubber, skins, ivory, etc., at a low price and to sell to them articles of European manufacture which are necessary to their comfort at an equally low figure; coffee and other luxuries are sold at a good, profit. The surplus is credited to each district, and expended for the public good, by the little local parliaments (Partisoks) of the districts, the members of which (partisæts) are elected by universal suffrage. The settlements are known as colonies, and each is presided over by a "colonibestyrer" (best man in the colony). The other notables of the colony are the colonibestyrer's assistant, the cooper, the carpenter, and, if the settlement is large, the Lutheran parson, and the schoolmaster—the latter generally an educated native. The most exciting event in the settlements is the arrival of the annual ship from Copenhagen. Pianos are not unknown in the houses of the Danish officials, and the Tauchnitz edition of the best English authors is to be found in the "governor's" house.
The Danish Government treat the natives with the most paternal care. No spirits are allowed to be sold to them, schools are provided, and altogether the rule of the little northern kingdom is productive of very good results. Theft is practically unknown in Danish Greenland.
The vegetation around Disco Bay is, during the brief summer, rather luxuriant; the rocks are bright with mosses, and gayly-colored flowers peep out from the crannies. In the Upernivik district the birch is said to grow high enough in localities to cover the reindeer. Such giant shrubs are looked upon with pride by the natives. They take visitors to see them, and point to these extraordinary specimens of vegetation with an air as of "See this and die!"
Hunting and fishing form the sole occupation of those natives who are not in the government service. The white bear is almost extinct in this region; farther north they are more numerous. The arctic fox is common. The native dog is threatened with extermination by a peculiar disease which first appeared in Greenland a few years ago. The cat has become domesticated. The mouse and rat are regularly introduced every summer with the European ships, but rarely survive the winter. The arctic hare is common. The reindeer is now so rare in the vicinity of Disco Bay that few natives care to go hunting it. The seals are the main staple of the Esquimaux hunt. Large numbers are killed, both in summer and winter, but chiefly on the ice-fields during the latter season. The right-whale is now only a rare visitor. The white whale and the narwhal are often killed.
All the more common arctic birds visit Disco Bay in the summer, but, with the exception of the ptarmigan and some of the raptorial birds, they migrate during the winter. There are no reptiles in Greenland, but the salt-water fishes are numerous. Shark-fishing forms a considerable branch of industry. The kalleraglek, or small halibut, is caught in Disco Bay; among the Danes it forms a favorite dish, when sliced and dried. About six species of Salmo are found in Greenland. Both the trout and the salmon are excellent, though they have a thick layer of fat beneath the skin. The marine invertebrata are numerous. Insect-life is poor; a few butterflies are seen during the summer months; some Coleoptera a few Diptera, Hymenoptera, etc., go to make up the limited insect fauna of the region of Disco Bay.