Eskimo Life/Chapter 15

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The relation of the Europeans to the Greenlanders is in many respects unique, for the Eskimos have been treated more tenderly than any other primitive people which has been subjected to our experiments in civilisation. The Danish Government certainly deserves the highest respect for its action in this matter, and it were much to be desired that other States would follow the example here given them. Care for the true welfare of the natives has been largely operative in their policy, and there is scarcely another instance of a people of hunters which has come into such close contact with European civilisation and proselytism, and has held its own so well for so long a time.

We do not often meet with such enthusiasm as that which impelled our countryman Hans Egede and the first missionaries to seek out this at that time almost unknown land, and led them to endure so many hardships there. They did it with the best of motives, and thought that they were thereby advancing both the spiritual and temporal welfare of the Eskimo. If we compare this mission and the treatment of Greenland as a whole with the conduct of Europeans under similar circumstances in other parts of the world, we cannot but recognise the working of an unusually humane spirit; and as we examine the whole history of the government of Greenland down to our own day, we find ever new and gratifying examples of this spirit.

With all the good will in the world, however, civilised men cannot resist the tendency to look down upon a primitive people as essentially their inferiors. Even in the history of Greenland we find many proofs of this. We learn from his own writings that the devoted Hans Egede himself cherished no small contempt for the natives whom he held it his mission to christianise. He even relates how he often beat them, and had them flogged, or given the rope's end. On one occasion, learning from a small boy that an angekok, named Elik, had said that it would be an easy matter to root out the foreigners who had come to their country, he set off with seven armed men, fell upon the angekok, took him prisoner, and brought him to the colony. There 'he received some blows with the rope's end, and was put in irons.' In the evening the angekok's sons came to inquire about their father, and 'were permitted, at their own request, to pitch their tents in the colony.' After a few days the prisoner was set at liberty, and they went away. One might suppose that after such treatment the Greenlanders would bear ill-will to the foreigners; but their good-humour and hospitality are incomparable. As luck would have it, the following winter, Hans Egede's son, Paul, who had taken part in this high-handed proceeding, was driven by stress of weather to a place where he was surprised to find the angekok Elik. It was not particularly pleasant, as he himself confesses; but to his astonishment he was invited to take up his quarters with the angekok, who spread a reindeer skin for him upon his own sleeping-bench. There Paul Egede had to remain for three days, and was entertained with the best of everything.[1] This is indeed 'To return good for evil' and 'To do good to them that hate you'; but Egede attributed it to the Greenlanders' willingness 'to put up with punishment when they feel they have deserved it.'

Hans Egede had also another habit, which does not show the greatest possible consideration towards the natives; he would now and then take children to his house, against their parents' wishes, and keep them there to learn the language from them. In this connection they made a song about him: 'There has come a strange man over the great sea from the West, who steals boys, and gives them thick soup with skin upon it (that is, porridge) to eat, and dried earth from his own land (that is, ship's biscuits).' When Paul Egede on one occasion offered a mother a present if she would let her son remain some time longer with him, she answered that children were not articles of commerce.

We can still find evidences in Greenland of how difficult it is for us to get rid of our ingrained contempt for all so-called aborigines. The motive of the Europeans for supporting colonies in the country is that they may be a blessing to it; it is, of course, exclusively for the sake of the mission and of the natives that trade is carried on. Nevertheless, the relation between the natives and the foreigners has come to rest on an entirely wrong basis. The foreigners are regarded both by themselves and by the Greenlanders as a higher race and the lords of the country, to whom all obedience is due; whereas, if they were really there for the sake of the natives, they ought rather to be their self-sacrificing servants. Half voluntarily, half involuntarily, the Europeans have themselves emphasised this relation, and have all along treated the natives as a subject race. We came to the country to preach Christianity; but how does this accord with our Christian doctrine of freedom and equality, and especially with the example of Christ himself?

As an instance of the extent to which this abuse has been carried I may mention that at several settlements in South Greenland the natives are forbidden to keep dogs, because the handful of European families who live there want to keep goats. This prohibition has, it is true, in many cases been determined upon in the local council (see p. 321); but it has been proposed by the Europeans, and as the Greenlanders, as I have said, always follow their lead, it was not difficult to get them to consent to it, against their own real wishes. I have heard them regretting bitterly that they should have been so foolish as to agree to such a prohibition. The most glaring injustice, however, is to be seen in the villages where the German missionaries reside, and where, for no other reason but that his own goats may live in peace, the reverend gentleman issues an ukase forbidding his flock to keep dogs.

I have spoken of this to many otherwise intelligent and kind-hearted residents in Greenland, but found them all of the opinion that since the dogs chased and worried the goats, it followed as a matter of course that they must be prohibited. On my objecting that the Europeans were few and the Greenlanders many, so that it was more reasonable that the latter should forbid the keeping of goats, they simply laughed in my face. It did not seem to occur to them that they themselves are the interlopers, and that the Eskimos have kept dogs from time immemorial. Nor did they see anything particularly wrong in the fact that the goats often tore the turf from the roof and walls of the Greenlanders' houses, injured their fish when it was hung up to dry, and so forth.

Another result of the different manner in which the rights of the Europeans and of the natives are regarded is to be found in the regulations concerning the sale of brandy. While it is illegal, as stated in Chapter V., to sell brandy to the natives of the country, the European residents are free to have as much of it as they please. This is unfortunate; for it can scarcely fail to annoy the natives to have it perpetually brought home to them that they are not held good enough to be entrusted with that which the meanest European may have at will. But this ordinance becomes still more hurtful from the fact that the Greenlanders who enter into the service of Europeans are allowed brandy every day, while others can obtain it if they sell something to the Europeans. That this may easily lead to the gravest abuses is clear enough, and we may be sure that it has actually done so. I pass over minor inconsistencies, such as the fact that certain individual natives of mixed descent and of social importance are allowed to order from Europe a stated quantity of brandy every year.

It was of course a clear necessity to forbid the sale of brandy in Greenland, on pain of greatly accelerating the extermination of the native race. But the only right and consistent thing to do would have been to make the prohibition apply to natives and Europeans alike. Many maintain, I am aware, that this would have been to inflict an unjust hardship upon the Europeans, who have all their lives been accustomed to this stimulant; and I know that this would have been specially the case with regard to people from Denmark, where brandy is drunk at almost every meal, even among the working classes, and where it is thus regarded as well-nigh a necessity of life. But notwithstanding this, I cannot but hold to my opinion that a general prohibition would have been the only right and advantageous thing for both parties. Such a demand cannot be called unjust; for if the prohibition is known beforehand, it is always open to any European to refrain from going to Greenland, and I have no fear but that, in any event, there would always be plenty of Europeans in the country.

But my demands would go still further. I hold that not only should the sale of brandy be prohibited, but also the sale of coffee, tobacco, and the other indubitably noxious, or at any rate valueless, products which we have introduced among the natives. It is certain that they had no desire for them; on the contrary, it took us a long time to make them acquire the taste for them. The East Greenlanders to this day do not like coffee. On the west coast, as before stated, we have been unhappily successful in begetting this taste, and coffee has contributed not a little to the decline of the race. But if the sale of coffee to the natives were forbidden, its importation for the use of Europeans should, of course, be forbidden as well. Many will call this fanaticism, but I cannot help it. My opinion is that if it be indeed for the sake of the natives that we have come to their country and undertaken to live there and teach them, we must prove this by our conduct, we must fulfil consistently the duties imposed upon us by such a responsible and difficult mission, and we must submit to the small deprivations it may involve. Such a work of self-sacrifice cannot be carried on without deprivations. The Apostles of the Lord have always regarded suffering as an essential part of their calling, and if we cannot endure it we are neither fitted for, nor worthy of, such a task, and ought to refrain from it altogether. If, on the other hand, we have come to Greenland not for the natives' sake but for our own, that is quite a different matter; but in that case let us call things by their right names, and not use big words such as civilisation and Christianity.

In order to remedy the state of lawlessness which arose from the disuse of the old customs through the influence of the missionaries, and from the fact that the meanest European felt himself entitled to look down upon and domineer over the natives, the enthusiastic energy of Dr. Rink has succeeded in introducing the so-called local councils (forstanderskaber), which consist partly of native members, chosen by the different villages or small districts. The intention was that in these councils all the internal affairs of the community should be regulated, the poor-rate should be determined, and, in general, law and order should be maintained. As the Greenlanders, however, did not themselves understand these matters, the pastor in every district was to act as chairman of the council, and the other European residents were to be members of it, and to advise and guide the native councillors. It now appears that the Europeans have gradually got into their hands the whole real authority, and that the others simply obey their wishes. It was a fine idea, and worthy of all recognition, that the natives should acquire the habit of self-government, and Dr. Rink's innovation marks a turning-point for the better in the history of the Greenlander. It suffers, however, from the disadvantage inseparable from all measures which the Europeans can devise for the benefit of the natives—to wit, that it has not arisen from among the people themselves who are to profit by it. The introduction of new social customs is nowhere to be effected in a moment; changes cannot be brought about by a single act of will, but must be the result of a long process of development in the people themselves. An institution imposed from without by foreigners must at least need a very long time to take root in the national life. Many Greenlanders now regard it as a distinction to serve as a councillor; but I have also known others, and these the most capable among them, who do not appreciate the honour, holding it of more importance to look to their hunting and to the support of their families than to travel long distances in order to attend meetings where, after all, with their exaggerated deference towards the Europeans, they can do nothing but follow their lead and agree to what measures they propose.

From what I have just said, and from many other passages in this book, the reader may perhaps be inclined to conclude that the Greenlanders are a people of no natural independence, and born for subjection. This, however, is quite a mistake. On the contrary, the Greenlanders love of freedom and independence has always been very marked. When the Europeans first came to the country, the natives held themselves at least their equals, and the idea of standing in a menial or subordinate position to another man, as they saw the Europeans do among themselves, seemed to them strange and degrading. It is true that the father of a family exercises a certain authority in his own household, and perhaps over all the families who live in the same house; but this authority is so mild and unobtrusive that it is scarcely felt. They have servants, too, in so far that women who have no parents or other relatives to provide for them are often received into the house of a hunter, to assist the mother, daughters, and daughters-in-law in the household work; but they stand on a footing of equality with them, and are thus servants in name rather than in reality. Male servants are entirely unknown. Consequently they could with difficulty reconcile themselves to the idea of going into service; and they still dislike above everything to be ordered about in a domineering fashion, even if their extreme peaceableness of disposition prevents them from protesting openly.

This love of freedom rendered it difficult at first for the Europeans to procure native servants. Gradually, however, European influence has demoralised the natives in this respect as well, so that even hunters now enter the service of the Company and sometimes feel a certain pride in so doing; for, among other things, they thus, as Danish 'officials,' are entitled to their snapsemik (dram) every morning.

Danish ladies can still bear witness to the fact that it is not so easy to avoid giving offence to the pride of their Greenland maid-servants. They are active and agreeable so long as they are well treated; but if a hard word is addressed to them, they will often disappear without ceremony and not come back again. If then the mistress is not prepared to eat the leek and beg pardon, she must look out for another handmaiden.

If the Greenlander sometimes impresses one as being of a servile disposition, I think the effect is due to his astounding patience and power of taking everything, even to the most open injustice, with imperturbable calmness. It must be this patience which Egede describes as 'the Greenlanders' inborn stupidity and cold-bloodedness, their lazy and brutish upbringing,' and so forth. I believe it is the hardship of their life that has taught them this apparently phlegmatic calmness. The very uncertainty of their hunting, for instance, often puts their patience to the severest tests; as, for example, when they strike a run of ill luck, and come home day after day with no booty to their hungry families. Egede least of all had any right to complain of this characteristic; since but for it, and their extreme peaceableness of disposition, they would certainly not have put up so amiably with the often violent proceedings of the first Europeans. I had many an opportunity of admiring their stoical patience—when, for example, I would see them in the morning standing by the hour in the passage of the Colonial Manager's house, or waiting in the snow outside his door, to speak to him or his assistant, who happened to be otherwise engaged. They had probably some little business to transact with them before starting for their homes, often many miles from the colony, and it might be of the greatest importance to them to get away as soon as possible in order to reach their destination betimes. If the weather happened to look threatening, every minute would be more than precious; but there they would stand waiting, as immovable as ever, and to all appearance as indifferent. If I asked them if they were going to make a start, they only answered, 'I don't know,' 'Perhaps, if the weather doesn't get worse,' or something to that effect; but I never once heard the smallest murmur of impatience.

The following occurrence, for which my informant vouches, affords an excellent illustration of this side of their character. An inspector at Godthaab once sent a woman-boat with its crew into the Ameralik fiord to mow grass for his goats. They remained a long time away, and no one could understand what had become of them. At last they returned; and when the inspector asked why they had been so long, they answered that when they got to the place the grass was too short, so that they had to settle down and wait until it grew.

With just the same patience do the Greenlanders await the ripening of their own ruin. They are a patient people.

  1. P. Egede, Efterretninger om Grönland, p. 21; compare also p. 25.