In Denmark, the blessing Time of Colonies



In Denmark, the blessing time of colonies  1

This article was first published july 2017

Marine Duc and Mikael Hertig




Despite the implementation since the end of the 1970s of a gradual transfer of power from the government of Denmark to Naalakkersuisut – Government of Greenland -, this is not just a peaceful development in relations between the small Nordic country and its former colony. A recent debate has come into the press: Greenland wants independence, Denmark wants “Rigsfaellesskabet” continued. The situation is experiencing renewed tensions. The conflict has in fact shifted from the political spheres to the press. A Danish historian, Thorkild Kjærgaard, former teacher at Illisimatusarfik published in Weekendavisen an article stating that Greenland had never been a colony. This view is the opposite of many historical works and it is going against the Danish and international law conceptions. Two Dane s living in Greenland were refused a right of reply in several Danish newspapers. This closure of space for discussion and political debate reveals the taboo nature of the question of independence and the political uses of the term of « colony ». By the way, it is questioning what Greenland is and consequently also what Denmark is. Indirectly the debate shows how centrally placed Danes conceive the situation concerning Greenland and Greenlanders.

To illustrate this we will analyze the claims of Thorkild Kjaergaard. Furthermore, we selected statements by the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vittus Qujaukitsoq, who left this job in April after a conflict with Kim Kielsen, Head of Government.

Almost a country?

The global direction of the relationship between Greenland and Denmark seems to be peaceful and in a good way towards Greenlandic independence. In spite of this – regarding the devolution process in effect since 1979 – the relations between those two parts of Danish Empire are under tension. Greenland’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs still understands Greenland as an “ almost country”, still dependant on Denmark i many regards. In fact, at a seminar about Danish Defence politics in the Arctic, held in Nuuk, April 20th 2017, Vittus Qujaukitsoq said as follows:

Our attitude is clear. The issue of Greenland’s future is decided by the Greenlandic people. This is also Denmark’s initial recognition of the Self-Government Act of 2009. It is therefore not up for discussion whether Greenland should be allowed to be independent. It is rather a matter if Greenland wishes that. It is a natural wish which all peoples have. (…) Greenland is just one of the world’s last colonies, which has not yet become independent.”2

By saying that Greenland still is a Danish colony the minister made his point very clear. A colony could be defined as “a country or area controlled politically by a more powerful country that is often far away”3 (Cambridge Dictionary). In opposition to that, the official Danish understanding is that Greenland  was some sort of colony until 1953 when the Danish constitution (Grundloven) decided to see Greenland as a Danish county. But if in theory the status has changed, in fact, Denmark does not actively work for Greenland’s independence. Barely more than a month after the Vittus Qujaukitsoq’s declaration, Danish prime minister expressed a totally different understanding of what the relation between Denmark and Greenland is – and should be :

« The core of the “Rigsfaellesskab” is cooperation and solidarity. An open dialogue of equal dignity is the road ahead.  I think, that all three countries are strongest when we stand together. Both in modern and historical perspective Rigsfællesskabet and the Self Government Arrangements unique solutions giving the peoples of Faeroe Islands and Greenland room for shaping their own lands in the speed they want. Our cohesion only works because we are speaking openly and honestly with each other. We ask the good questions and respects our differences. »4     

For the Danish Prime Minister, Greenland and The Faeroe Islands are  as ”equal parts of Rigsfaellesskabet” as Denmark is. Moreover, they are parts of the total picture. But in Greenland the idea that Rigsfaellesskabet “respects (their) differences” is not really in effect regarding the self understanding of the Danish historical presence. The tension between Denmark and its former colony thus is easy to detect. In this article, we discuss whether it is fruitful for both countries. The directions are neither the same nor parallel. They oppose each other.

Danificate Greenland : The Danish model as a gift for Greenland

Both internationally and among Danes themselves Denmark is considered some sort of ideal type of society. Denmark takes up the 4th position at the human development index5 and first according to transparency index in 20166.

Denmark could be seen in the whole world as an ethical power with a strong normative authority. The switch from being respected to new emphasis on some sort of special normal Danish peculiarity is obvious: In order to understand the Danish-Greenlandic relationship, all this feeling good works as blinkers. It seems to have been to some degree a dominating trend that ‘danification’ should be the best for the Inuit dominated Greenlander without taking Inuit culture into account. At the beginning of colonization time in Greenland, Danish authorities presented the so called “modernization” as a danger for Inuit traditional culture and tried to sanctuarize Greenland into some kind of lost paradise – mostly in the purpose of protecting their own monopoly on seal products and fisheries.7 A reversal of the danification trend occurred in the 20th century with the beginning of the fishery industry, with an acceleration of the process after 1953. At this time, as Greenland was henceforth a Danish county Denmark made huge investments in order to produce some kind of territorial balance. Greenland had to catch Danish standards. Since then, learning and speaking Danish, use of Danish principles in public administration lead by Danes was the dominating norm. The trend is weaker but still alive.

From a manifestation of power to a colonial problem ? When the Danish Empire dichotomizes back

Until the first part of the 20th having colonies was seen in a positive way. Just like Britannia ruled the waves, Kingdom of Denmark had colonies in India, in Africa, in Caribbean and in the Arctic. So the Danish ideal of being a model for democracy and development has also some rather sulky past. During the conflict with Norway about the Northeastern part of Greenland the verdict named the question whether Greenland should be seen as one Danish colony.8

Still, at this time being seen as a colonial power was seen as something in the least powerful and in that sense positive. But with the upgrowing fascism in Europe and the emergence of the “subaltern voices” as Gayatri Spivak said, inside the main colonial empires – as the voice from the Indian National Congress in the British Empire for instance –  the general value of ‘colony’ changed gradually from the positive into pejorative. The more human rights for every single person went into focus the more the approach of controlling other peoples turned into the negative because it could not be justified. There is a long historical trend from Rudyard Kipling’s “White man’s burden” (1899) to 21st centuries approach passing by the fourteen points of Wilson’s list (1918)9 to any people to the nation’s right of self determination. As long as Denmark still into some degree defends deserted approaches to self determination, the Danish Government owes an explanation.

Self determination during the first postwar years decidedly won over assimilation as the central means of decolonization. This happened with UN as the powerful growing center. In that way, the opposition to assimilation as a means of decolonization -understood not as being an out and free country but as an in country – grew during Second World War and later with the weakening of western powers and the birth of United Nations. The international trend was to set the former colonies free on a basis of human rights but mostly on the upcoming new countries’ own premises.10 This was clear during the work with the two International Labour Organization conventions for Indigenous Peoples in 1957 and later in 1989, and next with the UN declaration on the rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007)11.  

Denmark has ratified the latest. By doing so, Denmark is formally obliged to give up the assimilation model or at least recognize the right of people to the self determination – what it formally and legally did in 2009 with the empowerment of Greenlanders sanctioned by the Self Government Act. In 2013, Government of Greenland established a Commission of Reconciliation.

The Danish Government of course was invited but refused. It can be discussed if the invitation was formed in a manner acceptable for the Danish government, and also that the name itself was too aggressive. But into some degree, it reveals also that the colonization was not experienced by Greenlanders as soft as it is often presented by Danish authorities. The government fears the consequences of possible criticism. The risk is about possible demands for huge economic compensations. Nevertheless, accepting on conditions would have been an occasion to open a forum for common understanding at a high level trying to focus at the roles in the actual and upcoming relationship.

By refusing, Denmark also maintained the right ignore own mistakes and failures. Many faults were done without intention to exploit or to be brutal. This opportunity was spoilt. New failures thus are kept out of discussion. By too far, but not always, Denmark can choose to close to any critique. This is why the Danish refusion was taken with disappointment in Greenland. At Danish ground, this topic has no high priority. So, the mistakes from 1946-1953 can still set their tracks in formulation of Danish policies to Greenland. While the general discussion of independence in Greenland proceeds at a lower level the intense integration of Greenlandic infrastructure in Danish also proceeds.

Sundown Nuuk 2017

Sundown Malenesund Nuuk 2017
MH Photo GPL Licns

Between the fake claim and the political meaning of a concept: “Greenland was never a colony”

In social sciences basic fact about methodology is to operate within well defined concepts. More, post-structuralism currents born in the sixties as well as postcolonial studies support to analyse the discourses and the way they are build and used. When it comes to the conceptions of ‘colony’ and ‘colonialism’ the definitions are quite clear and well stabilized for the time being, with an international acceptance established by the United Nations. The common accept of what a “colony” is is close to : “a country or area controlled politically by a more powerful country that is often far away”.12 When it comes to international law, an aspect of international accept is added. It looks as follows: “In International law, colony refers to a dependent territorial entity subject to the sovereignty of an independent country, but considered part of that country for purposes of relations with third countries”.13 For United Nations, the real indicator of the political status of a specific area is if the right to the self determination is in effect or not.14

But concepts uses are political and especially in the danish-greenlandic context. Since 2015 and with growing strength and public exposition former assistant professor at the University of Nuuk, Dr. Phil. Thorkild Kjaergaard has claimed “Greenland was never a Danish Colony”. In 2017 he also claimed that in legal terms Greenland was never a Danish colony :

Through the latest three to four years a debate of Greenland’s constitutional status until 1953 has unfolded. The debate was opened by discussion of Kim Leine’s Novel ”The Prophets of the eternal Fjord” 2012. Was Greenland a Danish colony i 18th and 19th century as assumed by Kim Leine? Has Greenland at all been a Danish colony? Two points of view has been standing opposite each other. Two views have been against each other: On the one hand, a crowded bunch of ethnologists, politicians, minority scientists, journalists and politicians who – as a rule, have no reason to say – have claimed that Greenland has for centuries been a Danish colony until the 1953 constitution of the 1953 Constitution was integrated in order not to be overintegrated in the Danish Empire. On the other hand, historian Bo Lidegaard and the author of these lines – referring to Greenland’s position as part of medieval Norway, later of the Danish-Norwegian empire – claimed that Greenland has never been a Danish colony and never had been perceived as such in Copenhagen, not only in Greenland, which until much after the Second World War would have been deceived to be a “colony””.15.  

Thorkild Kjaergaard does not refer to any legal definition. Instead, His main historical judgment can be seen as deep critique towards different sorts of behaviour towards the populations in the colonies. He also denied most of decolonization process since 1945. According to Kjaergaard, being a colony is not a question of exercising control but the degree of brutality used for this purpose. As the territorial appropriation process never was really brutal (according to Kjaergaard), Denmark never was a colonial power and Greenland never was a colony. According to contemporary conceptions of the term, Kjaergaard is suggesting a completly different approach. His view reveals another value of the meaning of « colony » made to let Denmark authorities out of debate over the excuse that a colonization process should be violent. By writing this way he has just accepted to limit the violence to bloody situations and refused to take into acount the fact that the violence is also symbolic. The restrained used of Greenlandic language and global understanding of western culture imposed as an one-way model of development are also forms of violence.

With an unstable definition of the used concepts and more, no awareness of its own situation – as a Dane writing about Greenland without taking into account Greenlanders voices- with no wondering at all about the political value of his own discourse – the article has low value in scientific terms. Maybe this is the reason why Kjaergaard’s point of view towards Greenland’s status has never been published in any peer-reviewed journal.

The surprising thing is not the viewpoint of the man and his claims which are going in the opposite direction of the largest part of scholars specialized on the Arctic area. It is the extent into which his articles are distributed in the printed press. Into some weakened form, a central figure, former advisor at Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen and former editor in chief at Politiken, Bo Lidegaard repeats something like the claims mentioned above.  Again, it shows how the scientifical discourse can be used as a legitimation of a political position. By scientifical discourse, we understand here the voice from someone who have the academic training and the institutional legitimacy to speak as a scientist.

A historical debate coming into the press : the conceptual conflict as a developer of tensions between Denmark and Greenland.

The theme “Greenland was never a Danish colony” has been apparent in the Danish Press since Kim Leine in a novel described the the relation between Danish authorities and Greenlanders as one of exercising power.16 Besides of Kjaergaard, the former editor in chief of the newspaper Politiken Bo Lidegaard also supports Kjaergaard’s statement. As famous author and personal advisor for former Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen Lidegaard has very close connexion to both the Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Nevertheless, Kjaergaards article is convenient for Governmental interests seen in actual political context. First of all, the Danish attitude since 1945 attitude went either for assimilation or later for some sort of hybrid17 between home rule and control. This goes with a lot of common representations of Greenlanders as good or bad “Eschimoes” according to the way of how the Greenlandic strangeness was and is building by Danes. Into some degree, Kjaergaard’s view about « colonization » and political dominant discourses are going in the same direction and reinforcing each other, taking benefits from both positions. On one hand, institutionnal academic legitimacy is a safe guard for the representatives of this view. On an other hand, it’s also a good point to be supported by dominant medias and politicians as an academic at the end of service.

Central political figures at this sensitive point don’t like to be exposed to critique of having being rude.  For this purpose, defocusing the debate allows to suggest a more productive one. In political context, any debate on whether Danish governments were good or bad in respect to Greenland has only very little to do with the question whether Greenland until 1953 had been a Danish colony or not. It functions as a barrage balloon: first of all, it has been prooven historically and legally that Greenland was a colony according to the international recognized understanding.

This is essential to understand as a part of history of Greenland and this should be accepted especially in Denmark. Secondly, regarding to a material debate, it is irrelevant because culturally and politically, but even economically, Greenlandic situation is yet á hybridation as a result but also as process still in the making: today it is to rigid to think the relationship between both parts with those categorizations. Being somewhat Danish is a part of the Greenlandic nationality and this should be used as a strength until independence.

The closure of the discussion spaces ?

The cultural hybridization in the Greenlandic society should not be use as a political justification to be a part of Rigsfaellesskabet – because inbetweenness is probably a strong element in what being Greenlander means.

By refusing any kind of right to answer to Kjaergaard’s position towards Greenland status, Danish press had just decided to close two debates : about independence of Greenland and consequently about what Danish Realm is and what it was. Mikael Hertig and Mads Fægteborg, both Danes living in Nuuk were refused a right to reply to Kjaergaard, because Danish press is following the government position : “it’s better together” as K. McGwin said18. Independence as a split of a Danish empire is still a taboo despite the ongoing process of devolution of competencies from Copenhagen to Nuuk since 1979. This fixed position could be read as an attempt to close or defocusing the debate on Greenland’s independence from having the Danish society and political environment involved.


We and other authors discretely were told that we should understand that from any editor’s point of view criticism of the Danish government’s position as a mix between assimilation in the Danish Realm and Greenlandic independence theater could be so contaminant that it might be a threat to maintaining good relations to central administrative actors in at the Prime Minister’s Office and at Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The real threat seems to be that the Danish self conception in relation to Greenland – both actual and historical – is seen as a threat to the continuation of the mythical Danish integration policy. The Kjaergaard approach of colonization could not be withdrawn because it fits into the Danish approach rejecting any analytical idea of setting the Danish self conception of Danish behavior as good to Greenland under debate. There is no real room for reflection. It is obvious to historians and lawyers that Greenland at least was a colony until 1953; it could still be discussed if Greenland in some sense still is a Danish colony as claimed by the former Greenlandic Ministry of Foreign Affairs Vittus Qujaukitsoq.  But Government of Denmark refuses to take part here even if it is – and was – a major actor on the process.

It seems that the political establishment in Denmark simply has difficulties in facing the idea that Greenland sooner or later will wave goodbye to Rigsfaellesskabet.  Denmark was  an empire: “Engang du herre var i hele Norden, bød over England, nu du kaldes svag” (Andersen, H C). Demographically Greenland is very small but its size quite often deformed by Mercator map projection which gives the impression to Danes that they have huge territory. Would it be such a symbolic lost if Greenland become an independent country?

Changing the Danish approach ?

The two flags are blowing in opposite directions. Both governments of Denmark and Greenland are responsible to shape this discussion. Danish government has recently been closing a room for discussion about Greenland’s future. We have shown that the sensibility is so high that leading Danish editors don’t dare to withdraw reactionnary discourses which can contribute to produce a reality where Greenlanders are not recognized as people who suffered violences during the colonization process. This point of view contribute to keep the relationship unballanced.Leading Danish editors might fear loss of good sources. But it shows definitly that there is still dominants and dominated in the discussion space. Until 1953 Greenland was undoubtedly a colony in terms of Danish and international law. Furthermore, technically and according to same understanding, Denmark still is some sort of colonial power, because Greenland is still a dependant territory. First financially, because of the block grant of 3,6 billion DKK a year according to the Greenland Selvstyre agreement (2009)19. This grant represents almost 25% of the greenlandic GDP. Secondly, it’s also a matter of feelings and place belonging, according to the right of populations to decide of their own future : it’s a basic human right, even if it’s maybe western-created, to be able to determine by yourself. In fact, Greenlanders feel they are still under Danish control.

The independence is largely accepted as a waiting horizon, as a recent poll20 shows it, but also as it’s readable in the main goals of the current coalition at power, formed by three independentist parties21. If it’s not clearly written, the position is well adopted as Vittus Qujaukitsoq precised it in april 2017. The political solution has come back to the front of the scene since the Government of Greenland has decided to create a Constitutional Commission. But for the time being, their goals stay unclear: is the goal to write a constitution to stay a part of Rigsfaellesskabet, or is it a way to write the independence to produce it ?

Beyond official attitudes, the uncertain situation of cultural as political hybridity seems to be also a common understanding. Some Nuuk inhabitants have precised it, when they were apostrophized about this point: “Greenland is still some sort of Danish Colony, because Greenland still is under Danish control” (P.R., former headmaster of a school in Nuuk); “Greenland is not really a colony, but something in between colony and a free country. Greenland seems economically dependent of Denmark” (P.B., Nuuk inhabitant) ; “Greenland is inbetween colony and independent” (M.L., chair of Siumut Youth, Nuuk). It seems that Nuuk inhabitants at least – if it is not all Greenlanders – have accepted their cultural and political hybridity at the point they need to affirm it by the independence, thought as a political, historical and cultural achievement, meanwhile economy still stays as a material barrier.

But in the east coast of Atlantic Ocean, dominant position understood as the one of the Danish government and its supporters are trying to use this hybridity to their own advantage, not as the result of a colonization process which is producing the specificity of a social group, but as a justification of the current borders of Rigsfaellesskabet. In that way, common understanding of the right to self determination could be the only way to surpass this taboo situation. Because government of Denmark is still the dominant in the relationship according to history, law and economy, the reopening of the discussion should come from Copenhagen. But that would imply that the current government of Denmark has to change his own conception of what Denmark is. It means that it has to rebalance the value of the Greenlander’s voices. In the purpose to understand this the Danish Government should in reality open a discussion space as a true public space, where each part involved in has a right to interfere and to take a part in its production.


1 From a famous french song of Michel Sardou, who sang with melancholia all the « beauties » and « advantages » of the life in french colonies.

2 ”Vores holdning er klar. Spørgsmålet om Grønlands fremtid afgøres af det grønlandske folk. Dette har Danmark også anerkendt med Selvstyreloven af 2009, og det er derfor ikke til forhandling, om Grønland skal have lov til at være selvstændigt. (…) Det vigtigste led i arbejdet på selvstændighed er ikke i sig selv et opgør med Danmark. Det er et naturligt ønske, som alle folk har. Grønland er blot en af verdens sidste kolonier, som endnu ikke er blevet selvstændig.” (original quote in danish, translated by the authors).

37 Unknown autor, 2017, ”colony”, Cambridge dictionnary, Cambridge University Press (online) available here: (last consultation june 2017)

4RASMUSSEN L.L., 2017, Kronik hentet fra Statsministeriets hjemmeside, Article from Prime Minister’s website. Statsministeriet website, t (sidste besøg juni 2017) : “Samarbejde og solidaritet er kernen i rigsfællesskabet. En åben og ligeværdig dialog er vejen frem, og jeg tror, at alle tre lande i rigsfællesskabet står stærkest, når vi holder sammen. I både moderne og historisk perspektiv er rigsfællesskabet og selvstyreordningerne unikke løsninger, som giver befolkningerne på Færøerne og i Grønland plads til at forme deres eget land i det tempo, de ønsker. Vores sammenhold fungerer kun, fordi vi taler åbent og ærligt med hinanden, stiller de gode spørgsmål og respekterer hinandens forskelligheder.” (original quote, translation by the authors)

5 United Nations Development Programme, 2015, Global human development report 2014, 286p. Available here :

6 Transparency international, 2017, Available here : corruption index 2016 :

7 RUD, S., ”Governance and tradition in nineteenth-century Greenland” Interventions, 2014, vol. 16, no 4, p. 551-571.

8 Cour permanente de justice internationale, 1933, Fascicule n.53, statut juridique du Groenland oriental, arrêt du 5 avril 193, 109p, available here :

9 WILSON W., 1918 ”President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points”, The Avalon Project, Lillian Goldman Lbrary Project (online publication in 2008), available here (see mostly points 5&6) :

10 MYRDAL, G, 1968, ”The Beam in our eyes” (preface), Asian drama, an inquiry into the poverty of nations, Kalyani Publishers, p 5-36

11 UNITED NATIONS, 2007, United Nations Declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples, resolution 61/295 adopted by the general assembly the 13rd september 2007, 18p. Available here :

12Unknown author, ”colony”, Cambridge dictionnary (online), Cambridge University Press, tilgængelig her : (sidste besøg juni 2017) En dansk beskrivelse af ‘kolonialisme’ ses her :,_jura_og_politik/Samfund/International_politik_og_organisationer/kolonialisme

13Unknown author, “colony law and definition”, Us Legal website, tilgængelig her : (last consultation june 2017).

14 UNITED NATIONS, 1960, Declaration of the granting of independance to colonial countries and people, adopted by General Assembly resolution 1514 (XV) of December 1960. Available here :

15KJAERGAARD T., 2017, ”Grønland og Hermod Lannungs private udenrigspolitik”, WeekendAvisen Bøger, 24 februrar 2017, p. 8-9 : “Med udgangspunkt i en debat (i Weekendavisen) har der de sidste tre-fire år om Kim Leines historiske grønlandsroman Profeterne i Evighedsfjorden (2012) udspundet sig en længere diskussion om Grønlands statsretlige status før 1953. Var Grønland en dansk koloni i 17. – og 1800-tallet som forudsat af Kim Leine? Har Grønland overhovedet været en dansk koloni?To synspunkter har stået overfor hinanden: På den ene side en broget flok af etnologer, politologer, minoritetsforskere, journalister og politikere, som – i reglen uden nærmere begrundelse – har hævdet, at Grønland gennem århundreder var en dansk koloni, indtil man med Grundloven af 1953 blev integreret for ikke at sige overintegreret i Det Danske Rige På den anden side har blandt andre historikeren Bo Lidegaard og forfatteren af disse linjer – med henvisning til Grønlands stilling som en del af det middelalderlige norske, senere af det dansk-norske rige – hævdet, at Grønland aldrig

16LEINE K., 2012, Profeterne i Evighedsfjorden, Glydendal, 522p.


18 McGWIN K., 2017, “Withdrawal symptoms”, Arctic Journal, mai 2017. Due to the closure of the newpaper, was only available here : (Dead link due to the closure of the website)

19Statsministeriet, 2009, Lov om Grønlands Selvstyre, (online). Available here:

20SKYDSBJERG H., TURNOWSKY W., 2016, ”Massivt flertal for selvstændighed”, Sermitsiaq AG, 1 december 2016, available here : (Danish)

21Inuit Ataqatigiit, Partii Naleraq, Siumut, 2016, Koalitionsaftale, 21p, available here :



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