History of East Greenland

Text: Anders Stenbakken
Destination East Greenland

"A hundred thousand years ago men started walking out of East Africa and slowly, slowly, they worked their way up and across the world, on and on into every dank, sodden jungle, every scalding desert — until, finally, at long last, they got here. This is where the long march of men stopped. This is the finishing line. The end of the road."
From the article "The Big Nowhere" in Sunday Times by AA Gill

A culture build on isolation, endurance and survival skills.

Two thousand years ago Inuit (“Sarqaq” and later “Dorset people”) managed to reach the area – presumably from the North – by rowing along the shore in boats made from skin.
During periods of unfavourable climatic conditions the isolated communities died out and the area would be deserted until the next immigration.

Middle Ages. It appears that the district was uninhabited during most of the Middle Ages, and that the most recent arrivals of Inuit (this time from the tribe of the “Thule people”) happened during the 14th or 15th century.

During the 18th century there were Inuit settlements along the whole coast of East Greenland, including the fjords around Ammassalik Island. However, during the 19th century the population fell drastically. First to die out were the inhabitants of the long stretch of coast from the northernmost point of East Greenland to just north of Ammassalik. Subsequently the settlements of the southern part of the east coast became deserted because of death and emigration to the west coast of Greenland.  Thus, the district of Ammassalik became the only inhabited place on the entire east coast.

Practically unknown.

During the 18th century several Danish trading stations (colonies) were established on the west coast of Greenland and the inhabitants gradually became Christian. Due to the isolation caused by the Great-Ice, no such colonisation of East Greenland took place, and the area remained practically unknown to anyone outside the local population.

“The Women’s Boat Expedition”

In 1829/30 a Danish expedition led by W.A. Graah travelled along the coast from Cape Farewell, the southernmost point of Greenland, to the southwestern part of Ammassalik district. In 1884 the Greenland explorer Gustav Holm succeeded in getting from the Cape Farewell area right up to Ammassalik Fjord with a small expedition by sailing close to the coast. “The Women’s Boat Expedition” as it subsequently was called, wintered on the east side of Ammassalik Island. Gustav Holm listed a total population of 413 in the small settlements of the district.

Trading and Mission Station of Ammassalik.

In 1892 a new Danish expedition to the area noted that the population had fallen to 294. It was envisaged that the tribe would soon perish and in spite of the very real navigational problems, the government decided to establish an East Greenland “colony”.

The “Trading and Mission Station of Ammassalik” was founded in 1894 in the bay named King Oscar’s Harbour/ Tasiilaq. The health and general nutrition of the population improved. The mortality rate fell, and the population started to increase. In 1914 it reached 599 – and today there are nearly 3000 people in the municipality of Ammassalik.


The population of Tasiilaq reached such a high level during the 1920s that there was not enough employment for everybody. In other words, there were too many people and too few seals. It was therefore decided to build a new town at the mouth of the world's largest fjord 900 kilometres further north. It was originally named Scoresbysund and is now called Ittoqqortoormiit. The town has only around 550 inhabitants, and can only be reached by helicopter from the small airfield at Nerlerit Inaat/Konstabel Pynt.




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