300 years: Hans Egede’s Mission and Legacy in Greenland

For better or worse, depending on who you ask, Hans Egede is one of the most influential people in Greenland’s history. Three hundred years ago, he arrived on our shores.

Disclaimer

This article is an opinion piece written by an external author and does not necessarily reflect the views of Visit Greenland.

The year 2021 marks the 300th anniversary of Hans Egede’s arrival in Greenland to Christianise and colonise the island. His influence on almost every aspect of life in Greenland is visible even in modern times and, today, most Greenlanders are officially Christians and members of the Lutheran State Church. A testament to Hans Egede’s influence on society is that he continues to be both revered and controversial to this very day.

As with many historical figures with strong personalities, Hans Egede and his legacy have varying interpretations. A historian, a theologist, or a local citizen would probably have differing views about his life’s work. You will sense that there is still a division of perspectives regarding Hans Egede’s character and contribution to society if you read opinion articles today.

Hans Egede’s Statue Faces the Wind

For the past 50 years, the placement of Hans Egede’s statue at a prominent location in Nuuk‘s Colonial Harbour neighbourhood has called for controversy. His statue stands on a small hill next to the iconic red wooden Church of Our Saviour, facing south towards the Island of Hope, where he built his first mission. Nuuk is quite a gusty place, so Hans Egede must sometimes, both literally and figuratively, face harsh winds. But why has the placement of the statue become so important?

Statue of Hans Egede in Nuuk splashed with paint. Photo - Kim Insuk - Visit Greenland.

In the wake of the 2020, worldwide demonstrations for Black Lives Matter and against former colonisers and slave owners, the statues of Hans Egede in Nuuk and Copenhagen were splashed with paint. The word “DECOLONIZE” was also written on them.

In the ensuing debate, some argued that an oppressor’s statue should not remain in such a significant location. Others suggested that it could be moved to a museum or a specific statue park. However, in a local referendum, the people of Nuuk voted to keep the statue in its current location. Also, it should be noted, the statue was erected 100 years ago following a Greenlandic initiative. It was not placed in Nuuk by outsiders, but by the citizens of Nuuk. This has not deterred its detractors, though.

The wish for independence and the fight for Greenlandic values gained traction in the 1960s and 1970s. A rethinking of current values also occurred. It was argued that many societal values were imposed upon the Greenlandic population from the outside.

The fight for home rule, self-governance, and, eventually, independence is not a fight against Christianity. Still, Christianity did oppress original Inuit thinking and values. Hans Egede would therefore also become a symbol of oppression. Some believe that because he imposed new norms, he felt his values were superior to those of the indigenous people.

Qilakitsoq mummy with facial tattoo, Greenland National Museum. Photo Peter Lindstrom - Visit Greenland

In recent years, an Inuit Renaissance has taken place, with many young people identifying with original Inuit values as an alternative to the dominant culture, which is very influenced by European thinking. Inuit values can be observed in personal, introspective ways, but there is also an emergence of very visible signifiers: Inuit facial and body tattoos. Christians banned these, and their comeback points to a renewal of pride in Inuit history. You can see the original facial tattoos on the famous Qilakitsoq Mummies‘ faces at The National Museum of Greenland.

Other people focus on what they consider are positive aspects of Hans Egede’s arrival in Greenland: the living standards rose, and the mortality rates fell. Also, it is considered a success by some that a high percentage of the population are members of the church and follow the religion that Hans Egede brought to Greenland.

However, let’s go back in time to see what motivated Hans Egede.

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Hans Egede’s Dream and Mission

Before setting foot in Greenland, Hans Egede had harboured a dream: He wanted to go to Greenland on a mission to Christianise the population. It had been 300 hundred years since the world had heard from the Norse settlers who made Greenland a Christian country in the year 1000. Should any descendants of these early settlers still be alive, they would learn that they were now Lutheran rather than Catholic.

Portraits of Gertrud Rask (Hans Egede's wife) and Hans Egede in Hans Egede Church in Nuuk. Photo - Aningaaq R. Carlsen - Visit Greenland.

Portraits of Gertrud Rask (Left, Hans Egede’s wife) and Hans Egede (Right) in Hans Egede Church in Nuuk

Born in 1686 in northern Norway, 160 kilometres (100 miles) north of the Arctic Circle, Hans Egede grew up in intelligent circles, gaining a lot of knowledge from his uncle. Hans Egede went south to study theology and graduated in 1704, after only 1½ years of studying at the University of Copenhagen. Two years later, he married Gertrud Rask and, in 1707, he became a priest in the Norwegian town of Vågen.

In the following year, his interest in Greenland was born, and, over the next decade, he worked hard on convincing the Danish-Norwegian king to send him to Greenland. This would not only be a mission to honour God; King Frederick IV would also profit from this.

Hans Egede Arrives in Greenland

On July 3, 1721, Hans Egede arrived in Greenland. Now he was here, ready to preach the Word of God. Getting to Greenland took 13 years of fundraising and lobbying. Hans Egede had raised money through rich merchants in the important port town of Bergen. There, he had set up a trading company, and in 1721, he was also given the official status of a missionary. His dreams were finally coming true as he entered his ship, Haabet (The Hope).

Hans Egede and his entourage set off in three ships with his wife, five kids, and 40 future colonists. Shortly after passing the southern tip of Greenland, the ships encountered drift-ice, typical for this area in the early summer. Floes of sea ice break off in the Arctic sea and travel south along Greenland’s eastern coast. The sea ice turns a corner at Cape Farewell and packs South Greenland’s western fjords, making it potentially deadly, as the heavy ice can crush boats. In Hans Egede’s entourage, one of the three ships was crushed by the ice, but everyone on board was saved and brought onto the other ships.

The two remaining ships finally arrived on an island and named it Haabets Ø (The Island of Hope, currently Kangeq). Later on, they learned how inappropriate the name was, as it was a pitiful place to set up shop. Situated right next to the Davis Strait, it is often foggy and damp. The ensuing winter was harsh and uncompromising.

Hans Egede in Greenland by Louis Moe - Dansk Skolemuseum

“Give us today our daily bread,” which was changed into “Give us today our daily seal,” as the Inuit were unfamiliar with bread.

After this first winter, many of the new colonists were stricken by scurvy and were more than eager to return to Scandinavia at the first chance they got. When a ship arrived in 1722, they bid farewell to their foggy home. However, for seven years, from 1721-28, Hans Egede, with the great support of his wife Gertrud Rask, fought to set up a mission and a whaling station. Egede also explored the coast of Greenland in search of descendants of the Norse population. He found many remains and ruins but no descendants.

In 1724, Hans Egede succeeded in baptising some Inuit children. His trip’s commercial aspects had failed, but he did bring Christianity to the local population. One of the things that he significantly adapted in daily prayers was “Give us today our daily bread,” which was changed into “Give us today our daily seal,” as the Inuit were unfamiliar with bread.

Håbets Ø and its surroundings. Mapped by Hans Egede in 1722.

Håbets Ø and its surroundings. Mapped by Hans Egede in 1722.

The Mission Moves

In 1728, four ships arrived with Major Claus Parss, who was appointed Governor of Greenland. He moved the colony from The Island of Hope to the mainland not far away and started the second colonisation attempt. Parss was helped by soldiers and convicts who arrived with the ships, and he named his fort Godt-Haab (Good Hope), the former Danish name for Nuuk.

Hans Egede’s House was disassembled on the island and re-erected in the new colony. It is the oldest standing building in Nuuk and now hosts the most prominent receptions of the Greenlandic Government. 

The Old Part Of Nuuk. Photo - Matthew Littlewood, Visit Greenland-min

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Hardship, Success, and an Epidemic

Even with this new colonial base, major success still evaded Hans Egede. Forty people succumbed to scurvy in the new colony and the king had taken over the commercial aspects of dealing with Greenland from the bankrupt company in Bergen. However, Frederick IV died in 1730, and the following year, the new king decreed that the Greenlandic colonies should be closed.

Hans Egede held on to his dream and stayed on in Greenland. He used his sons as translators and also learned to speak some Greenlandic himself. Both Hans Egede and his sons, and later on the Moravian Brotherhood, relied upon pictures when telling the stories of the Bible, which helped with language challenges. He would mostly focus his efforts on children to ensure that those he converted would live a true Christian life. He figured that it was easier to reach people at a young age rather than later.

A stone in front of the old church in Qaqortoq in South Greenland commemorating Hans Egede and Gertrud Rask. By Mads Pihl

In 1733, a Christian child converted by Hans Egede came back to Greenland after a visit to Denmark. Sadly, this poor child had been infected with smallpox. Soon enough, an epidemic was raging in the area. Hundreds of the newly converted Greenlanders succumbed to the illness. Hans Egede and Gertrud Rask were among many others who nursed the ill, and in 1735 Gertrud also became a victim of the epidemic.

Hans Egede’s Legacy

Hans Egede, deeply depressed, changed his involvement in the mission as he brought his wife’s body to Denmark and left the mission’s daily work to his sons. He was racked by guilt, feeling that he had brought more bad than good to Greenland. However, he remained faithful to his life’s work and established the Greenland Mission Seminary in Copenhagen. In 1740 he became the Lutheran Bishop of Greenland.

Published in 1747, Hans Egede’s Catechism for Greenland became the cornerstone of Christianity in Greenland. Throughout the years, Hans Egede, his sons, and other missionaries successfully spread the Bible’s word. They went on many trips along the west coast of Greenland, resulting in several mission and trading stations, books, maps, and the Greenlandic language‘s first dictionary.

Hans Egede worked actively for a Christian Greenland until his death in 1758, and his sons and grandsons carried on with his work in Greenland.

Hans Egede memorial in Nuuk. Photo by Aningaaq R. Carlsen - Visit Greenland
Memorial of Hans Egede and his people
They sacrificed their lives in the work of our country and Denmark.
The people have erected this memorial to show their gratitude

The Backside of the Medal

Hans Egede had a reputation for throwing tantrums, when things did not go as he had planned them to, and this did not help his standing among Greenlanders back then or today. As with all colonial stories, there are two sides to the coin. Some remember achievements, while others remember how those achievements came about.

For one, the smallpox epidemic killed many families; Hans Egede himself also felt guilty about this.

Furthermore, Greenlandic angakoks (shamans) had been wary of Hans Egede’s mission from the beginning. In Inuit belief systems, the angakoks are in contact with the spirits of nature and spirits in other realms. As a Christian missionary, Hans Egede was naturally against this set of beliefs and would sometimes rely on threats and violence to impose his doctrines.

Also, it didn’t help that soldiers and convicts built the second colony. Their manners and appearance were possibly quite a contrast to the message of divine love.

Hans Egede vs the Moravian Brotherhood

The Moravian Brotherhood also became a huge, Christian influence in Greenland. They came to Greenland in 1733 on the same ships as the boy with smallpox. When Hans Egede was in Greenland, there were only two major protestant missionary efforts worldwide: the Danish Mission and the Moravian Brotherhood who originated in Germany. The new missionaries from the Moravian Brotherhood set up the successful mission, Neu-Herrnhut (New Herrnhut).

 

By 1747, the Moravian Brotherhood built the beautiful Herrnhut House from timber imported from Europe. According to the annals, the Greenlanders looked at this building with awe: If something this beautiful could exist in this life, imagine what the afterlife would be! The missionary station was later to become the first University of Greenland.

Hermhut House (the first University of Greenland). Photo by Aningaaq R. Carlsen - Visit Greenland.

According to some sources, the Brotherhood priests had a good flair for staging and theatricals (and they were possibly also kinder than Hans Egede himself). They consequently attracted many converts. For more than 150 years, the Moravian Brotherhood established missions along the west coast of Greenland. One of them, Lichtenau, was the largest settlement in Greenland for some time. When christening people, both the Egedes and the Moravians introduced last names, a new concept to the locals. This is why so many Greenlanders have Danish or German last names, for example, Danish names like Nielsen, Høegh, and Egede, and German-sounding names such as Biilmann, Heilmann, Fleischer, and Kleist.

The Future Tale of Hans Egede

Hans Egede’s legacy will live on but maybe in a revised form. While he was mostly revered in the past, younger generations are more skeptical and do not wear the same rose-tinted glasses. It is a worldwide trend, so it will be important to visit this theme again in the future.

As a result of the debate surrounding Hans Egede, Kommuneqarfik Sermersooq, the municipality in which Nuuk is situated, decided not to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Hans Egede’s arrival to Greenland this year in 2021. Instead, they will focus on Nuuk’s 300th anniversary in 2028.

In memory of Hans Egede

Over the years, the memory of Hans Egede has been honoured many times. Here are some examples:

Egedesminde (Aasiaat)

House Row in Aasiaat. Photo - Filip Gielda, Visit Greenland

Egedesminde was founded by Hans Egede’s son Niels in 1759, a year after Hans Egede’s death. Four years later, the settlement was moved to its current position on the island of Aasiaat, named by its former Inuit population. Aasiaat is now the name of the town.

The Hans Egede Church in Nuuk

Hans Egede Church in Nuuk. Photo by Aningaaq R. Carlsen - Visit Greenland

The largest church in Greenland is not our cathedral, Annaassisitta Oqaluffia (Church of our Savior), but Hans Egede’s Church. It was inaugurated 50 years ago in Nuuk. Similarly, the latest and largest church in South Greenland is Gertrud Rask’s Church in Qaqortoq.

The Hans Egede Medal

In 1916, the Royal Danish Geographical Society instituted the Hans Egede Medal, celebrating people who carried out exceptional “geographical studies and research in the Polar lands.” Among the recipients are Polar Explorers Knud Rasmussen, Peter Freuchen, and Roald Amundsen.

S/S Hans Egede and S/S Gertrud Rask

These two ships were also named after the couple, acknowledging Gertrud Rask’s significance in her own right. Built in 1905 and 1923, respectively, the two ships sailed between Denmark and Greenland.

After the German occupation of Denmark in 1940, the ships sailed between Greenland and continental North America. The Germans torpedoed Hans Egede in 1942, and not long after, Gertrud Rask was shipwrecked on the Canadian coast.

Hotel Hans Egede in Nuuk

Hotel Hans Egede. Photo by Aningaaq R. Carlsen - Visit Greenland.

Greenland’s largest hotel is located right in the centre of Nuuk, and it is named after Hans Egede. One of the largest conference rooms at the hotel is named after Gertrud Rask.

Another Hans Egede Shipwreck

The Wreck of The Hans Egede

It can hardly be called a memorial, but it is possible to visit the shipwreck of another Hans Egede ship on the Thames River. The Danish ship was sold to England and eventually took in water, and the remains of the hull can be seen near the shore off Cliffe Fort.

The Hans Egede Statue in Copenhagen

There is a statue of Hans Egede in front of Frederick’s Church (commonly known as The Marble Church) in Copenhagen.

The Egede Crater

There is a crater named after Hans Egede on the Moon. It is located on the south edge of the Sea of Cold (Mare Frigoris). Coincidentally, a crater on Mars has recently been named after Qaqortoq, which houses the Gertrud Rask Church.

Jesper Kunuk Egede

Article by Jesper Kunuk Egede

Jesper Kunuk Egede grew up in Narsaq in South Greenland. He is a former Marketing Manager at Greenland Tourism, Greenland Travel, and Air Greenland. Now, he lives in Budapest and works as a content provider for Greenlandic tourism and travel companies.