Category Archives: 1400s

Greenland’s Lost Islands

Greenland is pretty unique. For a start, it’s the site of the only major permanent Viking colony in North America. It’s also one of the few places on Earth where a European population was expelled by colonists from a different, technologically more advanced culture. The story of Greenland also involves mysterious lost islands. And who doesn’t love mysterious lost islands?

The first European to see Greenland was Gunnbjørn Ulfsson, who encountered a set of flat islands (skerries) between Iceland and Greenland. Settlements sprang up on these islands and they became the first European settlements in North America. Providing we accept that Greenland is in North America, Gunnbjørn’s skerries are part of Greenland, and that Gunnbjørn’s skerries ever existed. All of these points are contested.

Gunnbjørn’s skerries are sometimes explained as a hallucination, or as a semantic misunderstanding. But according to one source the islands hosted a small population, and were reported to have been destroyed by a volcano in 1456. One thing that backs up this story is that an island did briefly reappear in 1783, in around the same place, as the result of an earthquake.

After the first colonies were set up, History happened. The area was far more green than it is today, so the colonists could live reasonably well. But as early as 975, the Greenlanders were suffering famine winters where “the old and helpless were killed and thrown over cliffs”.

This was just a taste of things to come, though. The winter of 975 was a chill at the start of the Medieval Warm Period, the colony in Greenland seems to have died out around four centuries later in the Little Age Age. The population didn’t freeze to death, it seems they just became unprofitable: they started to need more imports to survive but had less to trade.

The church at Hvalsey

People left to find work elsewhere, and the colony grew smaller rapidly. The last written record we have is a record sent to Iceland to prove that Thorstein Olafsson of Iceland and Sigrid Björnsdottir of Greenland had married in Hvalsey Fjord Church in Greenland on Sept. 14, 1408.

There are later sources referring to Greenland, though. They tell us that in the 1410s, a new people arrived near the Greenland settlements, burnt the churches and took most of the people as prisoners. These people were the Inuit. Like the Vikings, the Inuits took advantage of the warm period to expand. As the Vikings spread west, the Inuits spread east from Alaska. Inuit technology was specialised for arctic environments and this gave them the edge over other groups as things cooled down. By the time the Europeans returned, the Inuit had been living in Greenland peacefully for centuries.

The Norse seem to have hung on till at least 1448, but at some point after that, the colony vanished. The lack of precious materials left behind indicates that the Norse left peacefully, and no site of battle has been found yet. But the Inuits apparently believe that they beat the Vikings in open battle and chased them to Cape Farewell for a final showdown.

If Gunnbjørn’s skerries existed, and if they were destroyed by a volcano in 1456 they could well have been the first and last Norse colony in Greenland. Which would be a final stroke of bad luck for this colony. An ice age and getting out-competed by another tribe are bad enough. Their last island getting destroyed by a volcano would be taking the piss.