Hans Egede, “The Apostle of Greenland”

ans Egede was known as “The Apostle of Greenland” because of his missionary work there which began in 1721 and continued for fifteen years. Egede was born on January 31, 1686 in Harrestad, Norway. He received his bachelors degree in theology in 1705 from the University of Copenhagen. Influenced by Pietism, the prevailing Church movement of those days, Egede decided to become a missionary to Greenland.

Egede’s Description of Greenland

When Egede arrived in Greenland in 1721, no settled trade existed there. With the support of the Bergen Company, Egede established the town of Gothaab. The initial colony was not successful, and in 1733 the Danish government effectively became the chief support of trading and missionary work there. It must have been in the days of failure, when Egede was sending discouraging reports and appeals for help back to Europe, that he sent his description of Greenland. As early as 1722 Egede had written a report to the Bergen Company which was printed in 1729, without his knowledge, as Det gamle Grønlands nye perlustration. This book, the first extensive description of Greenland, was so popular that it was translated into German the following year. The content attests to Egede’s interest in the ancient Norse settlements in Greenland. He begins with a brief narrative of the founding of the Norse colony and its later history. He also describes the plant and animal life on Greenland, and gives accounts of Eskimo culture, commerce and religion. When Egede returned to Denmark in 1736 he assumed a supervisory position over the Greenland mission. During this latter period he did most of his writing. In 1741 a much enlarged version of the 1729 book was printed. This edition includes an extensive natural history of Greenland, accounts of the manner of living of the Greenlanders, a brief vocabulary of their language, their religion, knowledge of the stars, etc. The portion of the book that deals with Greenland’s geography and earlier history is much expanded. Egede also added a map of Greenland as well as eleven excellent woodcut illustrations.

A Brief History of Greenland

At the end of the tenth century Norsemen from Iceland came to settle in the southwestern regions of Greenland. By the thirteenth century the Norse colonization was at its height. The once uninhabited region had 280 farmsteads and a population of 3000. The region also had a bishop’s see with sixteen churches. The progress and prosperity of this region did not last however. Because of the political conditions in Europe, ties gradually loosened with the colony and communication ceased altogether until the sixteenth century. As the position of the colony weakened it is believed that Eskimos then moved down from the North and that the Norse settlers “must have succumbed” to their force.1 Information about Greenland, which Egede later made use of, was recorded in the early 1600s by Danish expeditions as well as English and Danish seafarers who navigated Davis Strait in order to hunt whales and barter with the inhabitants there. Throughout the seventeenth century Greenland remained for the large part unexplored, and the old Norse colony was all but forgotten until Hans Egede set his sights on what he believed to be a much neglected part of the world.

Sara Shannon, Research Assistant
James Ford Bell Library

1. Bobé, Louis. Hans Egede: Colonizer and Missionary of Greenland. Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1952, p. 9.

Editions of Hans Egede’s Description of Greenland at the James Ford Bell Library

Catalog entry
Hans Egede, Det gamle Grønlands nye perlustration; eller; en kort beskrievelse om de gamle nordske coloniers beyndelse og undergang I Grønland.… Kjobenhavn, H.C. Paulli, 1729, 58pp.
There are three copies of this edition in North America.
Des alten Gröenlands neue Perlustration, oder Ein kurtze Beschreibund derer alten nordischen Colonien … in Gröenland . Franckfurt, Stodks Erben und Schilung, 1730. 47 pp. 17 cm.
Being the first description of Greenland by a resident, the work became immediately popular, and this German edition followed the original edition by one year.
Ausführliche und wahrhafte Nachricht vom Anfange und Fortgange der grondländischen Mission. Hamburg, Christian, Wilhelm Brandt, 1740. 288p. 8 p.l. 21 cm.
In his 1722 report to the Bergen Company which was published as Det gamle Grönlands .…, he had announced the forthcoming Instaebdekug ig y ydfirkug rekatuib, of which the present book is the first German translation. This is based on entries from Egede’s diaries, kept during his years in Greenland. They had been sent back to Denmark as annual reports. All fifteen of them were lost in a fire in 1795. The account of his missionary work was first published in 1730, and was reissued in 1737 and 1738, but it never achieved the same popularity which this natural history of Greenland enjoyed.
Det gamle Grønlands nye perlustration, eller naturel-historie. Copenhagen, Johan Christoph Groth, 1741. 131 pp. fold. map, 11 p.l. 20 cm.
The present edition is a much enlarged version of Egede’s 1729 Danish version. It includes an extensive natural history of Greenland, accounts of the manner of living of the Greenlanders, a brief vocabulary of their language, their religion, knowledge of the stars, etc. The natural history section is illustrated with copper engravings of good quality. The portion of the book that deals with Greenland’s geography and earlier history is much expanded. In fact, this is an entirely different book from the one published in 1729. It attracted interest in other countries, probably because of its description of whaling.
Map from the 1741 edition
A description of Greenland. London, For C. Hitch, 1745. 220 pp.; fold. map, 11 pl. 20 cm.
View of whaling from the 1745 English translation. “When they go a Whale catching, they put on their best Gear or Apparel, as if they were going to a Wedding-Feast, fancying that if they did not come cleanly and neatly dressed, the Whale, who can’t bear sloven and dirty Habits, would shun them and fly from them.” (p.102, 1745).
This is an English edition of Egede’s 1740 expanded work. In the introduction Egede writes the second edition has come about since he has “got a fuller Light in these Matters” partly through his own observations and those of his son Paul, who had remained in the North-West colony of Greenland.
Beschryving van oud-Groenland, of eigentlyk van de zoogenaamde Straat Davis. Delft, Reinier Boitet, 1746. 192 pp., Fold. map, 11 pl. 21 cm.
This is the first Dutch edition. Interest in Greenland in Europe at this time was stimulated by the whaling industry that developed in the Davis Strait area and also the scientific interest in the peoples and the plants and animals of Greenland. This book, therefore, introduced the Dutch to the religion, manners and customs, hunting methods, language, and other cultural aspects of the Greenlanders, as well as exploring the commercial possibilities of Greenland. An excellent map is provided, and the eleven illustrations depict various aspects of Greenland life.
Map from 1746 Dutch edition
Seal-hunting, from 1746 edition
Houses, 1746 edition. “As to their Houses or dwelling Places they have one for the Winter-Season, and another for the Summer. Their Winter Habitation is a low Hut built with Stone and Turf, two or three yards high, with a flat Roof. In this Hut the Windows are on one Side, made of the Bowels white and transparent.” (p.114, 1745)
Games, 1746 edition. “Ball-playing is their most common Diversion, which they play two different ways. They divide themselves into two Parties; the first Party throws the Ball to each other; while those of the second Party endeavour to get it from them, and so by turns. The second manner is like our playing at Foot-ball. They mark out two Barriers, at three or four hundred Paces distance one from the other; then being divided into two Parties, as before, they meet at the starting Place … and the Ball being thrown upon the Ground, they strive who first shall get at it, and kick it with the Foot, each Party towards their Barrier.”; (p.161, 1745)

Description et historie naturelle du Groenland. Copenhagen and Geneva, C.& A. Philibert, 1763. 168 pp. Fold map, 10 pl. 19 cm.
This is the first French edition, printed in 1763. This edition has ten illustrations rather than eleven as in all of the other editions. The illustration which was left out in this edition is of young men who are getting exercise by wrestling.
A description of Greenland. Second edition. London: printed for T. And J. Allman, 1818.
This later edition has an historical introduction and a life of the author. It is illustrated with a fold-out map and numerous wood engravings. The book does not have full-page illustrations as with the earlier editions. Instead, figures cut from Egede’s 1741 edition are placed over chapter headings.
Map from 1818 edition

Further Reading on Hans Egede and Greenland

Primary Sources at the James Ford Bell Library

Blefken, Dithmar. Islandia, sive populorum & mirabilium quae in ea insula reperiuntur accuratior descriptio. Leiden, Henrici ab Haestens, 1607.
The first edition of an account of trade and travel in both Iceland and Greenland, by a German preacher accompanying merchants from Hamburg in 1563.
Blefken, Dithmar. Scheeps-togt na Ysland en Groenland. Leiden, P.Van der As, 1706.
This Dutch edition is part of Pieter Van der Aa’s great collection of voyages and travels to all parts of the world.
Egede, Niels Rasch. Tredie continuation af relationerne betreffende den Grønlandske missions tilstand og besckaffenhed. Copenhagen, Johann Christoph Groth [1744].
A diary of a merchant-missionary in Greenland, covering the years 1738-1742.
Egede, Poul Hansen. Efterretninger om Grønland, uddrangne af en journal holden fra 1721 til 1788. Copenhagen, Hans Christopher Schrøder, [1789].
When Hans Egede went with his family to Greenland in 1722, his son Paul was twelve years old. Although Paul returned to Copenhagen for his education from 1731 to 1734, he spent most of his time in Greenland until poor health forced him to return to Denmark permanently in 1740. From that time on he was an instructor to missionaries planning to go to Greenland. He spoke the language like a native and translated some of the books of the Bible into Icelandic.
      His book is a history of the Greenland missionary undertaking from the beginnings to 1788, although the years following his return from Greenland are given rather brief coverage, being mostly news taken from letters written by missionaries. The earlier years contain his own experiences and observations, including commentary on the people of Greenland, the going and coming of ships between Greenland and Denmark, the growth of the Danish settlements, the coming of the Moravian Brethren as missionaries and other contemporary events. He includes an extract from the Vatican archive concerning the ancient Norse settlements on Greenland. Altogether it is useful, and one of the few sources for the history of this period in Greenland’s history. It includes a good map locating settlements and churches.
Pellham, Edward. Gods power and providence: shewed, in the miraculous preservation and deliverance of eight Englishmen, left by mischance in Green-land anno 1630, nine moneths and twelve dayes: with a true relation of all their miseries … with a description of the chiefe places and rarities of that barren and cold countrey. London: printed for R.Y for Iohn Partridge … 1631. In Awnsham Churchill’s A collection of voyages and travels.… 3rd ed. London: Lintot and Obsborn, 1744-46. Vol.4, pp.743-755.

La Peyrere, Isaac de, 1594-1676. Rélations de l’Islande, et du Groenland. Amsterdam: Jean Frédéric Bernard, 1731. In Jean Frédéric Bernard’s Recueil de voyages au nord. Amsterdam, J.F. Bernard, 1725-38.
A ten-volume collection of accounts of voyages of exploration and trade, chiefly to the northern regions, but including also voyages to Louisiana, Korea, Turkistan, and elsewhere.
Two journals: the first kept by seven sailers in the isle of St. Maurice in Greenland, in the years 1633, 1634, who pass’d the winter, and all died in the said island: the second kept by seven other sailers, who in the years 1633 and 1634, wintered at Spitzbergen, with an account of their adventures and sufferings from the bears and whales, insupportable cold and storms, &c. London: printed for Henry Lintot and John Osborn … 1744. In Awnsham Churchill’s A collection of voyages and travels.… 3rd ed. London: Lintot and Osborn, 1744-46.Vol.2, pp.347-360.

Secondary Sources

Louis Bobé. Hans Egede: Colonizer and Missionary of Greenland. Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1952.

Gad, Finn. The history of Greenland. London: C.Hurst, 1982.

Ingstad, Helge. Land under the pole star: a voyage to the Norse settlements of Greenland and the saga of the people that vanished. London: Cape, 1966.

Pioneers of Eskimo grammar: Hans Egede’s and Albert Top’s early manuscripts on Greenlandic. Copenhagen: Linguistic Circle of Copenhagen, c. 1986.

Jansen, Henrik M. A critical account of the written and archaeological sources’ evidence concerning the Norse settlements in Greenland. Copenhagen: C.A. Reitzel, 1972.

Krabbe, Thomas Neergaard. Greenland, its nature, inhabitants, and history. Copenhagen: Levin & Munksgaard, 1930.

Seaver, Kirsten A. The frozen echo: Greenland and the exploration of North America, ca. A.D. 1000-1500. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996.