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TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic January 18, 2013 - 8:22 pm

Taissumani, Jan. 18

The Plan for Canada to Annex Greenland


Last week I wrote about the expedition of Robert Stein to Ellesmere Island, a venture that accomplished nothing. Stein never returned to the Arctic.

But, like a true fanatic, he maintained his interest in the north and, from the comfortable vantage point of Washington, he concocted another hare-brained scheme. This one would have involved a daring feat of diplomacy between Canada, Britain, Denmark, Germany and the United States.

Stein had long been worried about the tensions that were building between Britain and Germany. Somehow, because of his interest in Greenland, he managed to drag Denmark into an elaborate plan that he devised.

Since 1864 Germany had occupied North Schleswig, previously a part of Denmark. Denmark wanted it back. One solution might have been for Germany to have traded it back to Denmark in return for Denmark’s colonial possessions in the West Indies.

But the United States would not hear of Germany acquiring Danish territory so close to America. And no one wanted to hear of Germany acquiring Greenland. Into this situation stepped Robert Stein, armed with a solution, or so he thought.

The United States would give part of the Philippines to Denmark, in return acquiring the Danish islands in the West Indies. Denmark would give Greenland to Canada, viewed as being a British possession. Britain would in return give Denmark some of its possessions in Polynesia and Africa.

Finally, Denmark would then turn over its newly-acquired possessions in the Philippines, Polynesia and Africa to Germany, in return for North Schleswig.  Tensions would thus be defused and the world would remain at peace.

Stein published these plans in American newspapers in early January of 1909. His idea was also published in Germany and, according to him, in Denmark. He claimed that it received great support. Of course, no-one consulted the Greenlanders, nor, for that matter, the Africans, Polynesians or Filipinos.

By this time, he had left the United States Geological Service, and taken employment with the Bureau of Statistics of the Department of Commerce and Labour as a stenographer and typist. This would seem to be a strange under-utilization of Stein’s many talents, but one senses that by this point the man may have been quite deluded about his own influence and the worth of his mad-cap ideas. Robert Stein, though lucid and erudite, was obsessed and perhaps virtually unemployable in anything other than mundane tasks.

He solicited the assistance of Captain B. S. Osbon of the Arctic Club of America, headquartered in New York, asking him if the club had any Canadian members who might succeed in getting the matter publicized in Canadian papers. 

To Osbon, he wrote that “every man who knows anything about the matter will agree that Canada ought to have Greenland.” This was the only way, he claimed, that adequate protection could be given to the resources of Greenland and the Canadian High Arctic.

“Only in this way can the whale receive adequate protection,” he said, adding, “...prospectors could then afford to explore every corner within 100 miles of Baffin Bay. A tourist trade would spring up as soon as regular communication was established…”

In fact, Stein’s plans were published later that year in The Canadian Magazine under the title “Canada and Greenland.”  The article ended with an impassioned plea:

“Without spending a cent, by simply expressing a wish to own Greenland, she [Canada] can gain that colony, the control of Baffin Bay, a monopoly of its whale fishery, most likely the accession of Newfoundland, hasten the development of her present Arctic possessions, cement the friendship between Britain and Denmark, largely restore the former cordiality between Britain and Germany, and, by thus lessening the naval competition, effect a saving of millions in her own budget and in that of the mother country.

The final sentence reads more like a taunt: “Will she take her place among those that know the right and do it not?”

In fact, Canada did nothing. Stein had been under the mistaken impression that A. P. Low, who had led the Neptune expedition to the Arctic in 1903-04, was still the Director of the Geological Survey of Canada, and addressed his letters to him in that capacity.

But Low no longer had that position, and Stein’s correspondence ended up on the desk of the new director, R. W. Brock, who passed it on to Joseph Pope, Under Secretary of State for the recently formed Department of External Affairs. Pope wrote to Brock, “I do not think [Stein’s proposal] calls for any action.”

And there the matter ended. The world went to war, unaware of Stein’s madcap scheme. Stein, despairing of world peace, committed suicide in 1917.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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