This work is best seen as Nansen’s defense of the Greenlanders against the onslaughts of “civilization.”
p. viii: I am weak enough to feel compassion for a declining race, which is perhaps beyond all help, since it is already stung with the venom of our civilisation. But I comfort myself with the thought that at least no words of mine can make the lot of this people worse than it is, and I hope that the reader will accept my observations in the spirit in which they are written. Amicus Plato, amicus Socrates, magis amica Veritas—the truth before everything. And if in some points I should appear unreasonable, I must plead as my excuse that it is scarcely possible to live for any time among these people without conceiving an affection for them—for that, one winter is more than enough.
p. 172-73, in Chapter X on Greenlandic Morals: It appears, however, that even the married Greenlanders are not by nature devoid of what we understand as moral feeling, for their everyday behaviour is, as a rule, quite reputable and void of offence; on that point all travellers must agree.
If a heathen—and in many cases even a Christian—Greenlander refrains from having to do with another man’s wife, whom he has looked upon with favour, it is generally, no doubt, more because he shrinks from quarrelling with the husband than because he regards adultery as morally wrong; but we may gather from the following saying, current at Angmagsalik, that even on the east coast there is a vague feeling that it is not the right thing. “The whale, the musk-ox, and the reindeer,’ so the saying runs, ‘left the country because men had too much to do with other men’s wives.’ Many men declared, however, that it was ‘because the women were jealous of their husbands.’ The jealousy of the women was also alleged as a reason for the fact that the channel which formerly went right through the country, from the Sermelik Fiord to the west coast, had been blocked with ice.
Egede relates that, strangely enough as he thought, the women before his arrival had felt no jealousy when their husbands had more wives than one, ‘and got on very well with each other’; but as soon as he had preached to them the wickedness of such proceedings, they began to show much annoyance when their husbands wanted to take second wives. ‘When I have been reading with them,’ he says, ‘and instructing them in the Word of God, they have often urged me to bring the seventh commandment sharply home to their husbands.’ The men, as may be supposed, did not at all approve of the missionaries’ influence over the women in this respect, and one of them, whose two wives had fallen by the ears, said angrily to Niels Egede: ‘You have spoiled them with your teaching, and now they’re jealous of each other.’ It appears to me that the man’s anger was not without justification. What should we say if Greenlanders came to our country, forced themselves into our houses, and preached their own morality to our wives?
Before we utterly condemn the morality of the Eskimos, we ought also, perhaps, to remember the golden maxim that those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. European morality is in many respects of such doubtful value that we have scarcely the right to pose as judges. After all is said and done, it is possible that the most essential difference between our morality and that of the Eskimos is that with us the worst things take place behind the scenes, in partial or complete secrecy, and therefore produce all the more demoralising effect, while among the Eskimos everything happens on the open stage. The instincts of human nature cannot be altogether suppressed. It is with them as with explosives: where they lie unprotected on the surface, they may be easily ‘set off,’ but they do little mischief; whereas when they lie deeper and more concealed, they are perhaps, less easily kindled, but when once they take fire the explosion is far more violent and destructive, and the greater the weight that is piled upon them, the greater havoc do they work.
p. 193-94: To prove that their natural parts are good, I may mention that they learn to read and write with comparative ease. Most of the Christian Eskimos can now read and write, many of them very well; indeed, their faculty for writing is often quite marvellous. Even the heathen Eskimos learn to play dominoes, draughts, and even chess, with ease. I have often played draughts with the natives of the Godthaab district, and was astonished at the ability and foresight which they displayed.
p. 338-39: Of what profit, then, to the Eskimo, is his ability to read and write? He assuredly does not learn hunting by help of these arts. It is true that by means of the few books he possesses he may gain information as to other and better countries, unattainable conditions and alleviations, of which he before knew nothing and thus he becomes discontented with his own land which was formerly the happiest he could conceive. And then, too, he can read the Bible—but does he understand very much of it? And would it not do him just as much good if the matter of it were related to him, as his old legends used to be? There can be no doubt that the advantage is dearly bought. We must bear well in mind that the Eskimo community lives upon the very verge of possible human existence and that a concentrated exertion of all its energies necessary to enable it to carry on the fight with in hospitable nature. A little more ballast and it must sink. This is what is already happening, and all that wisdom in the world is of no avail.
The upshot, then, of European activity in Greenland has been degeneration and decadence in every respect. And the only compensation we have made to the natives is the introduction of Christianity. In so far we have achieved a happy consummation, for, in name at least, all the Greenlanders of the west coast are now Christians. But the question seems to me to be forced upon us whether this Christianity, too, is not exceedingly dearly bought, and whether the most ardent believer ought not to have some doubts as to the blessings it has conferred upon this people, when he sees how it has cost them their whole worldly welfare?
p. 340: From the Eskimo standpoint at any rate, the answer cannot be doubtful. If he could see his true interest, the Eskimo would assuredly put up this fervent petition: God save me from my friends, my enemies I can deal with myself.