USA's declaration on Danish sovereignty of Greenland, 1916

On 4th August 1916, the American government issued a declaration to the Danish government that it would not raise objections if Denmark extended its interests in Greenland to include the entire island. This was perhaps surprising given the 1832 Monroe Doctrine intended to limit European colonialism. The declaration paved the way for recognition of Danish sovereignty by other nations.

An ink pen
With the stroke of a pen by their foreign minister, the Americans acknowledged Danish sovereignty to the whole of Greenland. Photo: Nicola Thomas, Unsplash.


The declaration (reproduced below) was included as an appendix to the contract concerning the sale of the Danish West Indies to USA, both of which were signed on 4th August 1916. The American foreign minister Robert Lansing (1864-1928) signed the declaration on behalf of the USA in support of Denmark's claim to sovereignty over Greenland.

Since 1721, Denmark had had a presence predominantly on the west coast of Greenland, but a greater number of Danish expeditions started to reach the previously impassable areas in north and east Greenland from 1880s. In 1894, Ammassalik (now Tasiilaq) on the east coast became a permanent trading post, for example. A private trading post in Thule (now Qaanaaq) in north Greenland was founded in 1909/10, eventually being sold to the Danish state in 1937. 

The declaration was extremely important:

  • Firstly, it was seen as opposing the long-standing Monroe Doctrine. This doctrine stemmed from a statement made by the US President James Monroe in 1823 setting out, amongst other things, that any European advance or intervention in the Western Hemisphere, including Greenland, would not be tolerated and would be considered a hostile act by the USA. Denmark had been attempting to colonise Greenland it is entirety since 1880s. The declaration, with a stroke of a pen, meant that the Americans legally recognised Danish sovereignty over the whole of Greenland.
  • Secondly, it paved the way for other states to accept the Danish claim. In fact, the only nation to openly oppose the claim was the Norwegian government. At that point in time, Norway wanted to expand its activities in the Arctic to improve its fishing industry. 

The Danish West Indies transferred to the USA on 31st March 1917 and were from then on called the United States Virgin Islands.  On 21st May 1921, Denmark formally declared that all of Greenland was subject to Danish rule. 

The declaration

The declaration, which was an appendix to a sales contract of the Danish West Indies to America, was signed by American foreign minister Robert Lansing. Picture: The Danish National Archives (Rigsarkivet).  

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