“Europeans who preach so well and act so badly”

by Fridtjof Nansen

mn. The Norwegian polar explorer and later Nobel Peace Prize winner Fridtjof Nansen also lived for a time among the Eskimos of Greenland. He described their culture in detail in his moving book “Eskimo Life”.

“Rarely or never does a quarrel occur. The Greenlanders cannot afford to waste time in wrangling amongst themselves; the struggle to wring from nature the necessities of life, […] is there harder than anywhere else, and therefore this little people have agreed to carry it on without needless dissensions. […] his first social law is to help his neighbour. Upon it, and upon their habit of clinging together through good and ill, depends the existence of the little Greenland community. A hard life has taught the Eskimo that however capable he may be, and able as a rule to look after himself, there may come times when without the help of his fellow-men he would have to go to the wall; therefore, it is best to help others. ‘Therefore, all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them’—this commandment, one of the first and most important of Christianity, Nature itself has instilled into the Greenlander, and he always acts up to it, […]. Hospitality to strangers is a no less binding law among the Eskimos than helpfulness to neighbours.  […]
  The fact that some wallow in abundance while others suffer hardship, as happens every day in European society, is unthinkable among the Eskimos […]. […] In their dealings they are peaceful and benevolent. Their language does not know any swear words. Fighting and brutalities of that sort, as before-mentioned, are unknown among them, and murder is very rare. They hold it atrocious to kill a fellow-creature; therefore, war is in their eyes incomprehensible and repulsive, a thing for which their language has no word; and soldiers and officers, brought up to the trade of killing, they regard as mere butchers.
  This is how the Europeans came. Without knowing the people and what they needed, they assumed without further ado that they needed to be improved from the ground up. They […] interfered with the old livelihoods everywhere and at the same time destroyed the healthy livelihoods of the Eskimos with the old, balance-keeping system. And [...] [they] showered the ‘savages’ with the ‘blessings of culture’ – starting with coffee, tobacco and brandy. […]
  What misfortune we have not brought upon them with our money! If they now possess more than the moment demands, the temptation becomes too great for them to sell the surplus to the Europeans instead of giving it, as before, to the neighbour in need. In this way, we Christians destroy their self-sacrificing charity instead of developing it. […]
  In one fell swoop we gave them a completely new religion, broke their respect for the old customs and traditions, without, of course, being able to give them new ones in return; it did not even occur to them that this people was more Christian at heart than themselves and had carried out the Christian doctrine of love quite differently than any ‘Christian’ nation. […]
  We found a people highly gifted by nature, living well and standing on a high moral plane in spite of its faults. But with our cultural work, our mission and factory goods, we have brought its material conditions, its morals and its community order into sad decay – and now it seems doomed. […] Is not the fruit of contact with Europeans and missionaries the same everywhere? What has become of the Indians, of the formerly proud Mexicans, of the highly gifted Incas in Peru? […] And Africa? […] We speak unabashedly of the ‘blessings of Christianity and civilisation’ that we want to bring them. […] We recognise the same race [meaning the Europeans] that – when China wanted to defend itself against the corrosive poison of opium – forced it with bloody warfare to open its ports to the opium trade so that the Europeans could pocket huge fortunes, while state and society in China were undermined. […] The Greenlanders look down contemptuously on the stupid, self-important Europeans, who preach so beautifully and act so badly, and who understand nothing at all about […] everything that is important for their lives. […] It is certainly a nice thought to want to help these poor savages whom one has never seen and whose need one does not know; but [...] why then not begin with the next ones; and if all here [in Europe] were helped in our own house, then perhaps we could investigate whether there are also people in other places who need our help. […] Shall our eyes never be awakened to what we are doing? Will not all true humanitarians from pole to pole soon rise up in scathing protest against this evil, against this high-handed, scandalous treatment of people of other races, other faiths and other cultures? There will come a time when our children and our children's children will judge us harshly. […] Then morality will have developed to such an extent that only capable and well-equipped people will be allowed to first carefully empathise with the life and culture of a foreign people in order to investigate whether they need our support and in what way we can best serve them in this case. […] And that one leaves a people alone in peace when it becomes apparent that one can do nothing of value. […] I had to ease my conscience; it was my sacred duty to make my small contribution. […] My only hope is that my reputation may awaken feeling here and there for the Eskimos and compassion for their fate.”

Source: Fridtjof Nansen. Eskimo Leben
(Eskimo Life), 17th edition 2014
ISBN 978-3-9561-0279-0

Translated from the German book by Current Concerns

Our website uses cookies so that we can continually improve the page and provide you with an optimized visitor experience. If you continue reading this website, you agree to the use of cookies. Further information regarding cookies can be found in the data protection note.

If you want to prevent the setting of cookies (for example, Google Analytics), you can set this up by using this browser add-on.​​​​​​​