That Time Canada Tried to Purchase Greenland

Sir Robert Laird Borden

John C. Mitcham
Duquesne University

President Donald Trump’s recent musings about buying Greenland from Denmark stirred deep emotions abroad.  The idea of acquiring sovereign territory through a real estate purchase seems like a quintessentially American act. As a Canadian writer in the Toronto Star put it, “Whether you love him or hate him, I think we can agree on this: Donald Trump even believing he can buy Greenland is clinically insane.”

Except that Canada also once tried to purchase the Greenland.

At the height of the First World War, the leaders of the vast British Empire assembled in London to lay the foundation for a postwar world dominated by white, English-speaking peoples.  This Imperial War Conference of 1917 included representatives from the overseas Dominions of Canada, Newfoundland, South Africa, and New Zealand. It was the kind of Commonwealth gentleman’s club that would make the most romantic Brexiteers swoon with post-imperial nostalgia.

At the time, Canada was dominated by a conservative Prime Minister named Sir Robert Borden. A lawyer and business tycoon from Halifax, Borden came to power in 1911 on a platform of anti-Asian immigrant exclusionary laws and protective tariffs against the United States.

Borden was a committed imperialist who harbored dreams of making Canada a powerful and independent member of the British Empire.

He looked forward to a day in the not too distant future when the Dominion would rival the “Mother Country” in economic resources and population. [1]

And his young nation needed territory and natural resources to grow.

Borden saw his opportunity at the Imperial War Conference. The fate of German colonies in Africa and the Pacific was a leading issue on the agenda. Troops from Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa had seized these possessions early in the conflict, and their leaders made it abundantly clear that they would keep them as the spoils of war.

In response, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George appointed a secret committee of Dominion representatives to discuss territorial readjustments at the end of the war. The group went far beyond its mandate, exploring how to get ahold of French, Portuguese, Danish, Ottoman, Chilean, and even American lands. This kind of scheming horrified some British policymakers, one of whom subsequently asked “if we could find some convincing argument for not annexing all the territories in the world.”[2]

THE IMPERIAL WAR CABINET, 1 MAY 1917. (HU 81394) Group photograph of the IWC members taken in the garden of No. 10 Downing Street. Front row (left to right); ?—erson (Minister without portfolio), Lord Milner (Minister without portfolio), Lord Curzon (Lord President of the Council), A Bonar Law (Chancellor of the Exchequer), David Lloyd George (Prime Minister of the United Kingdom), Sir Robert Borden (Prime Minister of Canada), W F Massey (Pri… Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205124978

Canada, however, held no captured enemy lands to claim as war prizes. Instead, Borden shamelessly directed his representatives to seek the purchase of Allied or neutral territories in the Western Hemisphere.

The Canadian delegation made a number of proposals: trading British holdings in West Africa for St. Pierre and Miquelon (tiny French islands off the coast of Newfoundland); purchasing parts of Alaska from the United States; and even assuming responsibility for several British colonies in the West Indies.

But their primary goal was Greenland. Borden’s naval minister, John Douglas Hazen, acknowledged the economic potential for developing the territory’s vast mineral wealth, but he couched his ideas in purely strategic terms.

Hazen pointed out that most of the maritime traffic between Canada and Britain skirted the southern shores of the island. If Germany occupied Denmark, it would become a vital U-boat base.

He also warned that future advances in aviation technology would render Greenland an important stop-over between North America and Europe.

This was quite prescient.

Thirty years later, Times magazine would call it “the world’s largest island and stationary aircraft carrier.”

Most importantly, Hazen urged his colleagues to acquire the territory before the United States could get its hands on it. The recent purchase of the Danish West Indies (today the US Virgin Islands) was proof in the pudding that the land-hungry Americans had deep pockets, and the bankrupt Danes were willing customers.[3]

The Canadian proposal clearly impressed the assembled council. They passed a secret resolution acknowledging that Greenland should be acquired for the empire, and that Canada should have first right of refusal.

Ultimately nothing came of the venture. The Danes had no intention of parting with Greenland, and the United States Government soon declared that it should never pass to a third party.

Meanwhile, Borden gradually abandoned his imperialist agenda and turned his attention to fostering better Anglo-American relations. Canada, as he saw it, could serve as the diplomatic “linchpin” between the two great “Anglo-Saxon” powers.[4] He supported President Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations idea as a way to forge “a league of the two great English-speaking Commonwealths.”[5]

The Canadian leader even considered a proposal from London that he resign his premiership and become the British Ambassador to the United States.[6]

Borden’s dream of an Arctic Empire thus became a casualty of the quest for an enduring transatlantic security partnership.

This historical anecdote is not an excuse for current American designs on Greenland. Far from it. Rather it demonstrates how President Trump’s rhetoric mirrors earlier Western ideas about colonialism and territorial sovereignty that were once so ubiquitous that even Canada indulged in imperialist fancies.

John C. Mitcham PhD is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. His first book, Race and Imperial Defence in the British World 1870-1914 was published by Cambridge University Press in 2016 and was a finalist for the Templer Medal. He is currently writing a new book on settler colonialism and the origins of the British Commonwealth.

———-

[1] For Borden’s vision of empire, see Robert Laird Borden, Canadian Constitutional Studies (University of Toronto Press, 1922)

[2] National Archives of the UK CAB 23/42 Minutes of the Imperial War Cabinet December 20 1918.  The speaker was Secretary of State for India Edwin Montagu.

[3] National Archives of the UK CAB 21/77 Lord Curzon’s Subcommittee on Territorial Desiderata and the Terms of Peace April 24 1917

[4] John Thompson and Steven Randall, Canada and the United States: Ambivalent Allies (University of Georgia Press, 1994), 70-98.

[5] National Archives of the UK. CAB 23/42 Minutes of the Imperial War Cabinet November 26 1918

[6] Parliamentary Archives. David Lloyd George Papers F/5/3 Borden to Lloyd George, February 13 1919; F A.J. Balfour to Lloyd George, March 10 1919

One thought on “That Time Canada Tried to Purchase Greenland

  1. Yes…”it demonstrates how President Trump’s rhetoric mirrors earlier Western ideas about colonialism and territorial sovereignty that were once so ubiquitous that even Canada indulged in imperialist fancies”. Tragically hilarious, actually 🙂

    So the question is not why a demented President Trump would make an insane grab for Greenland in 2019.
    Rather the question should be why did the PM Borden urge his colleagues to make an insane grab for Greensland in 1917-9 (even if he wanted to get in before the USA). Even Conservative Canadian Prime Ministers, who believed that their nation needed territory and natural resources to grow, should have understood that 19th century African colonial attitudes were out of date by WW1.

    Then Canada could have gone after the Turks and Caicos Islands, Bahamas or Barbados in the Caribbean.

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