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Greenland, in the North Atlantic, is the world's largest island. Two thirds of its land mass lies within the Arctic Circle; its nothernmost point is less than 500 miles from the North Pole. More than four fifths of the country is covered by a massive ice sheet, an average of five thousand feet thick. The habitable portion of the country is predominantly tundra, almost entirely without trees, and with only a few animal species, including polar bears. The rocky coastline is bleak and marked by fjords.

Greenland became a colony of Denmark-Norway in 1721, when Hans Egede established a Lutheran mission and trading company. In 1776, a state monopoly on Greenland's entire trade economy was assumed by Denmark-Norway, and the country was largely closed to foreigners for nearly two centuries.

Greenland's most important source of income was whaling, and an eighteenth-century whaling mission might last several years. The Arctic right whale, or bowhead whale, was common around Greenland, and in the early eighteenth century the sperm whale was also discovered in the North Atlantic. Atlantic whales were hunted nearly to extinction by the middle of the nineteenth century, and the whaling industry came to a close in the decades after the discovery of petroleum in 1859, which eliminated most of the need for whale oil.