Hagenbeck Poster 1880
(Section of the 1880 Poster used by Carl Hagenbeck's Thierpark to advertise the Inuit. Collection Hans-Josef Rollmann.)

Who is Abraham Ulrikab? What's his story?

In August 1880, twAbraham and his familyo 'Eskimo' families from northern Labrador voluntarily departed for Europe where they were to become the newest exotic attraction in zoos. The eight individuals were recruited by Johan Adrian Jacobsen on behalf of Carl Hagenbeck, pioneer of ethnographic shows (known today as 'human zoos'). Since 1874, crowds had been flocking to Hagenbeck’s shows where they could observe 'savages' originating from different parts of the world. Hagenbeck was hoping to repeat the 1877 success of a group of Greenland 'Eskimos'.

As part of the group was Abraham, a 35 year old Inuk of Christian faith (Moravian) from the community of Hebron. Abraham was accompanied by his wife, Ulrike (24 years old), their two young daughters, Sara (3 years old) and Maria (9 months), a young single man, Tobias (20 years old) as well as a non-Christian family of three, Tigianniak (45 years old), his wife Paingu (50 years old) and their daughter Nuggasak (15 years old).

Unfortunately, Jacobsen and Hagenbeck forgot to take a mandatory measure by German law: vaccinate them against smallpox. A deadly mistake. Less than four months after their arrival on European soil, the group no longer existed. All eight Inuit having been killed by smallpox. The first three victims died in Germany. The remaining five, including Abraham, died in Paris.

Literate, Abraham documented his moods and emotions in his personal diary and in letters. Abraham’s writings give us insight on what happened when the group was exhibited in Germany (Hamburg, Berlin, Frankfurt, Darmstadt, Krefeld) and in Prague. Unfortunately, they are silent about their stay in Paris and until now, nobody had attempted to elucidate the events that occured in Paris prior and following the Inuit's death.

Here is a video that was prepared in 2013 to introduce the eight Inuit and summarize their story as it was known at the time:

What was this research project looking for?

These Inuit could not simply have vanished! They must have left traces. What was the sequence of events from the time they arrived in Paris to the time they died? Where are their traces? Where were the Inuit buried? Is Paingu's skullcap that Jacobsen carried to Paris in his luggage and gave to a professor anywhere to be found?  Are the artifacts Jacobsen collected in Labrador graves, and later sold to the Trocadero museum, still in Paris?

In 2010, after reading the book The Diary of Abraham Ulrikab: Text and Context, and intrigued by so many unanswered questions, France Rivet set out to look for answers. The more she dug, the more riveting the story became, and totally unsuspected facets emerged.

Hebron, Abraham’s home (the community was abandoned in the late 1950s)

The Inuit's remains are uncovered

Four years and three research trips to Europe later, France's findings bring to light an opportunity to change the course of Abraham’s story. Indeed, his expressed wish to come home to Labrador could eventually become a reality since it was discoverted that a French national museum holds the remains of Abraham, of his 24-year-old wife Ulrike, their 13-month-old daughter Maria, 20-year-old Tobias, and 45-year-old Tigianniak. This museum also holds the skullcap of Tigianniak’s wife, 50-year-old Paingu, and finally, France's research has also determined that the skull of 3-year-old Sara, the daughter Abraham and Ulrike had to abandon to a hospital in Germany, is part of a skull collection in Berlin! The remains, full or partial, of seven of the eight Inuit have therefore been located.

The book In the Footsteps of Abraham Ulrikab unveals new chapters in Abraham's story

Published in August 2014, the book In the Footsteps of Abraham Ulrikab consolidates all facts and documents uncovered by France Rivet.

This out-of-the-ordinary historical account will enable you to:

  1. Follow the Inuit's journey step by step from them being recruited in Labrador to their death in Europe.
  2. Discover how their remains ended up in museums and whether or not these remains were exhibited in Paris.
  3. Read Abraham's own moving words. Of the 35,000 individuals who were exhibited in Europe from the 1870s to the 1930s, Abraham is one of a handful to have left notes describing his experience as an "exhibit." See these 19th century "human zoos" from the perspective of someone who, contrary to what the Europeans were expecting, was literate, educated and could reflect on these civilized people.
  4. Understand the events through the writings of the main actors of the 19th century: Johan Adrian Jacobsen; the journalists who reported on the Inuit's tour; the members of the Moravian community who opposed Abraham's departure or who visited him at the Berlin zoo; the anthropologists who studied the Inuit either before or after their death; the physicians who admitted the Inuit to the Paris hospital or performed the autopsies; the police officials who authorized the exhumation of the remains, etc.
  5. Read the full report of the commission of inquiry into the Inuit's death. Discover their conclusions as to where the Inuit were infected by smallpox, what could have been done to prevent their contamination, and who was to blame.
  6. Put faces on most of the individuals who had a role to play in the Inuit's story through the 100 photos and illustrations contained in the book.

What they said about In the Footsteps of Abraham Ulrikab

Congratulations on your book [...] What I really like about it, apart from the good research and documentation, as well as the pictures introducing all persons and places involved, is the fact that you present the historical facts from all sides, but do not judge.

Dr. Hilke Thode-Arora, anthropologist, specializing in ethnographic shows in the colonial period, Munich, Germany

I take the opportunity to let you know that I finished your book on Ulrikab and his family. I found it really good and pleasant to read. You have done an enormous documentation work. What a tragic story, which we'd think could and should have been avoided. And the anthropologists who, a posteriori, seem so tactless. But these were the manners of the universalist Republic that was sure of herself... (Translation of the original text in French)

Philippe Mennecier, person in charge (now retired) of the biological anthropology collections, Museum national d'histoire naturelle, Paris, France

I wanted to congratulate you most sincerely for the work you did on Abraham Ulrikab. If it had been a PhD thesis, I would have gladly granted you the Cum Laude designation. Of all the studies I have read about the Jardin d'acclimatation's 'visitors', yours is the most thorough and by far the best. (Translation of the original text in French)

Gérard Lévy, Expert-merchant – photography from its origins to 1940 (specializing in the exhibitions held at the Jardin d’acclimatation), Paris, France

The concept of a ‘Human Zoo’ is a pretty daunting one to grasp. One is able to read many historical documents which show how two Inuit families were lured from their homes in Labrador to tour Europe in the 1880s and perish in a Parisian hospital from Smallpox. But to put those documents into an order as so to put a face on the issue is not only a noble one, but one that is needed to improve the human condition in order for us to improve ourselves. And that is what France Rivet has done. [...] This is an enlightening read and one that brings respect to an element to the human condition in a new way.

Steven Buechler, Pacific Tranquility blog - The Face of the "Human Zoos", Ontario, Canada

I first came upon Abraham and his story in the Up Here magazine aboard a Canadian North flight to Inuvik. You have really opened my eyes - wider - as to the cultural issues and challenges facing indigenous peoples in Canada, and the historical background that led us here.

Ken Koshgarian, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada

Click here to read more testimonials.

Make your own opinion of the events of 1880-1881.
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A Few Things to Understand Before you Read In the Footsteps of Abraham Ulrikab

  1. This book can be read as a stand-alone but it is important to understand that it is being published as part of a much wider endeavour that ultimately aims to repatriate to Canada the Inuit's human remains uncovered in Europe.
  2. The book's primary purpose is to provide the Nunatsiavut government, and the Inuit community, with all the information we have gathered about the events that occurred in Europe 134 years ago, in order to help them make a better informed decision about the repatriation of the remains.
  3. The book being meant to serve such an important purpose, we determined that in order to be most valuable, it had to provide the full transcriptions/translations of the original primary source documents. We realize that some readers may be disappointed to not find any analysis and interpretation data. They would be so useful especially for sections such as the 19th century studies on the Inuit's brains which, unless you are a neurologist, will most likely confuse you. They definitely confused us! That said, researching Abraham's story raised hundreds of questions in a wide range of areas. What was life in Hebron or Nachvak back in 1880? Why was Abraham so afraid of the Catholics? What do we know now about smallpox that they ignored back in 1880? It was totally unrealistic to try to attempt to resolve so many questions at this stage of the project, and honestly, we didn't know where to draw the line. Therefore, the decision was made to limit ourselves to publishing the "raw data" and to leave the analysis and interpretation for a subsequent step.
  4. Another main reason which influenced our decision is that we wanted to ensure to provide the opportunity to the Inuit community to take ownership of Abraham's story by getting hold of some of the story's many aspects that need further investigation, and taking an active role in bringing it one step higher. They certainly would be the better placed people to answer many of these questions and we would all benefit from such collaboration. It is on our 2015 to do list to look into the best way to go about completing this major undertaking.
  5. In the meantime, Professor Hartmut Lutz's book The Diary of Abraham Ulrikab: Text and Context already provides contextual information on several aspects of the story. We therefore invite readers to consult it as well as the many books which have been published on the "human zoos" of the 19th and 20th centuries. The book's bibliography provides many titles that could be of interest.
  6. Please, do not expect the book to provide the most up-to-date information about the repatriation process. As you now understand, the book had to be published before that decisional process could officially be triggered. Until the remains are brought back home to Labrador, and a second edition of the book is published to report on these yet-to-be-written chapters, you will have to rely on Polar Horizons' website and newsletter, on the Nunatsiavut government press releases, on the press, on social medias, etc. to be kept informed of the current status of the repatriation. The Nunatsiavut government and community are the only ones who can bring closure to this story and they will do it on their own terms, conditions, and time schedule.

May our efforts be useful to the Nunatsiavummiut.

Saglek Fjord, Torngat Mountains National Park

Johan Adrian Jacobsen's Diary - Voyage with the Labrador Eskimos, 1880-1881

To properly understand the 1880-1881 events, it seemed essential that Johan Adrian Jacobsen's diary be made available. Polar Horizons therefore took upon itself to translate it to English and French and to publish it. Voyage with the Labrador Eskimos, 1880-1881 will allow you to discover the moods, thoughts and qualms of this 27-year-old man throughout this journey; from his unsuccessful attempt to recruit 'Eskimos' in Greenland, his despair to see that Moravian missionaries in Labrador also opposed his project, his jubilation when Abraham agreed to accompany him with his family, his astonishment to witness Tigianniak and Paingu using their shamanic powers to calm a storm during the Atlantic crossing, to his shock of facing the first two deaths only minutes after doctors had confirmed there was no reason to be alarmed, the heartbreaking moment when Abraham has to hand over his three year old daughter to a hospital in Germany and finallythe horror of being admitted to the smallpox unit of a Paris hospital where both the 'Eskimos' and Europeans suffered and died around him.

"When I saw to Ulrike shortly after midnight, I noticed that she too would end her struggle soon. I tried to comfort her, but she waved me off with her hand, as if she did not want to see me at all. That was no surprise, because she knew that all the others had gone before her. I felt guilty to a certain degree for the death of these unfortunate people, even if unintentionally. Had I not come to Labrador, they would still be alive like all their relatives."

What they said about Voyage with the Labrador Eskimos, 1880-1881

"I read the book Voyage With the Labrador Eskimos, 1880-1881 all in one go.  What a sad story and all this because they neglected to administer a vaccine which was available. This book, a particular and a slightly repetitive journal, is a valuable addition to the Diary of Abraham Ulrikab. Both illustrate the Europeans’ exploitation attitude for commercial purposes and the curiosity of the Inuit who want to see the wonders of a country they cannot imagine." (Translation of the original text in French)

Dr. Denis Saint-Onge, O.C., Emeritus Professor, Department of Geography, University of Ottawa, ON

"WOW! What a great book. I read it in one go. It is really exciting and gives a wonderful view of the times."

Marianne Stenbaek, professor of Cultural Studies, English Department, McGill University, Montréal, QC

"I loved it very much!!! Like Johan Adrian started his journey, I slowly began my reading then I really got into it, carefully following the events. I was moved and saddened by the death of the 'Eskimos.' This diary is like a thriller we know the ending to, but we seek to understand the circumstances that led to their death." (Translation of the original text in French)

Sylvie Pinsonneault, Montréal, QC

Get your copy now!
See the right-hand column for details on where you can buy it.

How did this projet come about?

If you are curious to find out how this project came about, I invite you to read the following post that was published on Polar Horizons' blog: Bon Voyage Lyubov Orlova! The 'In the footsteps of Abraham Ulrikab' research project thanks you!

Nachvak Fjord, Torngat Mountains National Park

How you can help us continue the research?

  • By purchasing a copy of the books In the Footsteps of Abraham Ulrikab and Voyage with the Labrador Eskimos, 1880-1881. Currently, both books are available in paper or electronic format through Polar Horizons' online bookstore, Amazon's network and several online retailers. Your local bookstore should not have any issues ordering it for you if they don't have a copy on hand.
  • If you know of anyone who believes that he/she is related to the families of Abraham, Ulrike, Tobias, Tigianniak or Paingu, whether they are direct or collateral descendants (i.e. descendants of a brother or sister), please tell them to get in touch with us.
  • For our European friends, if you remember seeing photographs or any documents relating to these eight Inuit in your family's photo albums or archives, please get in touch with us. Posters were plastered all around Paris advertising the presence of the Eskimos at the Jardin d'Acclimatation. We also know that Abraham signed many autographs and did drawings for the crowd who came to see them. Wouldn't it be wonderful to retrace a document holding his original signature?

A big thank you for your support, your encouragement, and for your interest.