ABRAHAM ULRIKAB


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

Who is Abraham Ulrikab? What's his story?

AbrahAbraham and his familyam Ulrikab (meaning Abraham, husband of Ulrike) was a 35-year-old Inuk from the moravian mission of Hebron, Labrador. Abraham was a fisherman and hunter. He was married to 24-year-old Ulrike. The couple had two young daughters, Sara (3 years old) and Maria (9 months old). In August 1880, when the Eisbär, a ship flying the German flag, anchored in Hebron's bay, the whole community wondered who these unexpected visitors were. Soon, 27 years old Norwegian Johan Adrian Jacobsen came to meet them and explained that he was looking for a dozen or so "Eskimos" to bring back to Europe. In exchange for a good pay, these people would exhibit themselves in front the European public. They would travel throughout Europe and be brought back home the following summer. In his explanation, Jacobsen provided the example of the group of six Greenlanders he had recruited in 1877 and who returned home rich and famous the following year.

Hebron being a mission settled by the Moravian Church, the missionaries were in total disagreement with Jacobsen's proposal. In no way would would they help him in his endeavour. Seeing that the missionaries were not in favour, none of the 200 or so Inuit living in Hebron would accept Jacobsen's offer.

Jacobsen's last hope for not returning to Europe empty handed, was to head further north into Labrador's fjords where he could try to convince some non-christianized Inuit. Abraham agreed to help him with this task and became Jacobsen's interpreter. After leaving Hebron, the ship made its way to Nachvak fjord where a Hudson's Bay Company post was operating. There, they found a few Inuit families fishing on the banks of a river. Abraham talked to them and was successful in getting a family of three, Tigianniak (45 years old), his wife Paingu (50 years old) and their daughter Nuggasak (15 years old), to accept Jacobsen's offer.

While in Nachvak, Abraham had a long chat with the HBC's post manager, George Ford, and let himself be convinced to head to Europe. Jacobsen was thrilled! The ship returned to Hebron and fetched Abraham's family plus a young single man, Tobias (20 years old) decided to join the group. On August 26, 1880, the Eisbär lifted anchor with the eight "Eskimos" on board. The group arrived in Hamburg one month later, on September 24. For the next four months, the group would travel to Berlin, Prague, Frankfurt, Darmstadt, Krefeld and Paris.

Abraham Ulrikab - illustrations from Svetozor newspaper, 1880
Illustrations of the Labrador Inuit published in Prague's Svetozor newspaper, 1880.

Unfortunately, Jacobsen and Hagenbeck forgot to have the Inuit vaccinated against smallpox. A deadly mistake. In mid-December, the first victim, Nuggasak died in Darmstadt. Before the year was over, two more victims, Paingu and Sara, died in Krefeld. The remaning five Inuit were vaccinated on January 1 as they arrived in Paris, but it was too late. On January 9, they were all admitted to Hôpital Saint-Louis were they died one by one. The last survivor, Ulrike, died on January 16.

Literate, Abraham had documented his moods and emotions in his personal diary and in letters. His writings give us insight on what happened when the group was exhibited in Germany and in Prague. 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." 

Here is a video that was prepared in 2013 for our crowdfunding campaign. It introduces the eight Inuit and summarizes their story as it was known at the time:

 

How and why did France Rivet get involved in researching Abraham's story?

In July 2009, as soon as he boarded the Lyubov Orlova for a cruise along the Labrador Coast, Ottawa-based photographer Hans Blohm donated copies of the English and German versions of the book “The Diary of Abraham Ulrikab: Text and Context” to the ship’s library. A few years earlier, his friend Professor Hartmut Lutz, with the help of his students from the Greifswald University, translated to English a German translation of Abraham's diary and letters. Hans knew that the ship was expected to stop in Hebron and Nachvak, where the eight Inuit came from. The books would therefore be of interest to many passengers.

Hans Blohm and France Rivet near Hebron, Labrador.
Hans-Ludwig Blohm and France Rivet, near Hebron. 2009. Photo : Micheline Leblanc.

A few days into the cruise, another passenger, France Rivet, was surprised to notice Hans on deck with a woolen hat identical to hers. That was the trigger for her to introduce herself to Hans. As they were discussing, Hans told France about Abraham’s story and suggested that she drops by the ship’s library to read the Inuk’s diary before the ship’s stop in Hebron.

Hebron, Labrador
Hebron, Abraham’s home (the community was abandoned in 1959).

France did so and was shocked as well as fascinated by the story. But, she kept looking for the chapter about what happened to the group in Paris where five of the eight died. The book was silent about that portion of their trip. These Inuit could not simply have vanished! What was the sequence of events from the time they arrived in Paris to the time they died? Where are their traces? Where were they 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 Hebron graves, and later sold to the Trocadero museum, still in Paris?

France’s mother tongue being French, she promised Hans, and a Labrador Inuk women they both met on board, that she would give a try at finding information about the Inuit's stay in Paris.

How were the Inuit's human remains uncovered?

The more France dug, the more riveting the story became, and totally unsuspected facets emerged. In fall 2011, a major turn of events occurred when France sent an email to the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle in Paris asking if they had Labrador Inuit artifacts in their collections. More specifically, she was looking for Paingu’s skullcap and the plaster casts of the brains of Abraham, Ulrike and Tobias. Her research had shown that these items had been presented to the Paris Anthropological Society in 1881. The reply from the curator of the biological anthropology collections had France speechless; he confirmed that the museum possessed the skullcap but he also voluntarily disclosed to her the presence in their collections of the fully mounted skeletons of the five Inuit who died in Paris: Abraham, his wife Ulrike, their daughter Maria, young Tobias, and shaman Tiggianiak.

For France, this news meant that her research was suddenly being turned into an opportunity for changing the course of history. More than once, in his diary, Abraham had expressed his desire to come home to Labrador. A door was now opening to have his wish become reality. He wouldn’t be coming home on his own two feet, but at least, his remains could eventually be buried in his homeland and his spirit rest in peace.

Late November 2011, France was on her way to Paris for a two-week research trip. Her very first stop was the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle. The curator and her reviewed the archival documents associated with the human remains and confirmed that they were indeed Abraham and his group. France was taken in to see the Inuit’s skeletons and also took a look at the skullcap considered to be that of Paingu. This was the first visit the Labrador Inuit received in living memory!

As the curator explained to France, in revealing this information to her, he was very much aware that it meant the museum was exposing itself to receiving a request to have the human remains repatriated to Canada/Labrador. Since the museum’s policy is not to oppose the repatriation of identified remains, the curator's wish was for his institution to receive such a request. Nevertheless, the demand has to originate either from a descendant or from the community of origin, and it has to go through the official diplomatic channels.

Hebron, Labrador
Hebron, Labrador.

The publication of France's findings

After informing the Canadian Embassy in Paris of her latest findings, France was put in touch with Johannes Lampe and Dave Lough, respectively Minister and Deputy Minister of Culture, Recreation and Tourism for the Nunatsiavut Government. Having previously been involved in other human remains repatriations, Johannes and Dave both recognized the significance of the findings while specifying that it would most likely take several years before the remains could be brought back. Before any public announcements could be made, they needed to know all of the facts. France took it upon herself to conduct the research. For the next 3 years, researching Abraham's story became her full-time activity. She travelled to Europe at three distinct occasions going to all cities where the Inuit had been, visiting the cemeteries where they were buried, digging in local archives, etc.

France also collaborated with Professor Hartmut Lutz. Having published the English translation of Abraham's diary, Hartmut was most interested in the story and volunteered to also translate the diary of Johan Adrian Jacobsen, the young Norwegian who had recruited the Inuit and travelled with them in Europe.

In early 2014, the information gathered was now sufficient for France to start putting a book together. She did not believe that it would be feasible to find a publisher who would agree to publish both the French and English versions of the book, and do so in a timely manner. France had a deadline to meet for the book’s publication: September 2, 2014. That day, she was scheduled to meet the Nain Elders Committee to inform them of her findings, to answer their questions and to obtain their advice on the next steps in regards to the human remains. France and NG had determined this would be the perfect opportunity to publicly release the news of the finding of the remains. France was thrilled that her wish for the announcement to be made in Nunatsiavut and for the book to be launched there would become reality. Therefore, she determined that to meet this deadline she had no choice but to self-publish. So, Polar Horizons became a publisher.

In phase 1, Hartmut Lutz's translation of Johan Adrian Jacobsen's diary was published under the title Voyage with the Labrador Eskimos, 1880–1881. Then, France tackled the consolidation of all documents, photos and illustrations uncovered up to that point and published it under the title In the Footsteps of Abraham Ulrikab: The Events of 1880–1881. Both books were published in English and French.

 

What is the current status of the repatriation of the human remains?

The human remains are still in Paris in the reserves of the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle. In 2013, Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper and France's President François Hollande signed a cooperation agreement where it is stated that both countries will collaborate to return Inuit bones in French museums to Canada.

At present, the decision to issue the repatriation request is in the hands of the Nunatsiavut Government. Before deciding whether or not such a request will be issued, NG needs to finalize its repatriation policy and complete the search for living descendants. Both steps are in progress.

How did the documentary "Trapped in a Human Zoo" come to life?

In spring 2013, when France Rivet ran a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds that would enable her to continue the research in Europe, Roch Brunette, a Gatineau film producer, happened to read an article about France's research in Ottawa's French language daily newspaper Le Droit . The story of Abraham and of human zoos captured his attention and imagination. For the next month, he did his own research to verify the facts stated in the article and he convinced himself that there was indeed an interesting story to explore. He called France up and requested that they have coffee. Roch had even started to write a film synopsis. During their meeting, France informed him that there was more to the story than what was written in the paper i.e. she had actually located the Inuit’s remains in Paris. It didn’t take more to convince Roch that he did want to take on the production of a documentary film. For the next year, he worked on securing broadcasters and funding as well as ironing out the synopsis.

In August 2014, everything was in place to start the filming, and the Nunatsiavut Government (NG) was ready to publicly release the news of the finding of the remains. It could not be kept secret any longer as the rumour had already started spreading in Labrador.

The production of the documentary made it possible for France to head to Nain to meet with the elders on the morning of September 2, 2014. After hearing France's findings, all elders who expressed their opinion agreed that the remains had to come back. Johannes Lampe, the chief elder, was designated to accompany France and the film crew to Europe. That same day, France headed to the local radio station to tape an interview which acted as the public announcement of the findings of the human remains.


Johannes Lampe and France Rivet meet with the elders. France's interview at the OK Society. Film crew interviews Johannes.

A few weeks later, in late September 2014, the group headed to Hamburg, Berlin and Paris where they not only visited archives and museum collections, but also met with the descendants of both Carl Hagenbeck and Johan Adrian Jacobsen, those who had a direct role to play in the eight Labrador Inuit having gone to Europe.

Filming "Trapped in a Human Zoo"
Filming in Hamburg, Berlin and Paris.

In spring 2015, various re-enactments scenes were filmed in Gatineau with members of Ottawa's Inuit community playing the roles of the eight Labrador Inuit.

Filming of re-enactment scenes for 'Trapped in a Human Zoo'

Trapped in a Human Zoo was premiered in January 2016, in Ottawa, during the Northern Lights trade show. It aired on CBC’s The Nature of Things with David Suzuki in February 2016 (and in June 2017). The French version aired in March 2016 on TV5 and in spring 2017 in French-speaking Europe. The film has since been shown at venues such as the Canadian Cultural Center in Paris, the Native North American Museum in Zurich, the IndianerInuit Film Festival in Stuttgart, the Explorer's Club Polar Film Festival in New York, the Yorkton International Film Festival in Saskatchewan, for example.

If you are located in Canada, you can watch the 45-minute version of the documentary Trapped in a Human Zoo: Based on Abraham's Diary as it aired on CBC's The Nature of Things with David Suzuki :


 

A few things to understand before reading In the Footsteps of Abraham Ulrikab

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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, Nunatsiavut.
Saglek, Torngat Mountains National Park, Nunatsiavut.

Would your great-grandparents have visited the Inuit during their stay in Europe?

For our European friends, if you remember seeing photographs or any documents relating to the eight Labrador Inuit in your family's photo albums or archives, please get in touch with us.

For example, posters were plastered all around Paris advertising the presence of the "Eskimos" at the Jardin d'Acclimatation. Not a single copy has been uncovered to date.

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?

In Prague, a group picture was taken with an Arctic scene in the background. We are still looking for a copy of thes photographs.

 

For more information

To see the press coverage Abraham's story has received:

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Join the Facebook page In the Footsteps of Abraham Ulrikab to keep abreast of the latest news about Abraham's story.