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140th Anniversary of Abraham Ulrikab’s Death

Version française de ce texte

The week of January 10 to 16, 2021, marks the 140th anniversary of the death, in Paris, of five Labrador Inuit including Abraham Ulrikab.

For those unfamiliar with Abraham’s story, he was one of a group of eight who were recruited in Labrador in August 1880 to be exhibited in European “human zoos.” The group arrived in Hamburg on September 24, 1880, then travelled to Berlin, Prague, Frankfurt, Darmstadt, Krefeld and Paris. Along the way, they unfortunately crossed paths with smallpox. Three of them died in Germany between December 14 and 31, 1880. The five who made it to Paris were exhibited at the Jardin d’Acclimatation from January 1 to 6, 1881. Then, on January 8, all were admitted to the smallpox unit of the Saint-Louis hospital, where they died, one after the other, between January 10 and 16, 1881. They were buried in the mass graves of the 17th division of the Saint-Ouen Cemetery, either one or two days after their death.

Here is a short video that was prepared in the spring of 2013 as part of the crowdfunding campaign aimed at raising funds to continue researching the traces they left in Europe. The video’s purpose is to introduce the eight Inuit and to summarize their story as it was then known:

When I conducted the actual research, from 2010 to 2015, the Saint-Ouen Cemetery was the only French institution to refuse to show its registers. The curator had nevertheless agreed to give us the information that had been recorded in it, but there was no way we could see the documents since they were said to be private.

Quite recently, I was most surprised to discover that the registers of Parisian cemeteries are made public on the French genealogy site Geneanet. Quickly, I went through the list  to see if Saint-Ouen was in there. Yes! The year 1881? Yes! The month of January? Bingo! Finally! The Labrador Inuit community can see the names of their predecessors in the cemetery’s registers.

This is the entry for Abraham’s burial on January 15, 1881. Abraham, 35, died on January 13, two weeks before his 36th birthday. The number “10” in the last column corresponds to the district where Saint-Louis Hospital is located, where the death occurred.

Abraham’s burial (part 1) (Source: Geneanet, digitization of the registers by the Archives de Paris)

If you wonder why Abraham’s last name is “Paulus” and not “Ulrikab,” you should know that in those days Inuit did not have a last name. To distinguish one Abraham from another, his first name was followed by that of his wife. So “Abraham Ulrikab” means “Abraham, husband of Ulrike.” Upon their arrival in Europe, for a reason unknown to me, it was decided to assign to the three Christian adults the first name of their father as their last name. Therefore, in Europe, Abraham was known as Abraham Paulus.

On the right-hand page, we see the burial place: the mass grave of the 17th division. Then, in the “Observations” column, we have the confirmation that the body was exhumed on June 4, 1886, to be transported to the National Museum of Natural History.

Abraham’s burial (part 2) (Source: Geneanet, digitization of the registers by the Archives de Paris)

This information is also present in the entry of the other four Inuit.

Maria Paulus, Abraham’s 13-month-old daughter, died January 10, was buried on January 12.

Maria’s burial (Source: Geneanet, digitization of the registers by the Archives de Paris)

Tigianniak, a 45-year-old shaman, widower of Paingu, died on January 11, buried on January 13

Tigianniak’s burial (Source: Geneanet, digitization of the registers by the Archives de Paris)

Tobias Ignatius, a 20-year-old young man, died on January 13, buried on January 14.

Tobais’ burial (Source: Geneanet, digitization of the registers by the Archives de Paris)

Ulrike Henocq, 24, widow of Abraham and last survivor of the group, died on January 16, buried on January 17.

Ulrike’s burial (Source: Geneanet, digitization of the registers by the Archives de Paris)

Although 140 years have passed since these tragic events occurred, the story of Abraham and his family is not yet over. Their skeletons patiently wait in the biological anthropology collections of the National Museum of Natural History, housed at the Musée de l’Homme, for the Labrador Inuit community to decide whether they will be the subject of a repatriation request.

Seeing the names of Abraham, Ulrike, Tigianniak, Tobias and Maria inscribed in black and white in the cemetery registers, I am very happy to have been able to collect another tangible proof of their passage in Paris in the 19th century. Many thanks to the Archives de Paris for digitizing these registers, to Geneanet for making them public, and to all the Geneanet volunteers who give their time to index the cemetery registers (as well as those of several other projects). We have here an example of the importance of everyone’s contribution to this long collaborative effort to bring the past to life, and to create links between people from different eras, continents and cultures.

Although he was a Christian, Abraham was educated by the Moravian missionaries (a branch of the Protestant Church) and he was terrified of Catholics. As I walked through the alleys of the Saint-Ouen Cemetery, and especially within the 17th division, I could not help but wonder if he was really resting in peace during the five years he was buried here, him who came from a community of 200 souls located by the sea. Let’s hope that Abraham’s wish to return to Labrador will come true even if, in reality, this coming home will be only symbolic.

Of the 35,000 people who were exhibited in Europe in such “human zoos,” Abraham is one of the few who left a written testimony. I leave the last word to him through this excerpt from a letter he wrote on January 8, 1880, the day before his admission to Saint-Louis Hospital:

I do not long for earthly possessions, but this is what I long for: to see my relatives again, who are over there, to talk to them of the name of God for as long as I live. I hadn’t grasped this before, now I understand. I shed tears easily, but the words uttered by Him console us very much again and again. My dear teacher Elsner, pray for us to the Lord that the evil sickness will stop if it is His will; but may God’s will be fulfilled. I am a poor man who’s dust.

Thank you! Nakummek!
France Rivet

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