September 23, 2005

When Inuit become zoo curiosities

“We sat there like pieces of art in a showcase on display”


Click photos to enlarge

Abraham Ulrikab’s journey began at Hebron, a Moravian mission on the North coast of Labrador, where he and his family were living when a German businessman arrived on the Eisbär in 1880. (PHOTO BY HANS BLOM, 2002)

The Ulrikab family: with Ulrike, nephew Tobias, and Abraham. Ulrike holds baby Maria while four-year-old Sara stands. (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF OTTAWA PRESS)

The diary Abraham kept during his four months in Europe is now recognized as the oldest existing daily journal by an Inuk.

In addition to his diary, Abraham also wrote letters describing his longing to return to Labrador and his relatives. The isolated remains of the Moravian mission are still there, though they are now in disrepair. (PHOTO BY HANS BLOM, 2002)

“One day in the evening, us wearing big coats and shoes, we went to see things (the wax works) exhibited in a large house, we drove there (sitting) in a house.”

If at times the grammar seems a little odd, the story preserved in The Diary of Abraham Ulrikab remains incredible — a partial answer to the question: just what would it be like for a traditional Inuk to visit Europe two centuries ago?

“When we were traveling with steam, we were faster than flying,” Abraham wrote, describing a train journey from Hamburg to Berlin in 1880. “The train was so long that there was a great distance between both ends. We were in the middle in a very nice house (wagon), we could not close the windows in order to see, looking out was impossible because of the wind; my eyes were bad and swollen with seeing, although I hardly stuck my head out...”

Unfortunately, the exciting journey ended in tragedy.

Abraham was one of eight Labrador Inuit who set sail for Europe with a German businessman on a contract to appear in the Berlin Zoo and several others, on display as a traditional Eskimo family. He kept a diary off and on during the four-month trip with his wife Ulrike, their two children Sara and Maria, and a nephew, Tobias.

The syntax is strange because the diary itself was lost several years ago. Only a 19th century hand-written German translation of the original Inuktitut remains, and was recently translated into English.

Abraham’s grim adventure began in the fall of 1880 when Adrian Jacobsen, on behalf of Carl Hagenbeck, the owner of Hagenback’s Zoo in Hamburg, arrived on the Eisbär (German for ‘polar bear’) in search of a follow-up to recent displays of “Nubians, Negroes, Lapps and Patagonians.”

A fatal oversight caused the journey to end in tragedy four months later. No doctor was available in Labrador to vaccinate the travelers against smallpox. When the group reached port in Germany, Jacobsen was ill and neglected the vaccinations again.

Noggasak, a teenage girl traveling with her parents, Terrianiak and Paingo, was the first to succumb, two weeks before Christmas. Her mother fell ill on Christmas day, followed by little Sara on Boxing Day. Two weeks later, only Ulrike was alive. She died on January 16.

The Diary of Abraham Ulrikab, published by the University of Ottawa Press on Aug. 27, is a rich package for curious readers. In addition to the oldest existing daily journal by an Inuk, the book includes newspaper articles from the cities where the Ulrikabs were displayed, letters Abraham wrote, advertisements that refer to the display, a doctor’s study of the Eskimo, photographs, and correspondence between the Moravian missionaries and their German counterparts.

The Hebron missionaries objected strongly to Jacobsen’s proposition, and said so in letters warning their church to prepare for a “congregation [that] will be rightfully indignant when it is made public in the newspapers that Eskimos from Hebron are exhibited publicly in the zoos of Berlin, Dresden, Paris.”

They counseled Abraham not to go with Jacobsen, but in the end, could not prevent him from going in order to clear the kayaking debts Abraham cites as his chief reason for making the trip. (“I briefly asked him [Jacobsen] not to give them any alcoholic beverages and to supervise them so that they may not see anything evil,” notes a concerned Brother Kretschmer.)

Human exhibits were not uncommon at the time [read about Pomiuk on page 19], but not everyone was comfortable with keeping their fellow human beings in zoos. One Berlin newspaper printed an editorial shortly after the Ulrikabs went on display: “Who knows what these children of the roughest North may be thinking about their highly educated European fellow citizens! ...In our opinion this business in human exhibition pieces has something decidedly repulsive.”

But few members of the public felt this way.

Abraham describes the crowds that came to the zoo, including one day when “a great gentleman from Berlin” came with many others.

“They all came into our enclosure to see the kayak but immediately everything was filled with people and it was impossible to move anymore. Both our master Schoepf and Jacobsen shouted with big voices and some of the higher-ranking soldiers left but most of them had no ears. Since our two masters did not achieve anything, they came to me and sent me to drive them out. So I did what I could. Taking my whip and the Greenland seal harpoon, I made myself terrible.”

In a foreword to the book, Alootook Ipellie, who also contributed the book’s cover art, includes a quote from Cape Dorset artist Iyola Kingwatsiak following a trip to an Ontario art gallery in 1992.

“I enjoyed being there, but the problem was that we sat there like pieces of art in a showcase on display,” Kingwatsiak told an interviewer after returning.

“All these years after the passing of Abraham, nothing fundamental has changed in the human condition of his fellow Inuit and the so-called ‘civilized’ peoples of the world,” Ipellie writes. “Whether displayed in a zoo or an art gallery, Inuit people are still treated as exotic specimens.”