Hosted by

Donate to Canadian History Ehx at
In the late-1800s, an Inuk man and his family left their home in Labrador, hoping to make enough money to pay off debts and have a better life.
Their journey took them to Europe, where they would be expected to tour the continent.
At each city they stopped in, they went to a zoo.
But they weren’t visitors; they were to be exhibited for others to view.
People would gawk at the Inuit family from behind a fence, as they went about their day-to-day activities while wearing traditional Inuit clothing.
Within a month they were all deeply homesick.
They had agreed to tour for a year as part of a human zoo, but they never lived long enough to complete the contract.
But, unlike thousands of others who were put into zoos, the one Inuk man in today’s story did something many did not.
He kept a diary.
Which is how I’m able to share the tragic tale of Abraham Ulrikab.
I’m Craig Baird, and this is Canadian History Ehx!
Today, there is a growing sentiment that keeping whales, dolphins and other animals in captivity is wrong.
That is a major change from just a few years ago.
As a teenager in the 1990s, I remember going to West Edmonton Mall, and seeing dolphin shows as I walked around shopping.
Yep, you heard that right. Dolphins at a mall.
From 1985 to 2004 visitors could watch dolphin shows and get photos taken with them.
Personally, I don’t think whales or dolphins should be kept in captivity to do tricks for humans.
I’m also not a big fan of zoos, where animals are kept in fake versions of their habitats while they’re gawked at by people.
Why am I going off on a tangent about zoos?
Well…. Not that long ago, humans were kept in zoos and put on display also.
People from around the colonized world, primarily Africa, Australia, and the Western Hemisphere, were convinced to live in zoos in Europe.
From the 19th to the 20th century, 35,000 people were put on display to show the superiority of European descendants, over the quote unquote “primitive and savage societies” elsewhere.

Over the first few decades of the 20th century, the human zoo received increased criticism. Yet, they did continue but the popularity of these human zoos only lasted a few decades.
In 1904, over 1,100 Filipinos were displayed at the St. Louis World’s Fair in conjunction with the 1904 Summer Olympics. They were encouraged to perform quote tribal customs that would be seen as strange to Americans, regardless of whether those performances were traditional to their culture.
Human zoos began to fall out of fashion by the 1930s but could still be found in the 21st century. In fact, In July 2005, the Augsburg Zoo in Germany hosted an African village that brought together food stands, traditional crafts, basket weavers and hair braiders for kids.
Although organizers stated the exhibit was meant to celebrate the continent’s culture, the exhibit made up of grass huts was nestled between the monkey cage and the Savannah exhibit… which brought up colonialism and racism as it contributed to exoticize and stereotyping African culture as a monolith as opposed to a continent with varied and individual cultures and histories.
Canada never really had a history of human zoos, but we had plenty of people from Canada who became exhibitions.
From the Pacific to the Arctic to the Atlantic, Indigenous Peoples were encouraged by promoters to go to Europe to be part of these traveling exhibitions.
We know nearly nothing of the majority of those who participated… Except for a family of eight that went to Germany in 1880.

Abraham Ulrikab did what nearly no other person exhibited in a human zoo was able to do.
He kept a journal.
Thanks to this we’re able to get a glimpse of what things were like on the other side of the fence, so to speak.
As you can expect, this is not a sunny tale.

Abraham Ulrikab was born on Jan. 29, 1845, in Hebron, Labrador.
Hebron was a tiny community founded by Moravian missionaries. A denomination of the Protestant faith, their history in Labrador goes back to 1771 when they founded their first community of Nain and began their work to convert the Inuit of Labrador to Christianity.
They quickly expanded with new communities like Okak in 1776, Hopedale in 1782 and Hebron in 1830.
Born into a community run by missionaries meant that from an early age, Abraham was raised in the Christian faith.
Little is known of Abraham Ulrikab’s life before the 1880s.
He likely fished, hunted and lived his life as generations of his ancestors had before him.
But everything changed when a Norwegian trader named Adrian Jacobson arrived in Labrador on Aug. 8, 1880.
He was contracted by Carl Hagenbeck to find people for a new exhibit at various zoos in Europe.
The German merchant is thought to be the creator of the modern zoo. He revolutionized zoo architecture to make animal enclosures look like a natural habitat instead of keeping animals in cages and behind bars.
Hagenbeck also pioneered human zoos.
Hagenbeck had entrusted Jacobson before, when he convinced a group of Greenland Inuit in 1877 to be exhibited in Europe.
After the Danish government forbade him from using Greenland Inuit in such a manner again, he tried his luck in Labrador instead.
He was contracted to bring back eight Inuit to be toured through Germany and France.
It was not an easy task.
In every community he was blocked by the Moravians, who considered human zoos to be immoral.
They also didn’t like the idea of their parishioners being taken to Europe, where they would be exposed to Catholicism.
As Jacobson searched Labrador for volunteers, he came across Abraham Ulrikab.
Abraham was married to Ulrike and had two children.
They didn’t t have surnames, so Abraham Ulrikab means Abraham, husband of Ulrike.
Surnames wouldn’t become part of Inuit names until the 1960 with Project Surname, but that is the story for another episode.

When Jacobson met Abraham in 1880, he found him to be adventurous and curious.
Abraham could read and write, and spoke three languages, English, German and Inuktitut.
He played the violin and was a natural leader.
Jacobson was struggling to find volunteers for the human zoo, so he asked Abraham to help him find unconverted Inuit to go to Europe.
Abraham agreed, and the two set out for the northern part of Labrador which was free from Moravian influence.
Within a few days, they found a family who were willing to go overseas. They were a husband and wife, Tigianniak and Paingu, and their teenage daughter Nuggasak.
Jacobson was still five people short of his contract, so he asked Abraham if he and his family would come too.
At the time, Abraham was in debt to the Moravians for £10.
There is no indication what this was for.
In his diary Abraham stated the debt was for kayaking expenses.
It may not seem like a lot, but today that debt would amount to £985, or $1,700 Canadian.
Abraham also owed for his father’s debts, who had recently passed away.
Jacobson told him that the Greenland Inuit who went with him to Europe in 1877 had returned rich.
Abraham spoke to George Ford, the Hudson Bay Post manager, who helped convince him that it was a good idea.
Hoping to help his family, Abraham agreed.
He wrote in his diary,
“I was in deep misery, I often prayed to God to help me to free myself from this and to hear my sighs, because I even wasn’t able anymore to take care of my relatives.”
Little did he know how much the decision would cost him in the end.
On Aug. 26, 1880, Abraham, his wife Ulrike, their three-year-old daughter Sara, and infant daughter Maria, boarded a ship along with his unmarried nephew Tobias and Tigianniak and Paingu, and their teenage daughter Nuggasak.
The two families departed Labrador, aboard the Eisbar, which is German for polar bear.
The month-long journey across the Atlantic was particularly difficult for the two Inuit families who were not used to such a long journey on water.
Abraham wrote about Tigianniak attempts to use magic to prevent storms from harming them. Tigianniak and his family were not converted, something that bothered Abraham who wrote,
“The heathenish Tigianniak at the fore, gesticulating with his arms and giving forth one howl after the other. I thinking he had suddenly gone insane.”
The families arrived in Europe in late-September and as soon as they arrived Jacobson fell ill.
Upon recovering, he forgot to do something he was legally required to do under German law.
He didn’t get the Inuit families vaccinated against smallpox before they were put on display at the Hagenbeck Zoo on Sept. 24, 1880.

His forgetfulness would have tragic consequences.
As soon as the Inuit families were put on display at the Hagenbeck Zoo, they regretted their decision to participate in the venture.
Abraham spoke several languages, played the violin, and could write, and despite this he was told to act in a stereotypical and demeaning manner when visitors approached their exhibit.
The weather in Germany was warmer and damp than the Inuit families were used to and as a result they were constantly chilled.
They were also given a diet consisting primarily of bread, which they were not used to eating. As a result, they were often hungry and poorly fed.
Jacobson was also abusive.
He felt Tobias was being disobedient, so he whipped him in front of the others.
Abraham was livid over the incident, and threatened to write a letter to Moravians he knew in England over the matter.
Jacobson apologized and bought silver ribbons for all the women to try to make amends.
Meanwhile the families were in exhibition at the Hagenbeck Zoo until they moved on to the Berlin Zoo, where they were exhibited from Oct. 15 to Nov. 14.
In Berlin, the crowds were overwhelming.
The Inuit families were deafened by the constant noise of visitors who were comfortable overstepping boundaries of privacy and respect as they jumped the fence and stared at the families through windows while they slept.
Abraham had to use a whip and harpoon to chase the crowds away.
He then covered the windows and kept the door locked.
The families then traveled to Prague on Nov. 15 to be part of another exhibit where the crowds continued to be overwhelming and the culture shock insurmountable.
At one point, a seal was brought in and put in a pond in the exhibit where Abraham was expected to harpoon it as the crowd watched.
He wrote,
“Everybody clapped their hands greatly like eider ducks.”
After Prague, the families were sent to Frankfurt and Darmstadt.
Where things took a tragic turn.

Nuggasak, the teenage daughter of the other couple with Abraham and his family started to feel sick.
Doctors diagnosed her with nothing more than a stomach ulcer.
But it wasn’t….
It was smallpox.
We are far removed from the threat of it now because smallpox has been eradicated since 1977, and the last natural outbreak of smallpox in the United States occurred in 1949.
But the disease was once extremely deadly.
When Europeans arrived on North American shores the deadliest thing, they brought with them was smallpox.
Indigenous Peoples had no immunity to the infectious disease caused by the variola virus and it ravaged entire nations.
The first reported smallpox outbreak in New France was in 1616.
The disease was spread by fur traders venturing deep into the wilderness of modern-day Quebec, infecting the Algonquin and Innu people.
The disease eventually spread to the Maritimes, James Bay, and the Great Lakes.
Between 1634 and 1640, Jesuits priests unwittingly introduced smallpox to the Wendat people south of the Georgian Bay.
The priests insisted on baptizing the sick and dying, further spreading disease.
In the space of those six years, 60 percent of the Wendat population died.
As the fur trade moved west, smallpox followed.
From 1779 to 1783, the disease spread from modern-day Manitoba to Alberta because of it some Indigenous communities in the Canadian Prairies lost 75 per cent of their population.
In the late-18th and early-19th century the disease made its way to the Canadian North, sweeping through the Inuit population.
It cannot be understated the terrible effect smallpox had on the Indigenous Peoples of Canada.
Exactly how many Indigenous Peoples died from smallpox between 1600 and 1900 is unknown but the number could easily be in the hundreds of thousands.
According to the center of disease control people who had smallpox had a fever and a distinctive, progressive skin rash. Many smallpox survivors have permanent scars over large areas of their body, especially their faces. Some were left blind.
It was that terrible disease, which had decimated so many, that now it was spreading among the Inuit families on display in Europe.
Smallpox claimed its first victim among them on Dec. 14, 1880, when Nuggasak passed away.
Abraham wrote,
“There is one of us. Tigianniak’s daughter Nuggasak, stopped living very fast and terribly, greatly suffering.”
And although Nuggasak’s suffering was over.
The hardship for everyone else was just beginning.
Tigianniak’s wife died on Dec. 27,
Four days later, smallpox claimed Abraham’s three-year-old daughter.
When Sara died on Dec. 31 doctors finally recognized the illness as smallpox and on Jan. 1, 1881, the five Inuit who remained alive were vaccinated.

If you think the horrors of the illness and deaths prevented the exhibitions from going forward let me dispel you of that notion.
The remaining family members were sent to Paris to be put on display, but only lasted a week.
On Jan. 9, they were all admitted to the Saint-Louis Hospital in Paris.
Marie, Abraham’s infant daughter, died on Jan. 10
The next day Tigianniak was lost to the disease.
The man had lost his wife and daughter already and was already so overcome with grief and sickness, asked for a rope so he could hang himself. Death may well have been a welcomed respite after so much sorrow.
Abraham and his nephew Tobias both died on Jan. 13, 1881.
(small beat)
Five days before he died, Abraham wrote a letter to his friend Brother Eisner in Labrador.
In it he wrote quote
“My dear teacher Eisner, pray for us to the Lord that the evil sickness will stop if it is his will. But God’s will be fulfilled. I’m a poor man, who is dust.” end quote.
Knowing he would live long. He wrote in his diary,
quote “I do not long for earthly possessions, but this is what I long for. To see my relatives again, who are over there.” end quote.
While it may seem like he was referring to Labrador, he was likely referring to his relatives, who had already passed away.
Ulrike, Abraham’s wife, was the sole Innuit person left alive, but she lost the battle against smallpox three days after her husband died.

The Inuit families’ possessions were sent to Labrador after they all passed, but their remains did not follow.
Jacobson, the man who brought the Inuit families to Europe wrote after their deaths,
“Did I really have to drive these poor brave people to die in a foreign country? How has it come to pass so differently from my intention?”
It may seem like he had remorse, but this was only momentary.
After Paingu, Tigianniak’s wife died, he kept her skull, which had hair on it and gave it to a professor for study.
Four days after all of the Inuit family members died, Jacobson started planning his next trip to North and South America, so he could bring back more artifacts and people.

Meanwhile the families were buried in a common grave, but they would not remain there.
In 1885, Abraham, his wife Ulrike and their infant daughter Maria were exhumed and sent to museums to once again be on display.
Their brains were also extracted so they could be studied.
Sara, Abraham’s three-year-old daughter’s skull, was displayed in a Berlin Museum.
No effort was made to return the bodies to Labrador,
No efforts for a proper burial.

That same year Jacobson was back in Canada where he convinced a group of Indigenous Peoples in British Columbia to come back to Europe with him.
In 1885 they set sail for Europe and travelled with him until 1887.
During the Columbian Exposition of 1893, Jacobson exhibited 25 non-European descendants for crowds.
Human zoos eventually fell out of fashion, the crowds dissipated, and the tradition became part of a quote “dark part of our past” yet the remains of two Inuit families, who weren’t vaccinated are still in Europe, far from their homeland.
But that may not always be the case if there are efforts to change that.
In 2009, France Rivet learned Abraham Ulkriab’s story.
The photographer, writer, researcher, and Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society wondered what had happened to the remains of the two Inuit families.
After researching the story for a year, she contacted the Museum Nationale d’Historie Naturelle in Paris.
She was told by the museum that they had five fully mounted skeletons.
They were the remains of the five Inuit family members who died in Paris in 1881.On June 14, 2013, the Canada-France Enhanced Cooperation Agenda a joint effort to repatriate the Inuit families’ remains from French museum collections, was signed.
And a year later, France Rivet released the book In the Footsteps of Abraham Ulrikab in 2014, which brought to light the story.
She also helped in the production of the documentary Trapped in a Human Zoo, which aired on CBC’s The Nature of Things with David Suzuki in 2016.
While the remains have not been returned to Labrador yet, the process is moving along and hopefully Abraham and the rest of his Inuit relatives can be laid to rest in their homeland, over 140 years after they left it.

Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, CBC, Inuit Literatures, Wikipedia, Polar Horizons, The People and the Text,

Liked it? Take a second to support CraigBaird on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

Leave a Reply

More from this show

Canadian History Ehx
%d bloggers like this: