Ulrikab, Abraham

Author, painter and violinist born in Hebron (Labrador, Nunatsiavut) in 1845 – died in Paris (France) in 1881.

Abraham Ulrikab was born in 1845 in Hebron, Labrador, the site of the former Moravian mission located on the northeast coast of Labrador. He was educated by German Moravian missionaries, learning to speak German and English. He was also was a devout Christian. As a young man, Abraham Ulrikab developed his talents in music – he could play violin, organ, guitar – and in painting.

In August 1880, Abraham Ulrikab was unable to provide for his family, his personal debts were so great, that he accepted a proposition from the Norwegian Johan Adrian Jacobsen to board his vessel with his wife Ulrike Abrahamib and their two daughters, Maria and Sara and become Inuit specimens to be exhibited in Europe for money and food. Johan Adrian Jacobsen had been commissioned by Carl Hagenbeck, a German zoo owner to bring Inuit to Europe to be exhibited in fairs and zoos. The exhibition of human beings was a common thing in Europe during this time period: colonial nations liked to exhibit their booty and the public of that era satisfied its taste for exoticism The interpreter of Johan Adrian Jacobsen, Abraham Ulrikab also convinced Tobias, a young man from his community, and another family of three, to board the vessel with his family. Despite the objections of the Moravian missionaries, Abraham Ulrikab felt that this travel to Europe would be a financial opportunity. After a painful month of sailing, the group landed in Hamburg (Germany). Abraham Ulrikab’s first weeks in Europe were difficult. He decided to write a diary in Inuktitut, to recount the time spent in exhibitions, his doubts and his hope that God would help him to go back home. He also wrote several letters to his friend, Brother Elsner. Tragedy struck when Noggasak (or Nuggasak), one of his traveling companions, died of smallpox in December 1881 in Darmstadt (Germany). Since none of the Inuit had been vaccinated when they arrived in Europe, all eight from Labrador successively succumbed to the same disease. Abraham Ulrikab died in January 1881 in Paris (France), three days before his wife died, the last survivor of the group.

Abraham Ulrikab’s diary and his personal belongings were sent back to his native Hebron, Labrador in the summer of 1881. A Moravian missionary named Brother Kretschmer then proceeded to translate the late Abraham Ulrikab’s diary into German. This translation was discovered in 1980 by Canadian ethnologist, James Garth Taylor among the documents in the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (United States). The translated diary of Abraham Ulrikab came to the attention of Hartmut Lutz, an Inuit literature specialist and professor at the University of Greifswald (Germany). With the help of his students, Hartmut Lutz proceeded to translate into English, the German translation of Abraham Ulrikab’s diary, including conducting significant research on the contextual history of the diary. Their work resulted in a publication with commentaries under the title The Diary of Abraham Ulrikab: Text and Context (2005), by the University of Ottawa Press. In Hartmut Lutz’s edition, Abraham Ulrikab and his family’s photographs accompany the text, highlighting the realistic aspect of the narration. The book’s cover has a drawing depicting Abraham Ulrikab and his family by Inuit artist Alootook Ipellie. A German edition of Abraham Ulrikab’s diary was published in 2007, under the title Abraham Ulrikab im Zoo. Tagebuch eines Inuk 1880/81 (literally meaning: “Abraham Ulrikab in zoo. Diary of an Inuk 1880/81”). Unfortunately, Abraham Ulrikab’s Inuktitut manuscript still cannot be located.

Abraham Ulrikab’s long-forgotten diary is one of the rare first-person accounts from one of the 35,000 indigenous people exhibited in world expositions and occidental zoological gardens between the 1870s and 1950s. Another example is Minik, a young Inuit taken away from his native Greenland by the arctic explorer Robert Peary at the end of the 19th century. Abraham Ulrikab’s diary is also one of the first autobiographies written by an Inuk. By studying the posterity of this diary, its historical importance is revealed.

In 2009, France Rivet, who was passionate about photography, read The Diary of Abraham Ulrikab: Text and Context and decided to try to find out what had happened to Abraham Ulrikab and his companions’ remains. She discovered that members of the Society of Anthropology of Paris had analysed Abraham Ulrikab’s brain, and that Abraham Ulrikab, his wife, his daughter Maria and companion Tobias’s remains were held by the National Museum of Natural History in Paris (France). His daughter Sara’s remains were held in Berlin. France Rivet’s investigation and Abraham Ulrikab’s story came to the attention of Québec independent film producer Roch Brunette, and he transformed this story into a documentary, Piégés dans un zoo humain (2015). The film intertwines the tragic story of the Hebron Inuit and the story of France Rivet, as she contacted the Inuit community of Nain (Nunatsiavut) in 2012, and presented of her research to the Government of Nunatsiavut and to the Elders of Nain. The latter reached the conclusion that Abraham Ulrikab and his family’s remains should be repatriated. During the filming, Johannes Lampe, chief of Nain’s Elders and former Minister of Culture, Recreation and Tourism of Nunatsiavut, was able to fly to Europe with France Rivet in 2012, to trace the history of Abraham Ulrikab and his family. Thus began the Government of Nunatsiavut’s formal request for the repatriation of their remains. The request was not opposed by the National Museum of Natural History and in June 2013, France and Canada signed an agreement guaranteeing repatriation to Nunatsiavut. To date this repatriation has not yet taken place.

Subsequently, France Rivet published Sur les traces d'Abraham Ulrikab : les événements de 1880-1881 (2014), tracing the story of Abraham Ulrikab, his family and companions, and documenting the results of her historical research.

This biography is based on the available written material during a collective research carried out during 2018-2021. It is possible that mistakes and facts need to be corrected. If you notice an error, or if you wish to correct something in an author's biography, please write to us at imaginairedunord@uqam.ca and we will be happy to do so. This is how we will be able to have more precise presentations, and to better promote Inuit culture.

(c) International Laboratory for Research on Images of the North, Winter and the Arctic, Université du Québec à Montréal, 2018-2021, Daniel Chartier and al.