On display in a German zoo, a Labrador Inuk recorded his keepers' habits - and his own demise. By Elizabeth Hames.
In a fall day in 1880, a gaggle of elated children pushed to the front of the crowd at the most talked-about exhibit in Germany. Polar bears, lions and tigers paced their cages nearby, but the 7,000 spectators weren't interested in the beasts. They'd come to the zoo to see the Volkerschauen: the People Show.
That day, October 17, the People Show featured a group of Labrador Inuit who, according to the advertisements, would entertain the crowd with a seal hunt. The performance began with the guttural cry of the "seal" - played by a young Inuk wrapped in furs. The onlookers roared. Then an elderly hunter in an oversized parka focused a toy rifle at his quarry. He pulled the trigger and the gun made a bang, but it was drowned out by thunderous applause.
At the Hagenbeck Tiergarten - a private zoo in Hamburg - the Inuit were the top attraction. The crowds likely viewed them as primitives, inferior to the cultured men and women of the Old World. "Who knows what these children of the roughest North may be thinking about their highly educated European fellow humans," wrote one German newspaperman. He was right about one thing: The Germans had no idea. Even as they gawked at the Inuit, the Inuit were peering back at them - and taking notes.
Abraham Ulrikab was, in fact, more accomplished than most of the people paying to stare at him. Raised at a mission in Hebron, Labrador, he was 35 years old, spoke three languages, dabbled in cartography, and played a mean fiddle. He was also a church-going Christian who, in his real life, had long since abandoned the sealskin boots and parka that were his costume at the zoo. Since he could read and write, he kept a diary, documenting his experience as a human exhibit.
Ulrikab wasn't a captive, exactly - he'd come willingly, bringing his wife, Ulrike, their young daughters, Sarah and Maria, and Ulrike's nephew, Tobias. They were accompanied by another family of Labrador Inuit: Terrianiak, a shaman, his wife Paingo, and their teenage daughter, Noggasak. Before coming to Germany, Terrianiak's family - unlike Ulrikab's - had lived a traditional life as caribou hunters, calling on supernatural spirits in hard times and good. The two families were from different worlds, but the Europeans peering at them through the fence didn't know the difference.
Nineteenth-century Germany was, after all, a hotbed of scientific racism. Having recently become a sovereign nation, Germany was looking to establish itself as an imperial power. The colonial interests of the empire quickly worked their way into the zeitgeist, and both scholars and laypeople developed a fascination with exotic foreigners - "lower orders," hailing from strange corners of the world. Carl Hagenbeck set out to satisfy this hunger: He would fill his zoo with human beings.
The Ulrikabs weren't the first people Hagenbeck acquired - they weren't even the first from the Arctic. Three years earlier, he'd commissioned a Norwegian trader, Adrian Jacobsen, to bring him a family from Greenland. These "Eskimos" put on seal-hunting and dog-sledding shows, which were so successful Hagenbeck took them on tour. Paris, Brussels, Cologne, Berlin, Copenhagen - the People Show hit all the hot spots. Everywhere they went, they attracted massive crowds.
But when the Greenlanders returned home, Hagenbeck faced a dilemma. He knew he needed more Inuit to keep the public coming to his zoo, but Greenland's Danish authorities refused to send any more Inuit abroad. So, he sent Jacobsen to Labrador.
When Jacobsen's schooner pulled into the port of Hebron, the Moravian mission was bustling. Long, single-storey buildings lined the coast, their crosses towering over the rocky hills. Inuit filled the church, singing hymns in Inuktitut and conversing with missionaries in German. But the Moravians, like the Danes, scoffed at the idea of sending their flock overseas: Leave them vulnerable to the influences of Europeans? Of Catholics?
So Jacobsen looked further north. He'd heard about a group of "wild Eskimos" in the Torngat Mountains who'd rejected the teachings of the Moravians. And he hired a Hebron translator, Abraham Ulrikab, to take him there.
When Ulrikab led Jacobsen north, he found what, to the European mind, were heathens - a godless people who'd rejected the civilizing influence of white men. Yet Ulrikab had no problem convincing three of them - Terrianiak, Paingo and Noggasak - to travel to Hamburg. What's more, he convinced Jacobsen to take him along as well. Ulrikab was in debt, and the zoo was offering 140 deutschmarks to any Eskimo who'd come to Germany for a year. The money was too good for a poor man to turn down, and anyway, he'd always wanted to see Europe. Soon his own family, and Terrianiak's, were crossing the Atlantic.
Whatever expectations Ulrikab had of Europeans were crushed upon his arrival. Visitors to the zoo treated the Inuit like any other caged animal. They shoved food through the fence and poked fun at their strange appearance. "Some Kablunat laugh at us, but this did not make us tired, as their souls are also to be laughed at," he wrote in his diary on October 27, 1880.
Those Kablunat - white people - struck Ulrikab as both rude and cruel. Nosy about his home life, they pushed their way into his small hut whenever they had a chance. Even Jacobsen, their caretaker, whom Ulrikab called "master," was occasionally unfriendly. Once, he took a dog whip to Tobias for falling out of line.
Europeans weren't Ulrikab's only source of misery. For a man used to hearing the sound of waves lapping against the shore, the constant clamour of the city drove him mad. "It buzzes and roars day and night because of the rattling of the sleighs and the constant voices of the steam whistles," reads an entry from November 7. "It is too long until the year is over, because we would very much like to return to our country."
For a brief period, Ulrikab's journal suggests he was warming up to his strange fame. He was one of the most popular men in Germany: Thousands came out to watch him harpoon seals, listen to him play German tunes on his violin, and marvel at his paintings. When they learned he could read and write, they thrust papers and notebooks at him, demanding his signature: "I was constantly told to write my name - one always took it away from the other, to please them all was impossible, there were too many."
His satisfaction quickly ended. In December, Terrianiak's daughter, Noggasak, died - she "suffered terribly greatly," wrote Ulrikab. A grim month ensued. While the Inuit were still grieving, Paingo, too, died - expiring suddenly on Christmas morning. Then little Sarah, Ulrikab's daughter, fell ill, her body swollen, her face red. Ulrikab went with her to the hospital, but had to leave on tour before she passed away. "When I left her, she slept; from then on, she did not wake up anymore," he wrote.
Doctors told him Paingo, Noggasak and Sarah had all died of smallpox - Jacobsen could have vaccinated them, but didn't. Now, Ulrikab knew, it was only a matter of time before the rest of his people got sick. A week passed, then the disease resurfaced - this time it killed Maria. The next day, it took Tobias and Terrianiak. Ulrike became ill, as did Ulrikab.
As his family dropped around him, Ulrikab refused to believe he would die in Europe. Covered in sores, he did what the missionaries had taught him, praying for his health. "I trust in God that He will answer my prayers and will collect all my tears every day. I do not long for earthly possession 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 as long as I live." But Ulrikab and his wife never made it back to Labrador. The People Show was over; all eight of its Inuit specimens were dead.