Labrador Inuit worship in Berlin

Hans Rollmann
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Fourteen years ago I wrote a column, “Labradorians exhibited in European zoos,” in which I shared with readers of The Evening Telegram — as  the paper was then still called — the sad fate of two Inuit families and a single man from Labrador in Europe during 1880 and early 1881.

All of these Labrador Inuit, hired by a Hamburg promoter, Carl Hagenbeck, over the protests of Moravian missionaries in Labrador, were exhibited in major European cities but eventually died of smallpox in Germany and France.

One of the group, the Moravian Inuk Abraham, an educated and musically gifted individual, left behind a diary, which, together with some other documents, has since been published in English and German by Hartmut Lutz.

I am researching this case again, having come across additional documents that have so far remained unpublished.

In Abraham’s recorded private observations, he turned the tables on the staring and clapping visitors to his performances at the zoo, comparing them to Eider ducks flapping their wings.

I ended my column with the pious Inuk’s observation that the only events that provided him with respite and unqualified satisfaction were two church services he attended at Berlin with fellow Moravians.

“Here, for the space of a few hours,” I wrote, “the circus atmosphere changed into worship and indignity was replaced by a fellowship of kindred minds. As Abraham wrote in his diary: ‘we ... sung together and prayed and were greatly blessed, as were also all our Kablunat (Europeans).’”

In the meantime I have come across several observations by Berliners who attended these services. Some of these comments I wish to share with readers as I prepare to leave for a research trip to Berlin to trace further the steps these Inuit took in November, 133 years ago.

Sharing faith

Having heard that fellow Christians from Labrador were being exhibited at the Berlin zoo, Brother Erxleben, the Moravian minister of the Berlin congregation, arranged permission for the Inuit to visit an evening worship service.

Two congregations met jointly to welcome their brothers and sisters from Labrador, the family of Abraham and Ulrike with their daughter Sara and the single brother Tobias.

The infant Maria had been left at the zoo in the care of the non-Moravian family of Terrianiak, Paingo and their daughter Nochasak while Abraham, his wife and older daughter prayed and sang together with their German brethren, shared a common meal, and made many friends, who continued to visit them at the zoo.

A retired missionary from Labrador, the Rev. Ferdinand Elsner, visited the Inuit at the zoo with a distinguished guest, the court preacher of the German Emperor William I, Adolf Stöcker.

Stöcker was a protestant pioneer of Christian Socialism but also a racist and anti-Semite.

He promptly exploited his meeting with Abraham in a speech before the Christian Social Party by contrasting the Christian Inuit with the so-called “heathen” family that had also been hired by Hagenbeck.

Unaware of these ideological and racial issues, Abraham, impressed by the court preacher, took up his violin and played an impromptu “Heil Dir im Siegerkranz” (Hail to thee in victor’s crown), the unofficial German national anthem, praising the Kaiser.

Although exposed to much crudeness and levity, Abraham, who originally had high hopes to benefit from his trip by exposure to Europeans, judged Berlin and its inhabitants realistically as a mixture of good and bad.

For the apolitical Inuk, however, the highpoint of his European stay came during a second visit with fellow Moravians in Berlin, when the musical performances left a deep impression on him. He was promised that the choral piece “Jauchzet dem Herrn alle Welt” by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy would be sent to Labrador.

Both Abraham and Tobias contributed some gold pieces they had received as gifts to Moravian world missions. Many years later, another collection organized in Labrador by the Moravian lay leader Boas Boase would help Berliners to replace their church from the rubble of the Second World War, which included the destroyed building that Abraham and his family had visited.

‘A few words of thanks’

Before the visitors left their fellow Christians in Berlin, Abraham asked to address the congregation with Brother Elsner translating from Inuktitut into German.

“I am here in Europe only as an exhibit,” Abraham said, “but I have received here from all of you so much love that I want to say a few words of thanks. I have seen on my trip already very much and will see even more, but what I have experienced from you here and heard from you, Brother Elsner, I will never forget, and it will be the most excellent thing that I will be able to recount when I return to our country. We ask you to pray for us; we also will pray for all of you.”

Alas, Abraham never returned to Labrador. His daughter Sara died of smallpox in Krefeld, followed by her infant sister Maria and their parents Abraham and Ulrike in Paris.

All of the visiting Labrador Inuit, never inoculated against smallpox, succumbed to the dreaded disease.

Hans Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at MUN

and can be reached by email:

Organizations: Christian Social Party

Geographic location: Labrador, Berlin, Hamburg Germany Europe Krefeld Paris

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