A Quebec-based photographer and freelance writer has taken it upon herself to uncover the mysteries behind the death of Abraham Ulrikab and four other Labrador Inuit in Paris in January 1881.
France Rivet, a native of Gatineau, Que., recently launched an online fundraising campaign, known as “crowdfunding,” to help her raise money for a second research trip to Paris and for the publication of her findings.
It’s a story that has been told before, including in a two-hour documentary on Battery Radio and a book, but is still shrouded in mystery, she said during a recent telephone interview from her home.
As Peter C. Evans of the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge University wrote in a scholarly journal several years ago, this is a narrative “marked by economic greed, exploitation, prejudice, scholarly and popular curiosity, and callousness and racism.”
In August 1880, two Inuit families from northern Labrador voluntarily departed for Europe, where they were to become the newest exotic attraction in zoos, according to the historical record.
Aged from 13 months to 50 years old, the eight individuals were recruited by Johan Adrian Jacobsen on behalf of Carl Hagenbeck, pioneer of ethnographic shows (known today as “human zoos”).
Since 1874, crowds had been flocking to Hagenbeck’s shows where they could observe “savages” originating from different parts of the world. Hagenbeck was hoping to repeat the 1877 success of a group of “Eskimos” from Greenland.
So, he convinced Abraham, a 35-year-old Inuk of Christian faith (Moravian) from the community of Hebron to travel across the ocean to Europe.
Abraham was accompanied by his wife, Ulrike, 24, their two young daughters, Sara, 3, and Maria, 13 months, a nephew, Tobias, 20, as well as “a pagan family” of three — Terrianiak, 45, his wife Paingo, 50, and their daughter, Noggasak, 15.
But Jacobsen and Hagenbeck forgot to take a mandatory measure required by German law: vaccinate them against smallpox.
It proved fatal.
Less than four months after their arrival in Europe, all eight Inuit died due to smallpox.
The first three victims died in Germany. The remaining five, including Abraham, died in Paris.
Abraham, who was literate, documented his emotions in his personal diary and in letters.
“Abraham’s writings give us insight on what happened when the group was exhibited in Germany (Hamburg, Berlin, Frankfurt, Darmstadt, Krefeld) and in Prague,” said Rivet, who runs Polar Horizons, a web-based business that allows her to share with others her passion for the Arctic and its nature, people and history.
She first heard about Abraham Ulrikab from photographer Hans-Ludwig Blohm in July 2009 as they were approaching Hebron, where the two Inuit families originated, and the Torngat Mountains on board the Lyubov Orlova cruise ship.
“The story was shocking and captivating, but I kept wondering what happened in Paris,” Rivet said.
On board the ship, she also met Zippie Nochasak, their Parks Canada guide.
“Zippie’s family came from Hebron and uses the same name, Noggasak, as the first of the Inuit to have died in Europe,” Rivet said.
“Having recently read the book, Zippie was still very much shaken by its poignant and tragic story. For her, it was clear that the Inuit who died in Europe had to be members of her family.”
In the fall 2009, Nochasak, Blohm and Rivet met in Ottawa and the subject of Abraham came up.
“We all agreed that we had to do something to make this story better known,” Rivet said.
“French being my mother tongue, and as I have always loved doing research and digging in archives, I promised Zippie and Hans I would start by trying to research what happened in Paris, because no else had ever done so there. That’s how it all started.
“I can guarantee you that the story I am finding is fascinating, too. These Inuit could not have simply vanished. I am, indeed, finding traces of them in civil, medical or even police records. Events did occur in Paris before and after the Inuits’ death.”
She claims to have uncovered the big pieces of the puzzle.
Inuit in Paris
“For example, one of the big mysteries I solved is the identification of the cemetery where the five Inuit were buried,” Rivet said.
“To make the story complete, I need to convince the curator of the cemetery to show me the cemetery’s registries so that I can get details such as where they were actually buried, and on what date.”
But before releasing any of her findings, Rivet insists she must return to Paris for another round of research to uncover the smaller pieces that will tie them all together.
“The costs of this research are getting too high for me to continue supporting it on my own,” she said.
That is the reason for her crowdfunding campaign.
The goal of crowdfunding is to allow projects to find the necessary financing by combining a large number of small donations from individuals who believe in the given project and wish to see it succeed, she explained.
“Contributors are not investing in the project, since they are not getting a monetary return,” Rivet added.
“Instead, contributors receive rewards based on their level of contribution.”
The reward possibilities are many and varied.
In the case of the “In the footsteps of Abraham Ulrikab” project, Rivet said the returns range from receiving regular updates on the progress being made, having your name pinned on the “Friends of Abraham” world map, obtaining the two ebooks to be published, art cards, a notebook on Nunatsiavut, or being featured in a blog post, to name a few.
The project’s financial goal is $15,000.
“These funds will be used to pay the expenses such as the production of two ebooks, the translation needs, plus the travel, living and research expenses for the trip to Paris,” Rivet said.
“This research trip to Paris and the publication of the events that occurred in France in 1881 represent the first step in what is to become a multi-year research project.
“My research, and that of other researchers with whom I have been in touch, has proven that big chunks of the Abraham Ulrikab story have yet to be told. The ultimate goal is, therefore, to fully research the account and publish the complete story once and for all.”
Another goal is to raise public awareness in the Inuit community in the hope that descendants will come forward.
“In my opinion, it’s also a question of respect to ensure that if there are descendants, they must be told about any new findings before these are publicly released,” Rivet said.
“Isn’t uncovering and telling the whole story the least we can do for them?”