Labrador Inuit exploited

Published on May 17, 2014
Voyage With the Labrador
Eskimos 1880-1881
By Johan Adrian Jacobsen,
translated by Hartmut Lutz
Polar Horizons
$ 14.95; 86 pages

In the late 19th century, it was common for European and North American entrepreneurs to gather exotic people and animals from the far corners of the world to exhibit at amusement fairs.

The Inuit of Labrador were often targets for such collectors, because of their relative accessibility compared to those of Baffin Island or even Alaska.

Abraham Ulrikab and his family, and the family of Terrianiak from Nachvak, were among those recruited for exhibit who never returned home.

All eight adults and children caught smallpox and died in Europe. Abraham’s diary was returned to his relatives in Labrador where it was translated by the Moravian missionaries and was published in a variety of formats, most recently by Hartmut Lutz in 2005.

Lutz has now translated the journal kept by Johan Adrian Jacobsen, the Norwegian who enticed the Inuit to travel to Germany to perform for Carl Hagenbeck’s “human zoo,” in “Voyage With the Labrador Eskimos 1880-1881.”  

Lutz’s task was not an easy one as the diary was written in German, Jacobsen’s second language, with smatterings of Norwegian, and many corrections and additions inserted between the lines and in the margins. Lutz has tried to be as faithful to the original as possible, using square and round brackets, bold typeface, slashes and underlining to reproduce and clarify the original text.

And what a text it is. From the beginning, Jacobsen’s voyage was dogged by bad luck, worse weather and a mysterious illness that led him to make a number of unwise decisions and one fatal omission.

It is difficult not to be judgmental about Jacobsen’s robbing of Inuit graves for antiquities that he sold in Europe, particularly as he confesses part way through the diary that he had been wrong in his assumption that the Inuit did not care that he took these artifacts.  His reaction to this insight was simply to be more devious in his collecting.

In 1880, he writes: “Was at the old graves today and searched for antiquities.  I have to be cautious, however, that the Eskimos do not see me, because the people are superstitious, and think that God knows when I burrow through their old graves here.”

However, anthropologists well into the 20th century behaved in much the same way, and museums are only now repatriating human remains and grave offerings. Noted anthropologist William Duncan Strong illegally and surreptitiously took the remains of 22 Inuit from the Christian graveyard in Zoar, Labrador, as late as 1927, and it took 84 years to get them returned and reburied.

Jacobsen’s relentless pursuit of Inuit to act as entertainers seems wrong-headed and hard-hearted now, but he did seem to deal fairly with the people he lured away compared, for example, to the way the Inuit who went to the Chicago World’s Fair were treated.  

The deaths and misfortunes of the 60 Inuit who were taken from Labrador to Chicago in 1893 resulted in a law that imposed a fine of $500 “for anyone inducing and Eskimo to leave the country.” It is ironic that this fine was only lifted in 1914 when young Inuit men were recruited as snipers for the First World War.

Jacobsen’s agony at the realization that his failure to have the Inuit inoculated against smallpox seems quite genuine. This didn’t stop him from “collecting” the skullcap of one of the Inuit after the autopsy, however.

Later in the diary we find that he has offered the skullcap to a museum director who was coming to view the grave findings he had for sale. “The professor accepted it with great pleasure, stuffed it under his coat, and marched off with it.”  

Jacobsen was, at this point, looking for a new sponsor for another collecting voyage, so he seems not to have learned very much from the experience of watching the Inuit die, one after the other, painful and needless deaths.

It’s not easy to free ourselves from modern sensibilities when reading diaries such as Jacobsen’s, nor is it easy to shake off our own ancient superstitions. I was sure from the first page of the diary that Jacobsen’s ship, the Eisbar, had a jinker on board (a sailor named Lampe) and I couldn’t help but note that it was a Friday the 13th when Jacobsen wrote of robbing the graves.

Bad luck seems to have haunted Jacobsen’s diary as well — Moravian historian Heidi Bruckner had been working on a translation of Jacobsen’s manuscript when a lifetime of research notes were stolen along with her car before she died.  

Superstitions aside, it speaks to the power of the diary that the unrelenting sense of doom that hung over the voyage came through so clearly despite time and translation. “Voyage With the Labrador Eskimos” is a reminder that there is still a great deal of work to do on the history of this province and a lot of fascinating material still to be found.    


The bizarre title of Randy Lieb’s autobiography, “Yes, Dear, I Saw Hitler,” is a limited, but accurate reflection of the content of the book, which is essentially a memoir of his childhood in wartime Germany.  

Lieb, Lord of the Manor of Warmsworth and the son of a highly placed Nazi officer, had a domineering mother who was verbally and physically abusive. She was so needy and narcissistic that she alienated her husband and children, leaving them psychologically scarred for life.

This self-published book is replete with typos, and the syntax is anything but standard English, but you can understand what Lieb means most of the time.

Lieb says little about his life in Newfoundland or his many public and private battles, devoting most of the book to his interactions with his mother.

This is not a good book — it is badly written, unedited, and lurches from one topic to another with little apparent planning — but it has a certain horrid fascination.

Lieb’s portrait of his mother is so unrelentingly and convincingly negative that it’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

I did like his contention, though, that if life offered nothing more than sex and ice cream it would still be worth living.


Robin McGrath is a writer living in Goose Bay, Labrador. Her most recent book is “The Birchy Maid.”  Her column returns June 14.