Re-telling significant chapter of Labrador’s past
Audio producer Chris Brookes
By Jeff Green
A tragic but remarkable story accentuated by a centuries-old divide between two cultures has been brought to life as a new audio documentary with plenty of Memorial connections.
The roots of Abraham’s Diary stretch back to 1880. That’s when two Inuit families were plucked from their coastal Labrador settlements and brought overseas.
The sole purpose of journey: to display the natives in European zoos.
Spectators flocked to the exhibits expecting to find members of a primitive, uncivilized race.
Instead they found Inuit who spoke three languages and played German hymn tunes on violin.
While their audiences gawked, the Inuit gazed back at their ignorant observers.
Sadly, though, within months of the journey both families died of smallpox but not before one of them – Abraham Ulrikab – kept a detailed diary of their incredible experiences.
Now those stories are the focus of a new production by acclaimed audio producer – and honorary Memorial graduate – Dr. Chris Brookes.
Abraham’s Diary recently aired on CBC Radio’s Ideas program and can now be downloaded from Dr. Brookes’ website, Battery Radio.
The documentary features a trio of Memorial researchers: Dr. Tom Gordon, director of the School of Music; Dr. Hans Rollmann, a professor from the Department of Religious Studies; and Dr. Rainer Baehre, an associate professor in Sir Wilfred Grenfell’s historical studies program.
“The diary’s existence is not widely known outside the scholarly community, and I thought it should be,” Dr. Brookes said in an interview with the Gazette.
“I knew that MUN has a copy of Jacobsen’s diary – the agent who brought the Inuit to Europe – and there was an opportunity to juxtapose both narratives in telling the story. Also, two years ago Inuit reps who travelled to Europe to meet with European Union (EU) parliamentarians about the EU seal products ban returned saying they felt patronized by 21st-century European attitudes that regard Inuit as if they’re ‘little Eskimos from 100 years ago.’ It made me wonder how much Europeans’ conception of Inuit has changed in 129 years.”
To help contextualize the story, Dr. Brookes turned to Memorial for help.
Dr. Rollmann is a respected authority on Labrador Moravians, Dr. Baehre has written about Rudolf Virchow – a prominent doctor and anthropologist who examined the Inuit in Germany and addressed how to classify them with the context of then-popular theories of races – and Dr. Gordon has conducted research on historic Labrador Inuit music.
The documentary tells a significant chapter of Labrador’s history which many people are not aware of.
“It is part of the wider story of the drama and, in this case the tragedy, of culture contact,” said Dr. Rollmann. “Hopefully, it helps us to re-examine our open and hidden difficulties in relating to the ‘other,’ also in attuning us to the intrinsic worth and dignity that we owe all of our fellow human beings.”
For his part, Dr. Gordon said the documentary tells the story of an “unspeakable tragedy” and of “Abraham’s astonished realization that the Europeans were quite uncivilized.
“Chris makes the very salient point that although it might be unthinkable to exhibit northern peoples in a zoo garden today, the Inuit of the 21st-century are no less marginalized now than they were 130 years ago, as evidenced by the lack of regard given to their concerns around the seal-hunt ban,” he added.
Dr. Baehre echoed that sentiment, adding it is important to understand racial stereotyping has had a long and complicated past.
“It is not only the product of individual and collective bigotry but the product of scientific conclusions, often erroneous, drawn by scholars from different disciplines and reflecting not detached observation but prevailing social and cultural values," he said.
To hear Abraham’s Diary, visit www.batteryradio.com.
Copies of the two-CD set can also be purchased online.