FIRST MORAVIAN EXPLORATION OF LABRADOR IN 1752

A wind West South West brought a ship called Hope into a secluded harbour on the Labrador coast on Monday, the 31st of July, 1752. On board were four Moravian missionaries and the man who had inspired the voyage: Johann Christian Erhardt, a 33-year-old mariner from the Baltic port of Wismar. Converted by Moravian missionaries to a more committed faith in 1741 while on St. Eustatius in the Caribbean, Erhardt entered the service of a Moravian missionary vessel, the Irene, and helped to resettle Moravians in the New World. Erhardt also visited and supplied the missionaries in Greenland, where he spent a few months in 1747 and 1749. There he became convinced that there were Inuit across the Strait in British North America whom he should reach with the Christian gospel.

 Erhardt's dream of a mission in Labrador became possible when Moravian businessmen in England--Claude Nisbet foremost among them--approached Erhardt and offered him a joint missionary and trade journey to Labrador. Moravians considered the Labrador venture attractive because they thought they could relieve some of the overcrowding in their European communities through settlement in the British colonies. A special act of parliament in 1749 had recognized the Moravians as an "ancient episcopal church," opening a door to exploration and mission. In fact Moravians were at the time much in demand as colonial settlers and had already been invited to come to Nova Scotia by Lord Halifax. One had in mind the settlement of no less than 1000 couples in Georgia and 500 in Labrador. Trade for whalebone and furs would finance the exploratory voyage and at the same time deposit four missionaries at a choice location in Labrador, where they would build a house and stay for a year while trying to establish contact with the Inuit.


Map of Jens Haven with the location of the house after its rediscovery of 1775
Courtesy if Moravian Archive Herrnhut, Germany

 At six o' clock in the evening on 31 July 1752 the Hope let down its anchor and trade agent Erhardt named the bay surrounded by young fir trees in honour of their patron "Nisbet Harbour." During the following days, the missionaries and Erhardt explored the area, even climbing the highest mountain for a better view, and settled on the shore in a protected yet easily accessible location. After roughly one month, they had built with materials brought from England and those found in the area a log house near a lively stream. The house, according to archival records was 22 feet long and 16 feet wide, and had a living room, kitchen, store room, and loft. In the middle of the house a large chimney served as an oven. The missionaries covered the roof with local Juniper rind, painted windows and doors red, and even started a vegetable garden. While at Nisbet Harbour, Erhardt traded whalebone and seal pelts with Inuit who had a camp of eleven tents nearby. Erhardt observes in his diary that there "is nothing devious in their character," and--while he was frustrated with being unable to communicate freely--he was happy nevertheless that the Inuit understood his counting in the language of the native Greenlanders.


Sketch of the Mission House of 1752
Courtesy of Moravian Archive Herrnhut, Germany

During his stay, Erhardt also walked around a nearby freshwater lake and along a brook that flowed into a saltwater harbour. On 14 August he observed prophetically that "if one could settle people here from Norway or Sweden, who were raised in such countries, who understand best the kind and manner of working the land, they would be truly in their element here." The earliest nineteenth-century settler in the Makkovik area, where Jens Haven located that house in 1775, would be a Norwegian by the name of Torsten Andersen.


Passage from the German diary of Johann Christian Erhart
Courtesy Moravian Archive Herrnhut, Germany

On 5 September, when the house had progressed well, Erhardt and the remaining crew left the four missionaries behind, equipped with goods that were to last for a year as well as with a boat, muskets, and two cannons, which missionaries Golkowsky, Krumm, Kunz, and Post fired when the Hope left them on their fateful journey north. Before leaving, they had called the settlement "Hoffnungsthal," which in English means Hopedale, and when today's Hopedale was founded in 1782, the Moravians named it in honour of the first Hopedale.

The rest is a tragic story for Erhardt and his crew. While the Hope moored safely in deeper water north of Nisbet Harbour, Erhardt, Captain Madgeson, Boatswain Roberts, and the clerk Hamilton, as well as three sailors followed Inuit with their last remaining boat behind the island to trade for whalebone. They were never seen alive again. We can assume that the troubled relations between Inuit and traders in the south were extended here into the north. The Inuit who spoke individual words of French must have assumed the Europeans were similar to the traders they had encountered in the south, and Erhardt's and the crew's lack of communication could not correct that impression. The absence of any boat left to search for the men and a severely reduced crew left few options. Two days later, with no sign of the missing men and increasingly bad weather, the remaining crew were forced to retrace their steps to Nisbet Harbour and picked up the missionaries and returned with them to England via St. John's, Newfoundland, and Waterford, Ireland. The following year one identifiable body, that of the clerk, was discovered by a search party and buried in a grave on an island that later was identified as Anton's Island.


Pipe and foundation stone from the house at Nisbet Harbour
Courtesy Steve Mills

Already in 1752 two men and the house that the missionaries had built were consumed by flames when Inuit ignited gunpowder that had been left behind. Jens Haven discovered the ruins in 1775 on an exploration trip to the south and identified them as being the first house. An old local tradition about the house's location persisted in the Makkovik area and was confirmed in old maps drawn by Haven. Also Erhardt's and the missionaries' diaries from the 1752 trip were preserved in an East German Moravian archive.
 With the help and support of Ted Andersen, MUN's Labrador Institute, and the province's archaeology department, as well as with the encouragement of many people from Makkovik, we were able to discover last month the foundations of the house that Haven identified as being the one the missionaries established in 1752. Measurements and artifacts give some credence that this may indeed be the house Erhardt helped build. The Newfoundland Archaeological Heritage Outreach Program enabled Steve Mills and graduate student Henry Cary of MUN's archaeology unit to travel with Hans Rollmann to the place where according to Haven the first party of missionaries had once laboured for a summer in vain.


The archaeology team at the Nisbet Harbour site, Ford's Bight
From L to R: Hans Rollmann, Henry Cary, Harvey Best, Ted Andersen, Steve Mills
Courtesy Steve Mills

Yet all was not lost with the disappearance of the seven men in 1752, for Erhardt's story inspired a young Danish carpenter by the name of Jens Haven to keep alive the dream of a Labrador mission. After several exploratory journeys, a permanent Moravian settlement was established in 1771 in Nain and initiated other stations on the coast as well as a vast cultural influence in the region. Today the majority of the population there is still Moravian, although the European missionary presence has since given way to a more indigenous Moravian administration. Hans Rollmann