THE MORAVIANS IN LABRADOR (I):

CHRISTOPH BRASEN (1738-1774)

by Hans Rollmann 


Three Danes are prominently associated with the Moravian mission in Labrador, but only two have remained in our collective memory: Jens Haven (1724-1796) and Christian Larsen Drachart (1711-1778). The other missionary, Christoph Brasen, died during the early years of the mission in a tragic boat accident near Nain. Today, his neglect is so complete that he did not receive an entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography or in Joey Smallwood's Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador. And yet he deserves our attention, for it was Brasen, an ordained deacon, and not the personally difficult Haven or the aging Drachart, who served as leader of the 1771 missionary expedition that established Nain and as the mission's first superintendent.(1)

Brasen was born on 6 January 1738 into a Lutheran family at Ripen, Jutland, as the youngest of 16 children. Neither his parents nor his siblings ever joined the Moravian church. It was in Holstein in 1758 that some missionaries to Greenland first introduced the young surgeon to the Moravians. Here he continued a while longer in his medical profession in the army and, after a stay in Copenhagen, spent a year, from 1767 to 1768, among the Moravians and Inuit of Neuherrnhut and Lichtenfels, Greenland. After his return to Copenhagen, Brasen was received into the Moravian church on 7 May 1769 at Zeist, Holland. He then served in the Moravian establishments of Marienborn and Gnadau. While on a trip to Silesia, Brasen received the invitation to join the party that established Nain and to become the mission's "first brother," or superintendent in charge of the church's internal and external affairs in Labrador. The missionary initiative that resulted in the founding of Nain had been prepared through three exploratory journeys by Jens Haven in 1764, 1765, and 1770, after the first settlement effort by Johann Christian Erhardt in 1752 had ended in total failure and the loss of life.(2)

Unlike his fellow Moravians, Brasen was able to leave financial savings in Silesia upon which he could draw while in Labrador. Like Jens Haven and Johann Schneider (1713-1785) he also shared life in Labrador with his wife, Maria Catharina Federhahn (1739-1797), whom he had married on 10 March 1771 in Herrnhut. After Brasen's death, she married the missionary Theobald Frech (1740-1792) and later James Branagin (1723-1794).(3)

Brasen, the superintendent of the mission, had greater administrative abilities than the mercurial Haven. The Moravian records indicate that conciliation and strong leadership were called for during the early years of the mission, because the adjustment to the new surroundings as well as geographical isolation and close quarters created considerable tension and stress among the missionaries. During his stay, Brasen's surgical expertise was called upon on many occasions, so that after his death the Moravians at Nain quickly felt his professional loss. Shortly after Brasen's tragic accident they wrote back to Germany: "The knowledge of medicine and surgery which our brother had and with which he served us and the nation [of the Inuit] here is missed very much, since we are all very ignorant as far as this point is concerned."(4) The plea from Nain seems to have been heard in Herrnhut, because the following year the physician Christoph Jacob Waiblinger (1709-1778) arrived in Labrador.(5)

Brasen was one of several educated Moravians who combined great scientific curiosity with an intense piety.(6) Already during his previous stay in Greenland, he had engaged in meteorological, botanical, mineralogical, and ornithological observations, to which a manuscript, entitled "Some Natural Observations of Brother Brasen about the Weather, the Plants and Herbs, the Minerals and some Accompanying Birds," testifies.(7) It was also he who started the meticulous recording of weather observations in Labrador, from which even the Royal Society in London benefitted and which are still used in present-day research.(8)

The tragic accident that cost his and Gottfried Lehmann's (1747-1774) lives occurred in September of 1774 on the return trip from an exploration journey to the north, which was undertaken in an effort to establish a second mission post. Elder Paul Eugen Layritz (1707-1788) had on his official visit to Labrador in 1773 ecouraged his fellow Moravians in their plan that two more missionary stations north and south of Nain be established so that the Inuit in those areas could be accommodated.(9) Jens Haven, Christian Lister (1750-1803), and the crew that accompanied Brasen were able to save themselves when the sloop foundered in a storm. But Brasen and Lehmann drowned in heavy seas. Of Lehmann, an eyewitness account reports: "Brother Lehmann exclaimed: Oh Jesus! Into your hands I commend myself, and no one saw him alive again." Brasen, the report states,

"also swam around on the water and reappeared two or three times but was covered again andagain by the gruesome waves. He wore some waterproof clothing (Wasser-Peltz), so that he could not sink immediately. He was also given the oar twice, but because of weakness and half-frozen hands or perhaps because of losing his senses, he could not hold on but let go again and again ... and, finally, he sank." (10)

Brasen and Lehmann, whose bodies were discovered "lying close together on the beach," were taken to Nain, where they were buried on 25 September 1784 in the Moravian graveyard.(11) Brasen's successor as superintendent of the mission was the future Moravian bishop Samuel Liebisch (1739-1809).

Grave Marker of Christoph Brasen in Nain


NOTES

(1) The major source for Brasen's life is the manuscript vita preserved in the Moravian archive in Herrnhut (hereafter abbreviated with "Herrnhut"), Saxony, and all biographical information not further noted is drawn from this vita. See R.22.6.3.a. (Herrnhut).

(2) The unpaginated missionary instructions of 27 March 1771 to the party that established Nain and specified Brasen's role (# 9) are preserved in Herrnhut as R.15.K.a.No.11 (Herrnhut).

(3) For the life of Maria Catharina Federhahn see her unpublished manuscript vita, R.22.65.77. (Herrnhut)

(4) Jünger-Haus Diarium, 1774, 943; quoted in Theodor Bechler, 200 Jahre ärztlicher Missionsarbeit der Herrnhuter Brüdergemeine (Herrnhut: Verlag der Missionsbuchhandlung, 1932), 97.

(5) On Waiblinger's medical activities, see ibid., 98-9.

(6) On the scientific training of the Moravian missionaries, see Otto Uttendörfer, "Die Entwicklung der Pflege der Naturwissenschaften in der Brüdergemeine," Zeitschrift für Brüdergeschichte 10(1916), 89-127.

(7) See manuscript R.15.J.a.No.14 (Herrnhut).

(8) See Alan G. MacPherson, "Early Moravian Interest in Northern Labrador Weather and Climate: The Beginning of Instrumental Recording in Newfoundland," in Early Science in Newfoundland and Labrador, edited by D.H. Steele (St. John's, NF: Avalon Chapter of Sigma Xi, 1987), 30-41

(9) Adolf Schulze, Abriss einer Geschichte der Brüdermission (Herrnhut: Verlag der Missionsbuchhandlung, 1901), 108.

(10) The preceding is taken from the accident report preserved at Herrnhut. See "Nachricht von dem betrübten Zufall, welcher in den Tagen vom 13ten Sept. bi 18ten Sept. vorgefallen ...," [6, 7-8].

(11) Jens Haven, "Lebenslauf des Bruders Jens Haven, ersten Missionars der Brüder-Gemeine in Labrador," Nachrichten aus der Brüder-Gemeine, 1844, 919-20; also [Friedrich Ludwig] Kölbing, Mission der evangelischen Brüder in Labrador (Gnadau: Verlag der Buchhandlung der Evangelischen Brüder-Unität bei Hans Franz Burkhard, 1831), 76.


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