PUBLISHED: 4:37 PM on Wednesday, March 8, 2006
Book tells story of Inuit family in Europe

Have you ever been to a zoo? There you are on one side of the fence, the animals on the other. You stare at them. They look at you, lazy-like, making you glad there's some sort of barrier between the two of you.

But who's being protected from whom?

Once, a group of Inuits were on display in zoos in Europe. At one point they were told to frighten fascinated viewers who wouldn't leave, because "handlers" wanted to close the exhibit for the night.

In "The Diary of Abraham Ulrikab" edited and translated by Hartmut Lutz, you'll learn that the Inuit had more to fear from the Europeans than the other way around.

Norwegian businessman Adrian Jacobsen had traveled before on a mission exactly like the one in late summer of 1880. Three years prior, on behalf of a man in Hamburg, Jacobsen had sailed from Europe to Greenland. There, he hired a group of Inuit to travel with him back to Hamburg where they were vaccinated against European diseases, and paid a total of 600 crowns for performing in zoos and exhibits.

This trip, however, had started out with problems. The ocean was not kind this time and the Danish authorities were adamant that no Inuit would be going with Jacobsen. Finally, Jacobsen was able to hire 35-year-old Abraham Ulrikab, who brought his wife Ulrike and their two children. Others joined the group and in August of 1880, they set sail for Germany.

European crowds were captivated by the Inuits on display. Performances included dances and demonstrations of seal hunting.

All eight of the Inuit became darlings of European newspapers and society. At one point, because Europeans were so fascinated by the performance that Abraham had given, they refused to leave the tent. Owners of the show instructed Abraham to go out and look ferocious, so that he might scare people into going home.

But the troubles at the beginning of the trip continued to plague Jacobsen and his guests.

In the winter of 1880, the Inuit began to sicken and, one by one, they died. It seemed that Jacobsen had neglected to vaccinate them against smallpox.

Abraham Ulrikab kept a diary that detailed the death of his his family and friends.

This book was hard to read, for two reasons. First, because the original works were not written in English, it's difficult to follow some of the translations.

However, the newspaper articles and other letters included in this book go a long way in making those parts easier to understand.

Secondly, while one can forgive the unfamiliarity that Europeans had with other, far-flung cultures, it's hard today to imagine a group of people on display in a zoo.

Yes, it's history. Yes, it happened to other cultures, too. Still, I found myself squirming while I was reading.

Historians and diarists may find this to be a fascinating book, but "The Diary of Abraham Ulrikab" is not a lighthearted, fun story.