Short Portrait: Wilhelm Weike

Wilhelm Weike
Wilhelm Weike

In the early 1880s, Wilhelm Weike became – for a short period in his worker’s life - an accidental Arctic ethnographer. He was born in the rural community of Häverstädt close to Minden in eastern Westphalia on 28 November 1859 and died in Berlin, the capital of Germany, on 11 June 1917. In historical records he appears variously as a domestic servant, gardener, business attendant and building porter. By chance he participated in the first and only scientific expedition that the young scientist Franz Boas (1858-1942) conduct to the Inuit of Baffin Island in Canada’s Eastern Arctic following the International Polar Year of 1882-1883. For 15 months – from June 1883 to September 1884 - Weike was Boas’ invaluable and indispensable servant and handyman. Boas later became a world-renowned social scientist, the proponent of cultural relativism and the founder of cultural anthropology at Columbia University in New York, USA (see entry in the Short Portraits). Weike remained in Germany and continued in his ordinary live unnoticed by history until recently.

Wilhelm Weike was the youngest of three sons born to Louise and Christian Weike. His father died early when Weike was barely two years old. His mother later remarried. Weike went to elementary school in Häverstadt and, after completing it in 1874, took apprenticeship as a gardener in Minden. Between 1879 and 1885 including the sojourn in the Canadian Arctic he was employed by Meyer Boas, Franz’s father, as a house servant and gardener. He married Mathilde Nolting, who had joined the Boas household as an employee in 1876, in late 1885 and both moved to Berlin in early 1886, where they worked in various positions, Wilhelm mainly as a porter for apartment buildings. They had no children. The relationship with the Boas family, who had moved to Berlin as well, continued and, over the years, Wilhelm and Mathilde worked for them for extended periods. Franz Boas, who settled in the USA in 1886, and Wilhelm corresponded with each other, and Boas visited them whenever he was Berlin with his own family, which occurred quite frequently. The social contacts between the Boas family, who always felt a responsibility towards Wilhelm and Mathilde, and the Weike couple endured beyond Weike’s death until his wife died probably in the late 1920s.

Franz Boas and Wilhelm Weike left for “Baffin-Land” in the ship “Germania” of the German Polar Commission from Hamburg on June 20, 1883 and reached their destination, the Inuit settlement and the Scottish and American whaling stations on Kekerten Island in Cumberland Sound on Baffin Island on August 28, 1883. Their year with the Inuit and whalers in the Canadian Arctic had begun bringing them unforeseen and extraordinary experiences and events.

During this one-year stay Weike kept a journal upon Boas’ request. The original journal that Weike kept in his possession is lost, however, a copy, that Boas got transcribed in Berlin in the spring of 1886, and some original letters survived in the Boas Papers in the archive of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia waiting for discovery and publication. Weike’s extraordinary journal and letters with extensive footnotes and commentary were finally published in German in 2008 and in English in 2011.

His journal, written in plain and direct sentences, often with a dry sense of humour, but not much self-reflections and emotions, shows that Weike succeeded, with practical sense and dexterity, in tackling the most varied daily chores and demands in the Arctic and in adapting to the conditions of a foreign environment and its people. He describes his social contacts with Inuit and whalers as a matter of fact. His writings reflects the routine of everyday life of the Inuit and whalers and throws light on Weike’s character and his inner attitudes, which were free of cultural or racial arrogance and marked by curiosity, frankness and interest in anything new and strange. He treated people with respect and acceptance and his human warmth permitted him to get close to the Inuit by overcoming social and linguistic barriers. Thus, through his warm-heartedness, it seems, that he balanced the scientific approach and perception exuded by Franz Boas, his employer and master.

Weike fulfilled his duties and kept his journal regularly and faithfully; by doing so he created a first-hand vision of the daily affairs of an arctic expedition, of his relationship with Boas, of the social interaction among the whalers of widely differing nations, who expanded into and changed the Arctic, and of his encounters with the Inuit, the aboriginal inhabitants, who faced extensive cultural and economic changes. He experienced contacts, exchanges, friendships, and collaboration of the more than 300 Inuit who lived in dispersed settlements in and around Cumberland Sound, of whom he mentioned 150 by description and 50 of them with their personal names. In addition, he used numerous Inuit place names and identified their locations in his journal. Next to rudimentary English that Boas had tried to teach him, Weike learned also some vocabulary of the local Inuit language and the local Pidgin so that he could understand the Inuit and make himself understood. He participated in hunting, fishing, and travelling, and learned diligently how to handle and drive a dog team, which he enjoyed tremendously. He observed and described keenly the behaviour, habits, and, in particular, the shamanistic practices of the Inuit. Weike also faced physical dangers and illness. In late December 1883 on their first march on the ice with temperatures hovering around minus 40 he froze his feet and toes. He was saved and treated by Inuit in a camp with snow houses. He was immobile and recuperated at the Scottish whaling station for over three months, still managing all the daily chores, before he could travel with Boas and the Inuit again.

Weike was a religious fellow, moulded by the evangelical Lutheran church. It says much for him that he took a great interest, with an open mind, in the spiritual life of the Inuit, expressed especially in the invocations of the angakkuq, the shaman. He mentioned these occasions several times in his journal. The acts of the shamans, which were mainly aimed at healing sick people, took place in tents and snow houses and even at the Scottish whaling station. These observations made a lasting impression on Weike and also Boas, so that for their own use they rendered the concept of angakkuq as the verb “ankuten” [to ankut] in German in their journals. Unlike Boas, Weike did not remain at an observing distance, but participated directly in the events and was accepted by the Inuit and invited to join their circle.

Wilhelm Weike described various aspects of Inuit culture that he perceived as extraordinary. These observations are plain ethnographic descriptions and references to the heterogeneous nature of hunting methods, customs as to clothing and meals, games, spiritual life, and ceremonies, for example, the “Fall Festival” at which the story of the origin of the Inuit was dramatized by disguised players. Weike also purchased and used articles of Inuit material culture, such as a complete suit of skin clothing and tools and ordered delicate ivory carvings for himself. He took all these items with him back to Germany and they became part of his home in Berlin.

Weike was a very precise and careful observer. He took pleasure in nature and was interested in landforms, animals, plants, weather conditions, temperature, and the seasonally changing light conditions of the arctic environment that was so alien to him. That his unique writings survived, is due to Boas’ insistence that he write a journal at all and that Boas got it copied for his own perusal and thus preserved it for posterity. Weike would never have imagined that his writings would ever be made public and become part of ethnographic literature written by an ordinary labourer.

The relationship between servant and master, labourer and scientists, between Wilhelm Weike and Franz Boas, their mutual recognition, did not include any academic or public acknowledgment. The social hierarchy of the time remained intact. After all, in Germany the two men would never have spent the night in the same room; in the Arctic they spent days and nights in close physical proximity in tents and the iglu or on the same dog sledge. But at the Scottish station each had a separate bed recess. And yet for Weike Boas always remained “Herr Doktor!” and he, in return, addressed him always with “Wilhelm, Sie!” It was obvious that the distinct social hierarchy was not overcome or reduced by common experiences. Now with the publication of his journal Weike stands next to Boas in the perception and interpretation of the human condition, i.e. the Other seen from different standpoints. Placing both their parallel journals next to each other affords both a place in the anthropological enterprise. 
(Text courtesy of Ludger Müller-Wille ( and Bernd Gieseking (, February 2012; photograph: American Philosophical Society)

Müller-Wille, Ludger & Bernd Gieseking (Hg.) 2008. Bei Inuit und Walfängern auf Baffin-Land (1883/1884). Das arktische Tagebuch des Wilhelm Weike. (Mindener Beiträge, Band 30) Minden: Mindener Geschichtsverein. 321 S., 22 Abb. ISBN 9783929894318

Müller-Wille, Ludger & Bernd Gieseking (eds.) 2011. Inuit and Whalers on Baffin Island Through German Eyes. Wilhelm Weike’s Arctic Journal and Letters (1883-84). Translated from the German by William Barr. Montréal: Baraka Books.
286 pp., 21 figs. ISBN 9781926824116

Review by Jane George, Nunatsiaq News, 13 February 2012, Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada

The 1883-84 journals and letters by Franz Boas:

Müller-Wille, Ludger (Hg.) 1994. Franz Boas. Bei den Inuit in Baffinland 1883-1884. Tagebücher und Briefe. (Ethnologische Beiträge zur Circumpolarforschung 1. Herausgegeben von Erich Kasten). Berlin: Reinhold Schletzer Verlag. XVII, 296 S., 32 Abb. ISBN 3921539609

Müller-Wille, Ludger (ed.) 1998. Franz Boas among the Inuit of Baffin Island 1883-1884. Journals and Letters. Translated by William Barr. Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press. XVI, 298 pp., 20 figs. ISBN 0802041597