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KOHLMEISTER, BENJAMIN GOTTLIEB, Moravian missionary and translator; b. 6 Feb. 1756 in Reisen (Rydzna, Poland); m. 1793 Anna Elizabeth Reimann in Labrador, and they had four children; d. 3 June 1844 in Neusalz (Nowa Sól, Poland).

Like many Moravian missionaries, Benjamin Gottlieb Kohlmeister came of relatively humble stock. His father was a baker, and Benjamin’s childhood was characterized by a series of moves made to try to improve the family’s economic circumstances. As a result, he received little formal education. In Warsaw, soon after the death of his father, Kohlmeister was apprenticed to a cabinet-maker. When he completed his training in 1775, he wandered from town to town for some years. Already an enthusiastic Christian, Kohlmeister made contact with a Moravian congregation at Dresden (German Democratic Republic). Impressed and attracted by the sect, he went on to its headquarters at Herrnhut, where he was in due course accepted as a member of the congregation.

Kohlmeister subsequently worked at the Moravian settlement of Christiansfeld, Denmark, until 1790. That year he was called to mission service in Labrador, and began a 12-year residence at Okak, the most northerly of the three stations then operated by the Moravians [see Jens Haven*]. Intelligent, adaptable, and apparently well liked, Kohlmeister first took charge of the school, which enabled him to learn Inuktitut quickly. Later he supervised the trade with the Inuit. He also acted as a doctor. Kohlmeister was moved in 1802 to Hopedale, where he presided over a religious revival unprecedented since the Moravians’ settlement in Labrador in 1771. A sermon preached at the end of December 1803 sparked a general awakening which spread to Nain and Okak. It was a turning-point for the mission since it led to the firm establishment of a Moravian theocracy in northern Labrador.

In 1806 Kohlmeister returned to Europe on leave. Detained there because of wartime travel restrictions, he was able to discuss with the mission board the question of expanding the work of the Labrador mission. A significant number of Inuit from Ungava (Que.) and Hudson Strait had visited the Moravian settlements, and the missionaries thought the bulk of the Inuit might live in that direction. Kohlmeister was instructed to lead an expedition into the area and prepare a report. He spent the winter of 1810–11 at Okak, and the following June began his journey, accompanied by another missionary, George Kmoch, and 15 Inuit. They sailed north in a shallop to Cape Chidley and then south down the east side of Ungava Bay. Naming the George River after George III the missionaries went on as far as the Koksoak River, which they ascended to the present site of Fort Chimo. At both places they identified suitable locations for mission stations.

Kohlmeister returned to Okak in October, impressed by what he had seen and in favour of an Ungava settlement. Though he was supported by both the mission board and the missionaries, no such settlement was built. The continuance of the war and heavy expenses led to postponements and second thoughts. By 1814 the Moravians were debating whether to persist with the Ungava project or to build a fourth station north of Okak. The second alternative was eventually chosen, the deciding factor being the opposition of the Hudson’s Bay Company to the first. It objected to any trading by the mission within its territory, yet the Moravians insisted that a station had to help pay for its support. Soon after the Moravians’ exchanges with the HBC, the company began the exploration and exploitation of the peninsula.

In 1818 Kohlmeister was appointed general superintendent of the mission and moved to its headquarters at Nain. He left Labrador 6 years later and spent the last 20 years of his life at Herrnhut and Neusalz, as active in church affairs as his age and health permitted. A simple and pious man, Kohlmeister was nevertheless clever, curious, and versatile. He read widely to make up for his lack of education, and became an accomplished amateur botanist as well as a good linguist – he was one of the translators of the New Testament into the Labrador Inuktitut dialect. In all, as one obituarist put it, he was “a favourable specimen of the genuine Moravian missionary.”

James K. Hiller

Benjamin Gottlieb Kohlmeister and George Kmoch published an account of their 1812 journey to Ungava Bay as Journal of a voyage from Okkak, on the coast of Labrador, to Ungava Bay, westward of Cape Chudleigh; undertaken to explore the coast, and visit the Esquimaux in that unknown region (London, 1814). Among Kohlmeister’s religious works is Tamedsa Johannesib aglangit, pkautsiñik Tussarnertuñik, Jesuse Kristusemik, Gudim Erngninganik, a translation of the Gospel of John into the Labrador Inuktitut dialect; several others with which he was involved are cited in J. C. Pilling, Bibliography of the Eskimo language (Washington, 1887); repr. as J. C. Pilling, Bibliographies of the languages of the North American Indians (9 pts. in 3 vols., New York, 1973), vol.1, pt.1.

Moravian Church in G.B. and Ire. Library (London), Soc. for the Furtherance of the Gospel, minutes, 15 March, 25 Oct. 1813; 9 May, 19 Dec. 1814; 8 May, 10 Nov. 1815; 17 May, 16 Dec. 1816; 6 April 1818 (mfm. at Memorial Univ. of Nfld. Library, St John’s). HBRS, 24 (Davies and Johnson), xxxvi–xxxviii. Memoir of Br. Benj. Gottlieb Kohlmeister, missionary among the Esquimaux in Labrador . . . (London, 1845). Alan Cooke, “The Ungava venture of the Hudson’s Bay Company, 1830–1843” (phd thesis, Univ. of Cambridge, Cambridge, Eng., 1970), 12. J. K. Hiller, “The foundation and the early years of the Moravian mission in Labrador, 1752–1805” (ma thesis, Memorial Univ. of Nfld., [1967]), 222–25.

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Cite This Article

James K. Hiller, “KOHLMEISTER, BENJAMIN GOTTLIEB,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 18, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/kohlmeister_benjamin_gottlieb_7E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/kohlmeister_benjamin_gottlieb_7E.html
Author of Article:   James K. Hiller
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1988
Year of revision:   1988
Access Date:   May 18, 2024