Amid the pantheon of great adventurers who mapped the polar regions during the Age of Exploration, there is one who deserves as much credit as the next, but was lost to the public eye amid an era of prejudice and racism.
Matthew Henson was with the party that reached the North Pole in 1909 and, according to him, was the first person to stand on the planet’s mostly northern point. The success of the expedition was, to a large degree, down to him and his fluency in the Inuit language, and skill as a fisherman, carpenter, hunter and dog handler. Henson spent his down time training other party members. And yet, the world remembers Commander Robert Edwin Peary instead.
The expedition leader is immortalised by Peary Land, a peninsular in northern Greenland, named after his earlier exploits in the region. There is no Henson island, land, state, inlet, bay or peak.
Henson’s lack of recognition can be attributed to one thing – he was black. Though he gained a small degree of fame with his book, The Negro at the North Pole published in 1912, it was not until almost 30 years later that the establishment began to recognise his achievements.
Born in 1866, descended from slaves and orphaned at a young age, Henson joined the Navy as a cabin boy at just 12 years of age, according to The Guardian, where he developed his seafaring skills.
He happened across Peary in 1887 when working in a clothing store. Peary was intrigued by Henson’s ocean experience. The pair hit it off and their meeting flourished into a lifelong partnership, venturing to the far-flung corners of the polar regions. They went on seven polar expeditions over 23 years.
But first they embarked on an expedition to Nicaragua. Henson was one of many aides but Peary recognised his talent and work ethic and soon promoted him to his right-hand man. The pair travelled to the Arctic as equals in all but name in 1891-92, 1893-95, 1896, 1897, 1898-1902, 1905-06 and 1908-09, according to Britannica.
It was during their first expedition, to Greenland in 1891, that Henson learned Inuit culture, language and survival skills that would serve him so well on the most famous of the adventures, to reach the North Pole.
They returned to Greenland in 1893, then again in 1896 when they collected three large meteorites and sold them for a small fortune to the American Museum of Natural History, which funded their future expeditions, according to Biography.com.
Peary and Henson continued their exploring, though their 1902 expedition resulted in the loss of six Inuit lives. In 1905, they came within 175 miles of the North Pole.
On their final and most famous expedition, Peary and Henson set out from New York in 1908. They made their base in Ellesmere Island in the high Arctic and began to ferry caches for their pole push. The final team would comprise the two Americans and four Inuits – Ooqueah, Ootah, Egingwah, and Seegloo.
“Henson must go all the way,” Peary said as they prepared for the expedition. “I can’t make it there without him.”
In March 1909, the group began their five-week push, working their sledges for 12 to 14 hours a day, according to Henson’s autobiography.
Eventually, they became sure they were there or thereabouts. Henson recalled that he was leading the group when Peary called ahead and said they would camp. They later measured their position and discovered they had made it, and if Henson was leading the pack at the time, he made it first. The first man, black or white, to stand on top of the world.
But this did not go down well with Peary and he barely spoke to Henson, according to National Geographic.
“It nearly broke my heart … that he would rise in the morning and slip away on the homeward trail without rapping on the ice for me, as was the established custom,” Henson later said.
The tension never dissipated. And the public, wrought with prejudices in the early 20th century, would not stand for a black man to bask in the public eye for long. Peary was credited as the first man to stand on the North Pole. Henson was viewed as his reliable sidekick.
Another explorer claimed to reach the North Pole in 1908, but that was later dismissed. Others have subsequently questioned whether Peary’s party miscalculated the distances (or worse, wilfully lied) as their travel time seems implausibly quick. As late as 1989, British explorer Sir Wally Herbert studied the expedition and concluded it would be impossible to reach the pole so quickly. The topic is still hotly debated.
Peary spent the rest of his life basking in the glory of his achievement. He was promoted to rear admiral, thanked by Congress, appointed president of the Explorers Club twice and awarded a medal by the Navy. He died in 1920.
Henson became a desk clerk for the government, according to National Geographic. A small bump in notoriety with the release of his book in 1912 was not befitting of one of the greatest explorers of his time.
It took nearly 30 years for Henson to receive the limelight he deserved.
In 1937, he was made an honorary member of the Explorers Club, the first black person to be admitted. In 1946, he was awarded the same Navy medal as Peary. He met president Dwight Eisenhower in the Whitehouse in 1955 and died that year.
In 1988, Henson’s remains were moved from North York to Arlington National Cemetery, the location of the monument to Peary. On the 79th anniversary of reaching the North Pole, he received full military honours. In 1996, an ocean survey ship was named after Henson.
And in 2000, the National Geographic Society awarded him the Hubbard Medal – given in recognition of exploration, discovery and research. The first Hubbary Medal was awarded almost 100 years earlier in 1906 … to Peary.