The real Mathew Henson
Most northerners have routines to get us through daily life.
Mine seem to center on the radio news broadcasts that come on at various points of the day. I depend on them to get a sense of the pulse of the times I’m living in.
I was particularly interested in hearing, the other day, about a film in the works that was scheduled for production in Iqaluit sometime within the next few months.
The subject of the film was the legendary conquest of the North Pole by admiral Robert E. Peary and his Black associate, Mathew Henson, on April 9, 1909.
I’m an Afro-American and a distant relative of Mathew Henson, who lived in the north for close to 18 years.
In spite of significant social pressures, among them a prolonged isolation from my own culture and people, I’ve never forgotten who I am and where I come from.
I’ve also never forgotten where I’ve been living for the last 18 years. I often think of Mathew Henson as a person who, similar to myself, brought to the table of northern perceptions a unique Black perspective. He is, in effect, one of my idols.
I must confess, however, that the news item that I heard a while ago regarding Mathew Henson troubled me.
It referred to Henson as Peary’s “valet” or “servant” without really explaining his contribution to the success of the expedition.
As northern explorers go, Mathew Henson was an extraordinary individual. Peary and Henson travelled together for 21 years, most of that time in pursuit of the elusive goal of reaching the North Pole.
Most significantly, he was trusted and loved by the Inuit who were, themselves, essential to the success of the expedition. He was the only member of the group of explorers who could speak Inuktitut.
He was also an expert dog musher and navigator whose contributions Peary described as “indispensable” to his successes.
According to historical accounts, Henson either arrived at the Pole before Peary, or accompanied him with a small team of Inuit at the moment this historic landmark was reached.
It was part of Peary’s strategy to have Henson (rather than one of his white associates) accompany him to the Pole, because he knew that people would have difficulty accepting a Black man’s claim to having been the first man to actually reach the pole.
As essential as Henson’s contribution was to the mission, his ancestry would render him invisible. Peary would not have to share his day of glory with anyone.
Peary’s strategy proved correct. Americans in the early twentieth century had difficulty accepting an uneducated Black man as a successful northern explorer.
They subsequently learned, however, that he was an intelligent, competent person who possessed a broad command of the facts of Arctic exploration.
Later on in his life, he received many honors and awards for his work with Peary. In 1937 he was recognized as a member of the prestigious Explorers Club in New York.
Died in obscurity
In 1938 he was made an honorary member of the Academy of Science and Art in Pittsburgh, Penn. In spite of this belated recognition of his achievement, he died working as a clerk and parking lot attendant for the U. S. Customs Office in New York in 1955.
I used to walk past the building he used to work in lower Manhattan when I was a teenager. I often had images of him making his way through strange, cold northern lands, never realizing that, one day, I would find myself in the same part of the world.
Henson’s northern legacy goes beyond folklore and historic accounts. Both Henson and Peary had families during the two decades they were involved in northern exploration.
Relatives in Greenland
The descendants of these two explorers live in northern Greenland and still bear the names of their illustrious antecedents. A few years ago I attended a gathering at Harvard University of Mathew Henson’s relatives from both the U. S. and Greenland.
As the only representative from the U. S. who actually lived in the north, I was honored to meet many of the present day Inuit Hensons as well as those who were Black Americans.
It was quite amazing to see the contrasts and similarities between all of us. It was my first encounter with an actual joining of the worlds of Inuit and Black people. Although it was not without it’s complexities, it was a moment that I will never forget.
CBC made errors of omission
As history has demonstrated, the lack of recognition of Henson’s contribution goes beyond the casual errors of omission of the CBC broadcast I heard a few days ago.
The fact that he is still being called Peary’s “valet” or “servant” reminds me that perhaps things aren’t much different now than they were 60 years ago.
Generally speaking, Blacks, Asians and other individuals representing cultures from around the world are still not fully recognized as a presence in the social fabric of the north. We’re the invisible part of the human equation.
Thinking of the future is very much a preoccupation for most Nunavut residents nowadays.
I’m one of those who recalls fondly the society I found when I came here 18 years ago. People were accepted on the basis of their individual merit rather than what they looked like or where they came from.
I hope that the Nunavut of the future will learn from its past and that all of the parts of our cultural fabric are recognized for the contributions that they make and the creative diversity of points of view that they bring. If Nunavut is to have a viable future, this kind of recognition will be essential.