Matthew Henson, Arctic Traveller

Taissumani: 2009-04-10

By Kenn Harper

Robert Peary didn't reach the North Pole on April 6, 1909. Unfortunately, that means that neither did Matthew Henson, his black sledge-mate, or the four Inuit who accompanied them on their final dash from the point where Bob Bartlett had been sent back.

That's too bad, because no one deserved the honour of reaching the highest latitude on earth more than Henson.

In recent years, many African-American historians and writers have fought long and hard to have Henson recognized as co-discoverer of the North Pole. Some have even suggested that Henson was the first person to set foot on the Pole, because he would have been out in front of Peary's sled, breaking trail.

Peary was almost an invalid and rode on a sled. Henson wrote, "I, who had walked, knew that we had made exceptional distance… So did the Eskimos, for they also had walked. Lieutenant Peary… because of his crippled feet, had ridden on the sledge the greater part of the journey up…"

Peary believed in the supremacy of the white race. He believed that Henson and the Inuit were inferior to him. On one occasion he berated Henson for not calling him "Sir" often enough.

He also wrote that Henson was "as subject to my will as the fingers of my hand." He even had the audacity to say that the reason he sent Bartlett, an accomplished navigator, back before the final dash to the Pole, instead of sending Henson back, was because he didn't think that Henson could face the responsibility of returning to the ship.

In his own words: "He had not, as a racial inheritance, the daring and initiative of Bartlett, or Marvin, or MacMillan, or Borup. I owed it to him not to subject him to dangers and responsibilities which he was temperamentally unfit to face."

Chief among the Henson advocates are Dr. Allen Counter, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, and Verne Robinson, son of Henson's earliest biographer, Bradley Robinson, who published "Dark Companion" in 1947.

Both have done admirable jobs of advancing Henson's cause, but unfortunately Henson's claim rests on Peary's claim, and Peary's claim is suspect, unproven and increasingly unbelieved. The Henson claim is simply this: because Peary reached the Pole, Henson must have reached it first.

It's also unfortunate that these African-American writers who champion Henson as being first at the Pole must also be tacit supporters of Peary, the racist who downplayed Henson's abilities.

Some claim that there was an unspoken bond of friendship and respect between the two men. Perhaps Henson felt that way about Peary. But the feeling was not reciprocated.

On the return from their farthest north, Peary hardly spoke to Henson. Henson wrote, "From the time we were at the Pole Commander Peary scarcely spoke to me. Probably he did not speak to me four times on the whole return journey to the ship. I thought this over and it grieved me much. I thought of the years we had worked together for the one great aim… It nearly broke my heart on the return journey from the Pole 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."

But if Matthew Henson cannot be remembered as the discoverer or co-discoverer of the Pole, how should he be remembered?

I suggest that Matthew Henson was one of the greatest travellers to ever set foot in the Arctic, a man who lived with the Inuit on their terms and learned from them. He learned their methods of travel and he learned their language better than any other explorer. The Inuit of northern Greenland loved and admired him. They gave him a name, Maripaluk, and it is by this name that he is remembered with respect to this day.

Whatever farthest north Peary achieved, it was Henson who took him there, and back. Without Henson, Peary was nothing.

Henson had one child in Greenland, the product of his loving relationship with an Inuit woman, Aqattannguaq (Akatingwah). That son was Anaukaq, whom I knew well in the 1970s.

After Henson left the Arctic for good in 1909, Anaukaq was raised by Aqattannguaq and her husband, Qillaq. He married Aviaq, and they had six sons and numerous grandchildren.

One of those grandchildren is also named Aviaq Henson. She lives in Nuuk where she is studying to be a teacher. She is a devoted student of Matthew Henson and his legacy.

She suggested to the Greenland postal authorities that they issue a stamp commemorating Matthew Henson. (In 2005 they had issued a Peary stamp.) The postal authorities agreed and a stamp honouring Matthew Henson will be issued this year on Greenland's national day, June 21.

Matthew Henson died in 1955 at the age of 88. In 1988 he was reburied in Arlington National Cemetery, the resting place of America's heroes. On his tombstone are inscribed his own words, "The lure of the Arctic is tugging at my heart.

To me the trail is calling. The old trail. The trail that is always new."

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to

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