Few indeed of mankindıs achievements are accomplished alone. Yet for each achievement, one individual is invariably singled out and lauded as the hero. For example, the Conquest of Mt. Everest is credited to Sir Edmund Hillary. There may be a few who say, ³yes, but he was accompanied by a Sherpa,² but how many of them can recall that Sherpa's name, Tensing Norgay?
Commander, then Captain, Robert E. Pearyıs 1909 polar expedition is another case in point. In the physical discovery of the North Pole Peary was accompanied by five other individuals, four Inuit and one other American. The relegation of the four Inuit companions; Ootah, Egingwah, Seegloo, and Ooqueah; to a footnote of history is a similar case to that of Tensing Norgay and can be chalked up to nationalism, but why was the other American forgotten? Matthew A. Henson was relatively forgotten because he was an African-American.
The general publicıs ignorance of Matthew Henson is even more remarkable because in fact he was the first person, let alone American, to set foot on the Earthıs North Pole. Furthermore, he led most of the way from base camp to the Pole and the very expeditionıs success was in great measure due to his abilities. There were, of course, some, unblinded by prejudice, who took notice of his achievements. In an April 1920 National Geographic Article Admiral Donald B. MacMillan said of Henson,
He was indispensable to Peary and of more real value than the combined services of all four White men...With years of experience equal to that of Peary himself, an expert dog driver, a master mechanic, physically strong and most popular with the Eskimos, talking the language like a native, clean, full of grit, he went to the Pole with Peary because he was easily the most efficient of all Pearyıs assistants.In 1947, Bradley Robinson, son of a member of the New York Explorerıs Club of which Perry was president and from which Henson was denied membership, wrote a book about Henson entitled Dark Companion. Robinson grew up hearing his father speak of highly of Matthew Henson. His book was based on interviews with Explorer club members, who commonly held the belief that Matthew Henson had made the Poleıs discovery possible. Peary in a forward to an early edition of Hensonıs autobiography wrote, ³The example and experience of Matthew Henson... is only another one of the multiplying illustrations of the fact that race, or color, or bringing-up, or environment, count nothing against a determined heart, if it is backed and aided by intelligence.²
A brief biographical sketch of Matthew Henson:
Matthew Henson was born in Maryland on August 8, 1866, shortly after the conclusion of the Civil War. He was orphaned at the early age of seven at which time he left for Washington D.C. where he lived with relatives and completed school up to sixth grade, the extent of his formal education. He worked some menial jobs, as were available to black Americans, but soon went to sea signing on as a cabin boy. He advanced quickly and by the end of his first voyage was rated as an Able-bodied Seaman. Heading out to sea opened up the world to him; in his travels he went to China, Japan, Manila, North Africa, Spain, France, and Southern Russia. Though limited in his formal education, he proved adept at languages and in learning various trades.
In 1888 while in Washington D.C., he met Peary, then a lieutenant and civil engineer in the U.S. Navy. Peary described Henson as possessing a ³greater than average intelligence and pluck². Shortly thereafter, Peary hired him on as his personal assistant for an expedition to Nicaragua and Panama as part of the Panama Canal project. Thus began Peary and Hensonıs relationship that culminated in the triumph of April 6, 1909.
Henson made his first polar expedition with Peary in 1891. This was Pearyıs second polar expedition; his first had been made before Peary had met Henson. In the seventeen following years there were a total of seven additional expeditions; Henson was a member of each one. Henson proved to be an invaluable asset to Peary, of all of the explorers, Peary himself included, only Henson became fluent in the Inuit language. Henson immersed himself in the Inuit customs and practices adapting with alacrity to his new environment. Amongst the Inuit, with whom they lived off-and-on during those seventeen years of exploration, Henson became known as Mahripaluq, ³Matt, the kind one.²
During those years of exploration Henson honed his arctic survival abilities. It is to Hensonıs skills and fortitude that Peary himself owed his life after the 1899 expedition. During this expedition Peary nearly froze off his feet; all but one of his toes fell off. Henson rescued Peary and brought them both back alive from the frozen wastes of the polar ice cap.
In between expeditions Henson returned to a segregated country. The egalitarianism of the North was left behind. Frequently he worked as a porter at railway stations. In 1897, however, he worked as an assistant to the curator at the Natural History Museum in organizing and setting up the Arctic collection due to his intimate knowledge of the Inuit world. At the time Henson was most likely the foremost expert on Inuit culture and language in the United States.
After the successful 1909 expedition Henson retired from exploration. In 1912 he published his own autobiographical account of the expedition, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole. The remainder of his life was spent at odd jobs and lecturing, mostly to African-American audiences. He died in 1955 and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery. His nation finally remembered this unsung hero and on April 6, 1988 he was reinterred next to Commander Peary at the Arlington National Cemetery with full honors.
Hensonıs own words:
There is an irresistible fascination about the regions of northernmost Grant Land that is impossible for me to describe. Having no poetry in my soul, and being somewhat hardened by years of experience in that inhospitable country, words proper to give you an idea of its unique beauty do not come to mind. Imagine gorgeous bleakness, beautiful blankness.In spite of the hardships and obstacles to success Matthew Henson encountered in his life he persevered. In the end he lived the dizzying experience of setting foot on the Earthıs apex, silently receiving the accolades of all mankind from all generations as the Earth truly turned about him. His example clearly demonstrates that racial difference is no barrier to great human achievement nor can societal prejudice hold back the magnificent.