The first human being at the North Pole

The kind heart at the North Pole

133 years ago, an expedition set out to reach the northernmost place on Earth. The African-American Matthew Henson was part of the team. He may well have been the first human being at the North Pole.

Matthew Henson. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

It was 1887 and Matthew Henson had just met a man in a haberdashery who introduced himself as Robert Peary. The latter was looking for an assistant to accompany him on his travels. Henson agreed, unaware that two decades later they would be trooping 665 kilometers together – until they thought they had reached the most northerly point on our planet.

Matthew Alexander Henson was born on August 8, 1866, in Maryland, during a turbulent time for African-Americans. The Civil War had ended just a year earlier. At the age of 12, following the death of his parents, Henson hired on to the Katie Hines as a cabin boy and traveled to Europe, Asia and Africa. When he returned to Washington D.C., the now 21-year-old Henson met Robert Edwin Peary, a U.S. Navy engineer ten years his senior. For the next two years, Henson accompanied Peary to Nicaragua to help with his surveying work. Henson must have made a big impression on Peary because, rather unusually for the time, he re-hired him for his next project. Peary had an ambitious goal that led him to disregard, temporarily, the social conventions underpinning interactions with African-Americans. He had set his heart on being the first person to reach the North Pole.

Henson was invaluable for the expedition team. His skills as a craftsman enabled him to build and maintain the sleds. From the Inuits he had learned how to survive in the Arctic. He became a gifted dog sledder. Peary wrote that he could "handle a sled better, and is probably a better dog-driver, than any other man living, except some of the best of the Eskimo hunters themselves." Henson not only adapted the strategies of the Inuit people. He also learned their language and way of life. And he became their friend. They dubbed him "Mahri Pahluk": Matthew the Kindhearted.

Starting in 1891, Henson and Peary undertook several expeditions to Greenland that included forays towards the North Pole. With temperatures plunging to minus 50° Celsius, the Arctic is simply too harsh. On one of the expeditions, Peary lost eight toes. In 1908 they resolved to make one final attempt. In September Peary and Henson arrived on their vessel The Roosevelt at the very northern tip of Canada, and spent the long Arctic winter storing their supplies on Ellesmere Island. At the end of February 1909, the team of 24 men, 19 sleds and 133 dogs embarked on their journey across the frozen Arctic Ocean. Ahead of them lay an approximately 665 kilometer trek to the Pole.

During the first few days, they made scant progress. Pack ice accumulates along coastlines into meter-high mounds. The ice kept cracking and breaking away, sometimes drifting up to ten kilometers to the south – in the opposite direction to the Pole. Channels of open water blocked their path. The winds tore at their faces, snowstorms sapped the explorers' strength and morale. "We crossed several leads, mostly frozen over, and kept on going for over 12 hours. The mileage was small and, instead of elation, I felt discouragement…I was as tired out as I have ever been," Henson was to write in his autobiography. Travel became easier from the third week onwards.

En route, Peary repeatedly sent team members back. This was a common strategy back then: he tapped their strength and manpower and then dispensed with them to reduce the team's weight and cargo requirements. No one knew for certain if or when they would have to bow out. When one member was dispatched back to base, Henson wrote: "My heart stopped palpitating, I breathed easier, and my mind was relieved. It was not my turn yet. I was to continue onward." On April 1, just before the 88th parallel, Peary sent back a man for the last time. It was Captain Bartlett, the team's best navigator. This decision was to prompt many a question later.

In the end Peary, Henson and four Inuit were left: Ootah, Egingwah, Seegloo and Ooqueah. They covered the remaining 240 kilometers at record-breaking speed. As the sled driver, Henson forged ahead. On April 6, he assessed that they had arrived at their destination and stopped. "I felt that the end of our journey had come." Peary arrived three quarters of an hour later. For many, this was the clue that Matthew Henson, and perhaps not Peary, was the first person to reach the North Pole. The next day, as the fog cleared, Peary recalculated and confirmed their position. We've made it! The men hoisted the Star-Spangled Banner and took photos. Some days later Peary noted on a small sheet of paper: "At long last the Pole. The price of three centuries, my dream and goal for 23 years." On the return trip, Henson sensed that Peary was becoming aloof. "From the moment I declared to Commander Peary that I believed we stood upon the Pole, he apparently ceased to be my friend," Henson related later. Once in the United States, Peary abruptly broke off all contact with him.

The following weeks saw some strange developments, as an unexpected story threatened to undercut the expedition team's triumph. The adventurer Frederick Cook claimed that he had already reached the North Pole on April 21, 1908, a year before Peary. A bitter dispute ensued. Providing proof for the competing claims was particularly difficult given a unique geographic feature of the North Pole: it has no fixed position on a solid landmass, as the Arctic ice is constantly shifting. Anyone claiming to have been there needs to have precise information on the route taken and the location reached. Both Cook's and Peary's expedition diaries contain glaring gaps and amendments, and neither had a navigation expert present to verify their respective locations. New research shows that Peary and Henson's team had at least been within range of the North Pole. In the best-case scenario, they actually reached it. In the worst, they were 111 kilometers away.

Irrespective of who arrived first, all of these daredevils performed fantastic feats. They traveled hundreds of kilometers and expanded the boundaries of what can be humanly achieved. They tested new strategies and methods, and collected data for scientific research. And for Henson one thing is clear: without him and the Inuit, Pearson's expedition would have achieved little. It would have been doomed to failure. Their role was pivotal.

But this fact has long been ignored by white-oriented chroniclers of history. Following several investigations, the National Geographic Society declared that Robert Peary was the sole explorer to “discover” the North Pole. For his achievements, he received the Medal of Honor and numerous awards. And Matthew Henson? For the African-American explorer, there were initially no medals or distinctions from prestigious geographical societies. Henson worked as a regular employee in a customs post and lived in very modest circumstances. His story only gained currency following Peary's death, when the African-American community began to celebrate his monumental accomplishments.

Thuy Anh Nguyen works as a freelance editor and social media manager specializing in science. She also organizes media projects with young people on issues such as diversity, empowerment and postmigration.

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