Black blood flows in the Arctic. When Matthew Henson explored the North Pole in the 1900s, he left behind a keepsake of his visits. His son Anaukaq was born in 1906.
Matthew Henson does not mention the child in his book A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, which was published in 1912. Robert Perry, the expedition leader, does not mention his own mixed-race son either. Both men followed the established tradition of male explorers – they came, they saw, and off the record, had sex with local women.
Henson and Perry spent over 20 years trying to reach the North Pole. The quest to be the first person on that spot was a holy grail of European explorers for two centuries. No one expected that a Black man would win the prize.
Sex on the Plantation, Sex in the Arctic
Slavery still ruled African American lives when Henson was born in 1866. He was born free, the third such generation in his family. They were free people of colour. Somewhere on a plantation in Maryland, near Washington D.C., a white master sexed and later freed a slave, thus birthing this branch of the Henson family.
Mathew Henson was orphaned as a child. At aged 12 years he was a cabin-boy on ships sailing to China, Japan, North Africa and Russia. Aged 20, Henson met Robert Perry a USA navy captain. For the next two decades the men were like conjoined twins. They first explored Central America, scouting out a possible route for the Panama Canal. Next it was the Arctic, where the men made their fame as explorers.
It was not unusual for white explorers to have Black companions, whether as slaves, servants or concubines. What was unusual was Matthew Henson role as the second in command of the expeditions. All on board the ships took orders from him.
Henson was a technical genius, skilled as a carpenter, blacksmith, dog-handler and hunter. He was the only member of the expeditions whose Arctic skills were respected by the Inuit (then called Eskimos). Henson was fluent in Inuit. He was an expert at building igloos. Henson makes it clear in his book that the expeditions depended on the skills, knowledge and labour of the Inuit from Greenland and Canada. The team were the first to reach so far north in the Arctic, and they did so by adopting the Inuit way.
Some 39 Inuit lived on board the final expedition ship. The women sewed seal-skin boots and bear fur pants and anoraks for the expedition crew. Inuit men guided the dog-drawn sledges over the shifting ice-floes.
Akatingwah, an Inuit woman, was the lover or ‘country wife’ of Henson. She gave birth to his only child in Greenland.
In his book Henson writes about the Inuit as individuals with names, quirks and attitudes. This is significant in an age where people of colour were simply mentioned as part of the exotic background of exploration. Or, if they were described at all, the words were dripping in racial stereotypes.
“I have been to all intents an Eskimo, with Eskimo for companions, speaking their language, dressing in the same kind of clothes, living in the same kind of dens, eating the same food, enjoying their pleasures, and frequently sharing their griefs,” Henson wrote. “I have come to love these people. I know every man, woman, and child in their tribe. They are my friends and they regard me as theirs.” (p.32)
Endless Ice and Endless Nights
North Pole fever gripped Europe and the Americas in the 1800s. It was part of a larger imperial quest to find an Arctic sea passage, as a shortcut, to the riches of Asia. The North Pole is the hat of the world. All steps from it lead to the south. Locating the North Pole was essential for making accurate maps and for knowing where you were.
As no one knew exactly where or what the Pole was, it became the perfect blank canvas for the European imagination. Writers moved Santa Claus, elves and reindeers to a new home in the North Pole. Frankenstein and other monsters lurked there too. The North Pole was also the home of unicorns, Superman and a possible volcanic entrance to the centre of the world.
People live in the Arctic, but no one inhabits the North Pole. That cherished spot is in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, and about 1,000 kilometres from the nearest village in Nunavut, Canada.
Mathew Henson and Robert Perry made eight attempts to reach the North Pole, between 1891 and 1908. They were convinced they had reached it on the final expedition. The jury is still out on if they hit the exact spot. What is undisputed is that they were the first to reach so far north.
I tried cross-country skiing when it was -42C. Each exhale froze in front of my face. My lungs trembled from taking in frigid air. Lips and eyelashes began to freeze in seconds. I bolted back inside the lodge in less than five minutes.
Matthew Henson spent weeks outside in such temperatures. He sledged over ice-packs in the quest for the North Pole. Sometimes the packs jammed together forming steep ice ridges, which the men climbed using ice picks to claw their way over. Crevices formed between the drifting ice-packs. Falling into one was a trip to the after-life. Other times the explorers glided over thin ice. Henson learned to be nimble and to be quick jumping off sinking sledges.
Then there were the storms. Ice and snow and screamed across the ice-scape. The winds were powerful enough to knock down a man or blow over an igloo.
The sun also rises in the Arctic – once every six months. Henson writes of praying for daylight to replace the six months of endless darkness.
Success and the Man
Perhaps it was just pure ego on Robert Perry’s part. He was annoyed that Matthew Henson had stepped on the North Pole first. Henson’s sledge was in the lead. When the expedition returned to the USA, Perry was hailed as the hero. He received all the awards, prestige and greetings from presidents. Henson was ignored, his role reduced to that of the faithful servant. It was a play of the all too familiar trope of the great white hero and his loyal, but silent, Black servant.
Matthew Henson eventually got his dues as an old man. Some 30 years after his epic voyage across the ice-lands, he received the same medals and honours as Perry. Henson died in 1955.
In 1988 Matthew Henson and his wife were reburied in Arlington National Cemetery, right next to Robert Perry. The two Artic explorers were rejoined in death, as they had been in life. The descendants of their mixed-race Inuit sons were at the ceremony.
I stood in Henson’s shadow once, without knowing it. The three massive meteors caught my attention at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In his book Henson described the effort it took to remove the extra-terrestrial rocks from the Arctic and bring them to the south. The sale of the meteors funded Perry’s North Pole expeditions. Matthew Henson’s hands once touched those rocks.