A Negro Explorer at the North Pole
A Negro Explorer at the North Pole
By Matthew Henson.
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Friends of Arctic exploration and discovery, with whom I have come in contact, and many whom I know only by letter, have been greatly interested in the fact of a colored man being an effective member of a serious Arctic expedition, and going north, not once, but numerous times during a period of over twenty years, in a way that showed that he not only could and did endure all the stress of Arctic conditions and work, but that he evidently found pleasure in the work.
The example and experience of Matthew Henson, who has been a member of each and of all my Arctic expeditions, since ’91 (my trip in 1886 was taken before I knew 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.
Henson proved his fitness by long and thorough apprenticeship, and his participation in the final victory which planted the Stars and Stripes at the North Pole, and won for this country the international prize of nearly four centuries, is a distinct credit and feather in the cap of his race.
As I wired Charles W. Anderson, collector of internal revenue, and chairman of the dinner which was given to Henson in New York, in October, 1909, on the occasion of the presentation to him of a gold watch and chain by his admirers:
“I congratulate you and your race upon Matthew Henson. He has driven home to the world your great adaptability and the fiber of which you are made. He has added to the moral stature of every intelligent man among you. His is the hard-earned reward of tried loyalty, persistence, and endurance. He should be an everlasting example to your young men that these qualities will win whatever object they are directed at. He deserves every attention you can show him. I regret that it is impossible for me to be present at your dinner. My compliments to your assembled guests.”
It would be superfluous to enlarge on Henson in this introduction. His work in the north has already spoken for itself and for him. His book will speak for itself and him.
Yet two of the interesting points which present themselves in connection with his work may be noted.
Henson, son of the tropics, has proven through years, his ability to stand tropical, temperate, and the fiercest stress of frigid, climate and exposure, while on the other hand, it is well known that the inhabitants of the highest north, tough and hardy as they are to the rigors of their own climate, succumb very quickly to the vagaries of even a temperate climate. The question presents itself at once: “Is it a difference in physical fiber, or in brain and will power, or is the difference in the climatic conditions themselves?”
Again it is an interesting fact that in the final conquest of the “prize of the centuries,” not alone individuals, but races were represented. On that bitter brilliant day in April, 1909, when the Stars and Stripes floated at the North Pole, Caucasian, Ethiopian, and Mongolian stood side by side at the apex of the earth, in the harmonious companionship resulting from hard work, exposure, danger, and a common object.
One of the first questions which Commander Peary was asked when he returned home from his long, patient, and finally successful struggle to reach the Pole was how it came about that, beside the four Eskimos, Matt Henson, a Negro, was the only man to whom was accorded the honor of accompanying him on the final dash to the goal.
The question was suggested no doubt by the thought that it was but natural that the positions of greatest responsibility and honor on such an expedition would as a matter of course fall to the white men of the party rather than to a Negro. To this question, however, Commander Peary replied, in substance:
“Matthew A. Henson, my Negro assistant, has been with me in one capacity or another since my second trip to Nicaragua in 1887. I have taken him on each and all of my expeditions, except the first, and also without exception on each of my farthest sledge trips. This position I have given him primarily because of his adaptability and fitness for the work and secondly on account of his loyalty. He is a better dog driver