In 1888, the Norwegian explorer and zoologist, Fridtjof Nansen, made the first crossing of the Greenland ice-cap with his sledge teams. His exploits earned him the nickname ‘Nansen of the North’. He was an inspiration to generations of young enthusiasts who wanted to emulate his exploits in polar travel. The polar explorers of those times had the same glamorous images as the space explorers were to have in the 1960s. None was more enthralled than Robert Edwin Peary who went on to become a US Navy civil engineer. Peary’s father had died when the boy was just three and his mother overly protected him and spent her time trying to make his life easier.
In that she indisputably failed. Perhaps in retaliation to her coddling Peary developed a reputation as a hard man and was dedicated to making his own mark in the field of polar exploration. Despite numerous setbacks and injuries on his many expeditions he would never give up and he certainly showed the Zen spirit at all times. When several frost-bitten toes were crudely cut away to avoid the onset of gangrene, he wrote on his hut wall a Latin quotation from Seneca, Inveniam viam autfaciam ‘I shall find a way or make one’. They were the words chosen to represent him in death as well as life and inscribed on his monument at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington. He is reported to have said, ‘A few toes aren’t much to give to achieve the Pole.’
Arctic Sea Map Photo Gallery
Yet controversy still remains over the claim by Commander Robert Peary that on 6 April 1909, he was the first man to reach the North Pole. It took him and his team five months to return before he could make the historic announcement on 6 September 1909. His famous despatch simply stated, ‘Pole reached. Roosevelt safe. Peary.’ Roosevelt was the steamer he had sailed out on initially and anchored at Cape Sheridan before setting out with his dog teams. Another telegram to the Associated Press read, ‘Stars and Stripes nailed North Pole. Peary.’ There are as many researches and reports supporting Peary’s claim as there are opposing it. Whatever the truth of the matter, Peary was undoubtedly an intrepid explorer to whom tremendous respect and admiration is due for taking on this frightening and overwhelming wilderness of utmost hostility.
His polar expedition had set out in late 1908 with fifty-nine Inuit and just seven members of the original exploring team. Peary eventually said goodbye to the last of four support teams on 1 April 1909. Making the final trek with Peary were four Inuit and Matthew Henson, an African-American descended from former slaves. Henson accompanied Peary on eight Arctic expeditions and had saved his life more than once. There was undoubtedly a special bond existing between the two of them. On this last stretch they had cut the expedition size to five sledges and forty dogs. In his diary Peary wrote, ‘The Pole at last! The prize of three centuries, my dream and ambition for twenty-three years.’ For well over fifty days the men and their dog teams had fought their way across the ice from the last point of land to the North Pole and back, a total distance of 1,530 km.
It is stated, maybe Peary felt he owed it to him, that Henson was the one who actually planted the US flag at the Pole, thereby becoming the first Afro-American to reach there. Peary was only fifty-two and Henson forty-two. Peary and Henson had worked together and planned this moment for some eighteen years. All his life Peary had been driven by his dream of making it to the Pole and as a young boy he often used to quote from the poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ‘And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.’
Matthew Henson’s dark skin helped considerably in the Arctic as the Inuit were able to identify with him and were therefore willing to lend support of manpower, dogpower and equipment. They were also very impressed with the tremendous skill and ability of Matthew Henson as a dynamic dog-sledge driver. He had learned their language and they called him, Miy Paluk. During earlier expeditions both Peary and Henson were known to have taken Inuit mistresses; on the 1905 expedition they installed two on board ship, respectively Alequasina and Aqattannuau. Henson’s son was called Annaukaq. The exciting discovery of a tribe of dark-skinned Inuit, living at the edge of the polar ice fields, has led researchers to believe that they may be descendants of Matthew Henson. He only died in 1955 at the age of eighty-eight. Two years earlier President Eisenhower had finally bestowed on him a medal to honour his major polar contribution. Due to his many and varied abilities Henson had been selected ahead of five white men but contemporary accounts more or less relegated him to the role of valet.
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