A Negro Explorer at the North Pole by Matthew Henson, forward by Matthew E. Peary and introduction by Booker T. Washington.
Frederick A. Stokes Company, New York, 1912.
Available online at www.gutenberg.org/files/20923/20923-h/20923-h.htm
Accessed in September 2017.
Nonfiction, 200 pages.
Matthew Henson was the black man who accompanied Peary on most of his expeditions, including to the North Pole. He received scant notice from the white people of the time, but his life story was very much in demand among African-Americans. Eventually he used his journals from the trip to write this book.
The book is a curious mix of direct entries from Henson’s journals, summations of journal entries, and his direct writing covering periods of time when he couldn’t write or adding information he felt was helpful.
Racism is very present in this book. For the most part, this is overt, although it does come out more blatantly. There are two main forms of racism present – against African-Americans, and against Native Americans.
Henson has a ready wit. For example, look at the final sentence of this passage from pages 8 and 9:
Mrs. Peary also took a young Esquimo girl, well known among us as “Miss Bill,” along with her, and kept her for nearly a year, when she gladly permitted her to return to Greenland and her own people. Miss Bill is now grown up, and has been married three times and widowed, not by death but by desertion. She is known as a “Holy Terror.” I do not know the reason why, but I have my suspicions.
There are several points where you can see Henson biting back an acerbic comment. Unfortunately he only seems to express these comments are when they are directed at Native peoples*.
Just in the first few chapters, a clear hierarchy emerges. Henson is always careful to be deferential and complimentary to white people, although I’m certain some if not all were probably maddeningly stupid or racist. The Caucasians tend to regard Henson with a sort of amused superiority, as if he were a particularly well-performing puppy.
However, there is one group considered lower than him, and that is the Native peoples he worked with. It is in his writing about them that we get a better sense of the man.
I would imagine that this book is a horrible read from a Native perspective. There are moments of clarity, but Henson remarks that “The cleanliness of the Esquimos leaves room for much improvement.” (page 92), feels that they “have no decided form of religion” (page 94) comments that the men, while peaceful among themselves, will not hesitate to brutalize a woman. All damaging stereotypes!
Although Henson is not interacting with indigenous peoples in an appropriate way, he does afford them more humanity than the white people around them. This passage in particular illustrated the relationship:
“Commander Peary gave me explicit instructions to get Nipsangwah and Myah ashore as quick as the Creator would let them, but to be sure that their seven curs were kept aboard; these two huskies having exalted ideas as to their rights and privileges. Egingwah, or Karko as we knew him, and Koodlootinah and his family were to come aboard.
“Acting under orders, I obeyed, but it was not a pleasant task. I have known men who needed dogs less to pay a great deal more for one pup than was paid to Nipsangwah for his pack of seven. The dogs are a valuable asset to this people and these two men were dependent on their little teams to a greater extent than on the plates and cups of tin which they received in exchange for them.” pages 29 and 30
White Peary is at the top of the hierarchy. Henson has earned a tentative place as the middleman, negotiating between the two worlds. He is sharply aware that the indigenous people are getting fleeced, and that this deprivation of their dogs could mean the ruin, or even end, of their lives. However, in order to maintain his own place, he feels that he must facilitate Peary’s commands. In the next paragraph, he justifies his actions (and thus Peary’s decision) rather lamely.
These actions happened on August 8th, 1908, yet they read as if they happened much more recently. This book is an interesting case study on race relations at the turn of the last century.
Even Peary seems to have some humanity, as when the expedition is returning home:
“Instead of sailing on to Etah, Peary ordered the ship into Whale Sound, in order that walrus-hunting could be done, so that the Esquimos should have a plentiful supply of meat for the following winter. Three walrus were captured, when a storm sprang up” page 165
However, Peary is patronizingly kind to Native peoples only when he is otherwise happy and feeling bountiful. Henson is clearly trying to emulate Peary and align himself with the white members of the mission, but does have some empathy. A part of his value to the group is his ability to work as a middleman, which (combined with his anxiety over status) ironically often causes him to be harsher than others.
From a literary standpoint, it is a good read. Henson writes clearly and vividly. His subject matter is interesting, and he digresses less often than other authors from the same time period. His descriptions of the action of crossing the Arctic ice made me shiver in the middle of summer. The subtext of this book requires thought and analysis to process well, but I found it to be worth the effort.
One of several times that Henson references reading:
“On board ship there was quite an extensive library, especially on Arctic and Antarctic topics, but as it was in the Commander’s cabin it was not heavily patronized.” page 39
If you are interested in Matthew Henson, racial relations at the turn of the century, or Arctic exploration, then this book may be for you. If you are interested in learning more about indigenous Arctic cultures, there are other, better books. Either way, this book is freely available from Project Gutenberg.
*In the book, Henson refers to all of the Native peoples as Eskimos. I believe most would today be referred to as Inuit, but don’t know enough to be certain. That is why I’m using the terminology Native or indigenous instead of more specific descriptors. If you have more accurate information, please let me know so I can update this review.