Dr Henson, I Presume: Normally When Two People Make a Discovery, Common Sense Dictates That They Should Share the Credit. but Not When One Is Black and the Other White. This Is What Happened to Matthew Henson, an African-American Explorer, Who Escorted the American Rear Admiral Robert E. Peary (Left) to the Geographic North Pole in 1909. Peary Became a Hero, Henson Was Buried in a Common Grave, Reports Curtis Abraham

By Abraham, Curtis | New African, April 2009 | Go to article overview

Dr Henson, I Presume: Normally When Two People Make a Discovery, Common Sense Dictates That They Should Share the Credit. but Not When One Is Black and the Other White. This Is What Happened to Matthew Henson, an African-American Explorer, Who Escorted the American Rear Admiral Robert E. Peary (Left) to the Geographic North Pole in 1909. Peary Became a Hero, Henson Was Buried in a Common Grave, Reports Curtis Abraham


Abraham, Curtis, New African


In 1986 while on a medical research trip to northern Greenland to investigate cases of ear disease among the indigenous Inuits ("Eskimos"), the Harvard University professor, S. Allen Counter, an African-American neurologist and neurophysiologist, made one of the most intriguing discoveties in the history of geographic exploration.

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Counter had been a life-long admirer of Matthew Henson, the African-American explorer who accompanied Rear Admiral Robert E. Peary as the first humans to reach the Geographic North Pole (the point in the northern hemisphere where the Earth's axis of rotation meets the Earth's surface) in 1909. However, for the remainder of his life, and for most of the 20th century for that matter, Henson's contribution to the North Pole discovery, which Allen Counter calls one of the greatest achievements in the history of geographic exploration, was largely ignored.

"Since childhood my grandmother talked about a hero named Matthew Henson who literally picked up and carried a white man to the North Pole in 1909 but had never been given credit for it in her lifetime," says Counter.

The story of Henson's heroics stayed with Counter until many years later when he was given the rare opportunity to read further archival material on Henson while in Sweden preparing for his Greenland expedition. He was particularly interested in learning from the Inuits about Henson the man; what these native peoples thought about him and about the North Pole discovery generally.

From Sweden, Counter made arrangements with the US Air Force and subsequently flew to the northernmost air-force base in the world, located in northern Greenland. Later, he was taken further north to the village of Moriusaq.

"In this village I was introduced to an elderly dark-skinned Eskimo [called Anaukaq] with big curly hair," remembers Counter. "He thought I was a relative because we were the same complexion. I assured him that I was another human relative but not a blood relative. But he refused to believe me.

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"He was sure I was a blood relative; why else would anyone come so far north if they didn't come to visit a blood relative? However, I finally convinced this wonderful man that while I was not a blood relative, I wanted to get information about Matthew Henson. And at that moment he said to me: "I am the son of Manipanuk", which is what the Eskimos called Henson."

Allen Counter could scarcely believe his ears when this was translated to him. After all, in 1986, the year of Counter's visit to Greenland, it was almost 80 years since the Peary/Henson discovery of the Geographic North Pole in 1909.

However, Anaukaq's claim of being Matthew Henson's legitimate son was later confirmed by other Inuits in Greenland. Equally incredible was that Anaukaq would later introduce Counter to Kali, son of Robert E. Peary. Realising the historical importance of his own discovery and with his translator in tow, Counter documented as much as he could.

"Being octogenarians, Anaukaq and Kali knew that they were not going to live much longer and said to me that before they died, they just wanted to reach out and physically touch a family member in America because they had never been to the land of their fathers or knew anything about any relatives," remembers Counter, who is also the founding director of the Harvard Foundation, an agency established by the president and deans of Harvard University in 1980 to improve intercuitural understanding, equality and peace among students, faculty, and the entire university community.

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Back in the US, Counter tracked down several surviving family members of both men and ultimately managed to arrange, with the help of the US government, for them to travel from Greenland to America on board a C141 military plane.

In the US, Anaukaq and Kali met their respective relatives and toured cities that were important places in the lives of their fathers: Maryland and Maine where Henson and Peary were born as well as Washington DC and New York. …

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Dr Henson, I Presume: Normally When Two People Make a Discovery, Common Sense Dictates That They Should Share the Credit. but Not When One Is Black and the Other White. This Is What Happened to Matthew Henson, an African-American Explorer, Who Escorted the American Rear Admiral Robert E. Peary (Left) to the Geographic North Pole in 1909. Peary Became a Hero, Henson Was Buried in a Common Grave, Reports Curtis Abraham
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