Black Travel History - Polar Explorers

In this series we uncover the lesser known stories of Black Explorers and adventurers who defied the status quo and bravely went where no one expected them to go before.
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Black Travel History - Polar Explorers
Matthew Henson

Matthew Henson 1866 - 1955 

Who was the first man at the magnetic North Pole? Two men, James Cook and Robert Peary have feuded over the honour back in the 19th century with the latter’s claim being the widely accepted one in the end. This might well be because of Peary’s manoeuvring and sabotage of Cook’s evidence to confirm his claim, but this is neither here nor there. 

If we go by the accepted … that Peary was in fact the first man to reach the North Pole, then it is only fair to highlight the highly likely fact that he wasn’t actually the first first to touch the pole. And there is evidence to this that even Peary couldn’t sabotage or cover. 

Enters Matthew Henson. Born in 1866 Maryland and orphaned by age 7, Henson who went to live with his uncle knew from a very young age that he wanted to live a life that was different to what was expected of a young African-American man at the time. Aged only 12, he made his way to Baltimore, headed for the port and managed to finesse a job as a cabin boy on a ship headed for China. Henson loved life at sea and spent the next decade sailing all around the world, amassing many skills and virtues along the way. 

In 1888 Robert Peary and Matthew Henson’s path crossed, with Peary being duly impressed by Henson’s intelligence and skills as a sailor. Peary asked for Henson to join him first on an expedition to Argentina and next on his quest to reach the North Pole. Henson accepted and thus would start a partnership that would span over 2 decades and 7 polar expeditions. 

Fast forward to 1909, Henson and Peary are on their 7th attempt to reach the North Pole. Over the 20 years since they met, the pair attempted this feat no less than 6 times, spending months on end among the Inuits of Greenland. In this time, Henson became somewhat of an arctic renaissance man. 

Booker T. Washington, a Henson admirer, summed it up well:

“During the twenty-three years in which he was the companion of the explorer he not only had time and opportunity to perfect himself in his knowledge of the books, but he acquired a good practical knowledge of everything that was a necessary part of the daily life in the ice-bound wilderness of polar exploration. He was at times a blacksmith, a carpenter, and a cook. He was thoroughly acquainted with the life, customs, and the language of the Esquimos[sic]. He himself built the sledges with which the journey to the Pole was successfully completed. He could not merely drive a dog-team or skin a musk-ox with the skill of a native, but he was something of a navigator as well. In this way Mr. Henson made himself not only the most trusted but the most useful member of the expedition.”

Peary on the other hand, was a man of his time and considered any non-white individual inferior to him. Though both he and Henson fathered children with Inuit women over the years, Peary didn’t bother learning anything about the people they relied on to help bring about their expeditions. This made him more reliant on Henson and all the formidable skills he managed to amass over the years, of which not least the ability to speak the Inuit language.  Henson would go on and save Peary’s life numerous times over the years, and by the last expedition Peary would spend most of the journey being pulled on a sleigh by Henson and the team of Inuits guiding them, due to the loss of 8 of his toes due to frostbite. 

Peary’s plan to abandon his company when they got close enough to the Pole so as not to share the honour with 3 inuits and a Black man, was thwarted when the expedition moved quicker than even he had anticipated. Henson and the inuits arrived first at the location they all believed to be the magnetic North Pole and proclaimed upon seeing Henson had finally caught up with them, “I think I’m the first man to sit on top of the world”. This, as you can imagine, angered Peary beyond belief, so much so that he gave Henson the silent treatment all the way until their return back to the US and effectively never spoke to him again. This is the treatment he reserved for a man who had been by his side for over 20 years, across 7 expeditions and who saved his life numerous times. 

On their return to the USA, off course Peary got all the honours and recognition and effectively silenced the man who was the de facto leader of the expedition, Matthew Henson. Henson was largely ignored and spent most of the next thirty years working as a clerk in a federal customs house in New York. But in 1944 Congress awarded him a duplicate of the silver medal given to Peary. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower both honoured him before he died in 1955

To this day, because of the respect he showed them and them to him in return, the Inuits of Greenland still tell stories and sing of Mahripaluq, “Matt, the kind one”. 

Barbara Hillary

Barbara Hillary  1931 - 2019

The first Black Woman and one of the oldest people to ever reach both the North and South Poles, Barbara Hillary was a force to be reckoned with. 

Born in 1931 in New York City, Hillary was raised in Harlem. As a child she loved reading adventure survival stories like Robinson Crusoë. She trained as a nurse, mainly looking after and caring for the elderly. She was both a breast cancer survivor in her 20’s and a lung cancer survivor in her 60’s, the latter needing an operation that saw her lung capacity reduced by 25%. 

Upon her retirement, and at the age of 71 no less, and with all the time in the world, she found herself in a position to be able to scratch her adventurous itch and swiftly booked herself on a dog-sledding trip to Canada to photograph polar bears. It was on that trip that she became fascinated by the idea of the arctic and the Poles. Finding out that no Black woman had ever set foot on either, she set herself the challenge to be the first. 

On returning back home to NY, she started training. Lifting weights, learning to ski and raising funds for her expedition first to the North Pole. By 2007, she had raised $25K to get her going. When she made it to the North Pole 23 April 2007 at the age of 75, she was not only the first Black woman to do so but also one of the oldest people to ever do it. She recounts, “I have never experienced such sheer joy and excitement, I was screaming, jumping up and down, for the first few minutes.” She was so excited, she forgot about the cold and took her gloves off to celebrate and ended up with frostbitten fingers. 

Barbara Hillary dedicated her travel to the North Pole to her mother, Viola Jones Hillary, who moved from the “Low country” of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina to New York City in the 1930s to give Barbara and her sister, Dorothy Hillary Aranda, a chance for a better education.

If you thought that was the end, well you haven’t been paying attention. In January 2011, in her fur coats she was again, this time trekking over Antarctica to reach the South Pole, just a few months shy of her 80th birthday. 

For the last few decades of her life, Barbara Hillary was an unstoppable adventurer defying all expectations the world had of her as an older Black Woman. Though her adventures started as a fun challenges for herself, she quickly experienced and realised the impact of global warming on the planet and she became an activist giving talks and raising awareness of the damages caused by climate change. 

Hillary maintained her adventurous spirit until the very end, planning to explore remote parts of Russia when she died at the age of 88 after several months of ill health. In her 2017 commencement address at the New School, her alma mater, she famously shared the following advice with her audience:

“At every phase in your life, look at your options. Please, do not select the boring ones”

Tété-Michel Kpomassie

Tété-Michel Kpomassie • Born 1941

Born in Togo in 1941, Tété-Michel Kpomassi fateful encounter with a python in a coconut tree, would send him on the quest of a lifetime, that would take 8 years to complete. 

At the age of 16, while he was collecting coconuts high up in a tree, Kpomassi came face to face with a python. Startled, he knocked the snake out of the tree and went about his task. Unfortunately for him, the reptile didn’t take too well to being pushed out of its nook and started slithering his way back up the trunk of the tree, quickly making his way back to the young boy that was still dangling high up. Not knowing how to react and fearing for his life, Kpomassi let go of the branch he was holding onto and tumbled several feet to the ground. What ensured was a fever likely induced by a concussion due to the shock of his landing. 

To cure him, his father took him to a priestess of the python cult deep in the jungle, who in return for healing him required that the young Kpomassi would be initiated into the cult and devote the rest of his life as a servant of the cult, living amongst the pythons. Though his father agreed, Kpomassi was off course not keen on this, but being a good child and not knowing any other way, he kept his reservations to himself. 

It was during his recovery, while awaiting to be taken into the jungle, that he found his way to a local missionary library. There he came across a children’s book titled, “Eskimos from Greenland to Alaska” and fell in love with the idea of Greenland. A country where not only was it too cold for snakes to inhabit, but there were also no trees that they could hide. And so he set out to find this cold paradise, though at the time he could not have conceptualised the notions of cold described in the book. 

As soon as he got the opportunity, he ran away from home  with the sole purpose to reach Greenland one way or another. For the next few years he embarked on a journey that over 8 years would take him from Togo to Ghana, Sénégal, Mauritania, France, Germany and finally Greenland. 

Once there, and despite being thought of by the locals as the devil himself, as most of them had never seen a Black man in their life, Kpomassi slowly assimilated to the local life. First befriending the children and learning the language from them, before making his way further up north to immerse himself in the true Inuit lifestyle. 

What further unfolds is an, at times grim uncomfortable but nonetheless riveting, encounter with a population that was dealing with the first effect of post-colonisation rules imposed on them by the Danish government. 

In his book, “An African in Greenland”, Kpomassi recounts his experience living with the Inuits, adapting to their culture, learning their language and draws parallels between Togo and Greenland's status as recent former Colonies of France and Denmark respectively, trying to figure out a new way of life while still very much controlled by their coloniser. 

Kpomassi now lives in France, regularly traveling back between Togo and Greenland. 

Dwayne Fields

Dwayne Fields • Born 1984

When Jamaica born Dwayne Fields, moved to Hackney at the age of 6, the first thing that hit him was the lack of trees, nature and wildlife. Growing up, Fields was used to running outside, swimming in the ocean, picking fruits from trees when he was hungry. Moving to East-London changed all that and he felt very overwhelmed by the unfamiliar surroundings. 

The young Fields was passionate by nature and the outdoors and tried to share his excitement for it with his new peers, who met him with weirded eyes. To survive in this new concrete jungle he now called home, Fields had to tone down His nature loving side to try and fit in with his peers. 

As the years went by, Fields would come into contact with gang violence, though he was never a part of a gang, nor did he ever carry a knife or a gun. He survived being stabbed and shot at two separate occasions. Realising he needed to do something not to end up another unfortunate statistic, Dwayne decided to reconnect with his younger self and find refuge in nature. 

At first he ran several marathons, which brought some joy and feel-good back into his life. Wanting more, he answered a call by Ben Fogle and James Cracknell who had just returned from crossing the Atlantic in a row boat, and were looking for a third companion to join them at the South Pole. Dwayne’s application came in too late for this expedition, but he was instead offered the chance to join a North Pole trek. Excited, he jumped on the offer, trained in the nights to prepare for his adventure, and used up his student loan to fund the expedition. 

And so in 2010, Dwayne became the first Briton to walk 400miles to the magnetic North Pole, on his return he was invited to Buckingham Palace, joining other polar explorers and adventurers and at a reception to mark the centenary of Scott’s expedition to the South Pole.  

Dwayne is now focused particularly on encouraging young people growing up in inner cities to get out and experience nature and a life with which they have not previously been engaged.

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