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“Won at last by the Stars and Stripes”
More often than not, success is not half as interesting as failure. When the North Pole was finally conquered, the story of the first team to reach this anonymous spot on the map was notably lacking in drama – aside from the murder of one of the party by his Inuit companion. It was what happened afterwards that proved to be far more interesting.
The man popularly credited as being the first to the North Pole was US Navy engineer Robert Peary. At the start of the century, he was already the most eminent Arctic explorer of his age. He was a tall, wiry man, with a huge walrus moustache. In almost all his photographs he stares out at the world with haughty disdain. A lifetime dedicated to reaching the North Pole had turned Robert Peary into a rather objectionable human being. Yet, from such arrogance and self-belief, heroes are often made.
Despite his disagreeable personality, there were some qualities, at least, to admire in Peary. He was a person of great contradictions. As a white man, he regarded himself as superior to other races. (This prejudice was commonplace at the time.) Yet he had a black servant, Matthew Henson, who was both his right hand man and loyal companion. Peary repaid this loyalty by taking Henson with him on the first trip to the Pole. (Although his detractors say this was because he did not want to share the glory of being first with another white man.)
The Inuit, then known as Eskimos, he also saw as an inferior race. But he admired their ability to survive in their barren, frozen environment, and learned a great deal from them. This was not true of all explorers. For example, many British explorers were highly sceptical that they could learn anything from a people they regarded as savages, and suffered as a consequence. For his time, Peary had a commendable respect for the Inuit. When asked whether attempts should be made to convert them to Christianity, Peary was certain they should be left to their own religious beliefs. After all, he remarked, “the cardinal graces of faith, hope and charity they seem to have already. They are healthy and pure-blooded; they have no vices, no intoxicants and no bad habits, not even gambling.”
Peary’s accounts of his trips make much of the hardship of polar exploration. One passage describes his feet feeling “hot, aching, and throbbing, till the pain reached to my knees”. His own courage could not be doubted. During an Arctic expedition in 1898, he lost nine toes to gangrene brought on by frostbite. Thereafter, he walked with a curious sliding gait. But even this didn’t put him off further Arctic travel.
The adversity and deprivation he suffered for his Arctic ambitions were all too obvious. Like many explorers throughout history, he was away from his family a great deal, and once had a letter from his daughter begging him not to go on any more expeditions. “I have been looking at your pictures and it seems ten years and I am sick of looking at them,” she wrote. “I want to see my father. I don’t want people to think me an orphan.”
Peary’s wife, a formidable woman named Josephine, remained one of his greatest champions throughout his life. She supported him tirelessly, and raised funds for his expeditions. But, like many explorer’s wives, she suffered greatly for her husband’s ambitions. During one of Peary’s lengthy absences, she gave birth to a daughter. Peary never saw the child, for she died aged only seven months. As well as bearing this tragedy alone, Josephine suffered the strain of not knowing, from one month to the next, whether her husband was still alive. In the days before radio, this was a normal part of the life of any explorer’s next of kin. And, in addition to this awful uncertainty, she also had to endure the torment of knowing Peary had an Eskimo mistress, with whom he had had two sons.
The journey that Peary claimed took him to the Pole began in 1908. He had been to the Arctic six times before. His last trip, in 1906, had taken him to latitude 87° 06’, less than 3° from the Pole. Peary had learned a lot from these journeys. He designed his own sleds, stoves and clothing, all based closely on tried and trusted designs. He made a habit of sleeping in the open, as many Inuit did. Shunning tents, he only built an igloo when the temperature dropped to extreme levels of cold. He even ate some of his food cold, gnawing on frozen “pemmican” – dried meat and fat pounded into a paste. After all, eating uncooked food saved on fuel.
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