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April 6, 1909, Matthew Henson – First Man to the North Pole – played his Concertina

April 6, 2011

On this date in 1909, Matthew Henson, an African American, was the first man to reach the North Pole (as far was we know, and we really can’t be sure because who else was there to check and all?)  We do know for a fact that he played his concertina along the way.

Eric Velasquez’s illustration from Carol E. Weatherford’s picture book, “I, Matthew Henson.”

I initially heard about this from Dan Worrall’s concertina site, where he’s published a two-volume history of the Anglo Concertina, wow!

Available on the site are six of Mr. Worrall’s research articles (that got folded into his book.)  They’re some of the reason I like to say, “Those concertina people, they’re really organized.”  (This is the other one.)

Matthew Henson and his concertina’s trip to the North Pole are mentioned in this article from Worrall:  Concertinas at Sea: A History of a Nautical Icon. It’s a long, detailed piece on the myths, no pirates, and realities – lots of sailors did play them, though some folk-revivalists said they didn’t.  Pretty fascinating bit of sociological history – really!

Eric Velasquez's accordion Illustration from Carole B. Weatherford's

Accordion? or Concertina? More research is needed.

Reading Worrall I found the polar concertina story (another person took one to the South Pole with Shackleton by the way).

A concertina-playing sailor, and African-American, first to the North Pole

A concertina player was the first person to arrive at the North Pole…. In 1878, a twelve year old black orphan from Washington, D.C. ran away from his foster home and signed on as cabin boy of the Katie Hines, a three-masted American merchant ship. Young Matthew Henson (1866-1955) was tutored by a kindly ship’s captain, a man named Childs.

At an Eskimo gathering in an igloo at a nearby Inuit village, the crew of the Kite participated in an evening of Inuit entertainment. After many lengthy Inuit songs and dances, Suddenly…Henson announced he would sing. He stood up, and all eyes expected to see him take the traditional sway and chant to the beat of the drum, but instead he walked over to a storage platform by the entrance tunnel and reached for the duffel bag he had inconspicuously placed there when entering. From the bag he removed his battered concertina and then resumed his place in then circle….  Their amazed chattering stilled when Henson began to sing and accompany himself. He sang the only songs he knew, the hymns he had learned as a child aboard the Katie Hines.

On April 6, 1909, two Americans and four Eskimos became the first human beings to set foot on the North Pole. The achievement crowned numerous attempts to reach the Pole, over a period of 18 years, by Robert Edwin Peary and Matthew Alexander Henson. On that historic day, it was Henson, an African-American, who first reached the Pole and planted the American flag.  Henson later recalled that this angered Peary. ‘Oh, he got hopping mad … No, he didn’t say anything, but I could tell…. From the time we knew we were at the Pole, Commander Peary scarcely spoke to me … It nearly broke my heart … that he would rise in the morning and slip away on the homeward trail without rapping on the ice for me, as was the established custom.’

After they returned, Henson was denied a share in the glory (as were his Inuit companions); all honors went to Peary. Racial bigotry of that era, and Peary’s personal bitterness at being beaten to the Pole, both played a part. Predictably, that was Henson’s last trip to the Arctic. For the next three decades he worked as a clerk for the US Customs office in New York, completely overlooked by history. He was finally honored by Congress in 1944, when he was given a duplicate of the silver medal that many years earlier had been awarded to Peary. He was later honored in meetings with Presidents Truman and Eisenhower before he passed away in 1955.

From Dan Worrall’s two-volume Anglo-German Concertina: A Social History, pg 288-289.

Another Eric Velasquez Illustration from Carole B. Weatherford's

I wrote a little ballad about him:  Pity I can’t play concertina to make a recording yet.

“Matthew Hensen discovered the North Pole”

(Whatever they discovered, he was ahead of Robert Perry, who got the glory.)

We set up our tents on the ice,     1  4  1  1

so the camp would be ready for Perry,     1  4  5  5

Then just for the hell of it I took a reading,    1  4  5  4

And found out we’d got there already.    1  4  1  1

When I told him, he was “upset,”  1  4  1  1

He should have kept up with his servants,    1  4  5  5

I planted the flag there in 19-09,   1  4  5  4

But I was not counted as human.    1  4  1  1

We won the race to the pole,  1  4  1  1

me and four Inuit friends.     1  4  5  5

A white man came with us, and he must have done well,  1  4  5  4

Because no one remembered our names.   1  4  1  1

(Solo, windy.)

When we stopped to rest once, a storm blew outside    1  4  5  4

I reached and unpacked what I’d carried,  1  4  5  5

From my childhood all the way north to the north 1  4  5  4

To play songs round the fire while we waited,   1  4  1  1

The tunes of my boyhood growing up as an orphan   1  4  5  4

They’d never believe where I’d been 1  4  5  5

The farthest that anyone ever went north    1  4  5  4

Before heading back south again.   1  4  1  1

My polar Concertina,    1  4  5  4

dry air through the cold reeds   1  4  5  5

Never more in my life, truly I played,   1  4  5  4

Nearer My God to Thee.   1  4  1  1

(Solo, heavenly.)

I worked as a clerk for the next thirty years,   1  4  5  4

No one ever spoke of that moment.    1  4  5  5

Perry broke my heart and I never went back    1  4  5  4

The first lie at the top of the planet.   1  4  1  1

Years later they found me, with Perry long dead   1  4  5  4

they gave me a medal like his.     1  4  5  5

I wrote a book that enraged him: I was only his servant,    1  4  5  4

I wonder if it’s cold where he is?   1  4  1  1

Beneath the Aurora, the last concertina,    1  4  5  4

above the end of the world.     1  4  5  5

Songs in the long light, from a black man who brought the first  1  4  5  4

Hymn to the Northern Pole.     1  4  1  1

1  =  C          4  =  F         5  =  G

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 9, 2014 4:51 pm

    Robert Peary, Matthew Henson and a few Eskimos were the first 6 people to reach the North Pole and that’s how they know an African American was one of the first people to reach the North Pole.

    • January 9, 2014 5:42 pm

      The whole question seems sort of bottomless. Which party (if any) made it to the pole first way back then, before they had instruments to prove if they made it, or even to know if they were there themselves? And then Henson felt betrayed by Peary, and maybe Peary had reason to be jealous of Henson? The whole thing is academic. There doesn’t seem to be any way I or anybody else can be sure. It isn’t like they could leave a marker on the shifting ice, or phone in on the satellite phone. I believe that they survived brutal conditions, that Henson sounds like a fascinating guy, and that he played some kind of concertina or accordion or something. We can’t know more without a picture; history is frustrating. Still, inspirational.

  2. October 19, 2015 6:47 pm

    Plagiarism! Writing about M. Henson for my book I realized that I’d quoted without crediting a whole chunk from Dan Worral’s “Concertinas at Sea” article. How embarrassing!

    I suppose it’s best if I find my own breech of (amateur) academic standards and turn myself in. Then I can start dragging my name through the mud, etc.

    Very sorry for anybody who thought I was as clever as Dan is. It’s a lie, he deserves all the credit for his remarkable work. Go get his concertina book for gosh sake! Anglo-German Concertina: A Social History (2010)

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