Sunday, April 25, 2010

Akatingwah & Matthew Henson

Photo of Akatingwah with Anaukaq on her back from Peary’s book Nearest the Pole, 1907.
Courtesy of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution - Internet Archive.

When Matthew Henson arrived in Greenland as a member of Peary’s crew, not one of the local Inuit had ever seen a man of African descent. Henson’s kindness immediately made him a favorite among the Inuit and the women began to fawn over and develop crushes on him. Though little is known about when Henson’s relationship with Akatingwah began, what is known is that she was already married to an Inuit man named Kitdlaq. Despite this, when Akatingwah and Henson began their relationship it appears that she was not an unwilling participant.

After their son, Anaukaq, was born (like Peary’s children, Anaukaq was also legally an American), Henson had to return to America with Peary for good in 1909. It was widely believed among the Inuit that Henson would have brought his “Eskimo wife” back to America with him if he wasn’t already married and that Akatingwah was deeply saddened about their parting.


Henson’s popularity among the Inuit was based on his respect for them, something which clearly distinguished him from Peary. Henson viewed the Inuit as his equals, rejecting the colonial male privilege which Peary believed in. As Henson wrote about the Greenland Inuit in his 1912 memoir, “I know every man, woman and child in their tribe. They are my friends and they regard me as theirs.” Henson made an incredible effort to learn Inuit culture and became fluent in their language, unlike Peary, who declared that Henson “was more of an Eskimo than some of them.”

While Henson may have been influenced by Peary’s insistence his crew enjoy “female companionship”, the relationship between Akatingwah and Henson appears to have been based on mutual affection. Henson’s happiness with the Inuit woman pictured here (who is most likely Akatingwah) is obvious, as both are smiling, looking into each other’s eyes and have their arms wrapped around one another.

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