Story posted August 01, 2008
Author: John Cross '76, Secretary of Development and College Relations
Events of the past year have brought into sharp focus the importance of the Arctic regions in environmental, economic, and geopolitical affairs. In August of 2007 two Russian submersible vessels took advantage of thin ice at the North Pole to explore the sea bed and plant a titanium Russian flag there. What sparked celebrations in Russia also ignited international controversy. The Russian government has maintained that the underwater Lomonosov Ridge,which runs more than a thousand miles from Siberia through the North Pole, is an extension of its continental shelf, and under the terms of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (1982) it should have sovereign rights to mineral, gas, and oil resources beneath the Pole. In a world grappling with the demand for fossil fuels and the environmental, economic, and political consequences of their use, the Arctic is no longer “out of sight, out of mind.”
National pride, personal fame, public opinion, and the promise of mineral and oil resources were also part of the historical context within which Robert Peary of the Class of 1877 undertook his North Pole expedition in 1908-09. Over the course of the next year there will be many articles, books, news stories, documentaries, “docu-dramas,” museum exhibits, and Web sites about Arctic exploration. Peary’s claim that he, Matthew Henson, and four Inughuit (Inuit) reached the Pole on April 6, 1909, has been contested ever since by members of the press, rival explorers and their supporters, and those who were not satisfied by the navigational evidence submitted by Peary. I am struck by the ferocity of the partisan debates – in 1908, 2008, and the years in between – over whether Peary or Dr. Frederick Cook was the first to reach the Pole, or if either one had ever stood at that point where a step in any direction would take him south. It is unlikely that we will ever know for certain, given the nature of the navigational and photographic evidence.
Sorting grains of fact from the chaff of error and innuendo is a difficult challenge (but a worthwhile exercise nonetheless) that forces us to ask how it is that we know what we think we know. The motives, words, and actions of Peary and his crew are a century – and several layers of historical interpretation – removed from us now. Peary’s complex personality doesn’t make the job any easier. A capacity for aggressive self-promotion was required to secure financial backing for an expedition, yet it is easily seen as arrogance today. In our lifetimes few among us will encounter a person with the stamina, drive, and intensity of Peary, who logged 1,000 miles in the 1898-1901 Greenland expedition after losing eight toes to frostbite. Detractors point to passages in Peary’s writings where he suggests that there are inherent differences in ability based on race, yet they ignore the record of Peary’s own actions over more than two decades. Peary trusted Henson (an African-American) with his life, and he could not have been successful in Arctic exploration without adopting and adapting Inughuit clothing, modes of travel, and foods. While Peary is not always likeable, there is much to admire about him – he learned from his mistakes; despite the extraordinary risks that he took, he was not reckless; he invented and improved upon the equipment and logistical support systems that made Arctic exploration possible; and, even if he did not reach the precise position of the North Pole on April 6, 1909, he came closer than did any of his contemporaries.
Among the best starting points for reliable information is Bowdoin’s Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, which recently opened a new exhibit, Northward over the Great Ice: Robert E. Peary and the Quest for the North Pole. The recorded voices of Peary and Henson and the journals of George A.Wardwell, chief engineer on the Roosevelt, breathe new life into the story that we thought we knew. The Museum’s Web site offers a daily journal entry written by a member of the expedition 100 years ago.The narrative of the 1908-09 North Pole Expedition is like a current in a river, with many side stories that spin off as eddies in response to the largely unseen contours of history that lie beneath the surface. Enjoy the journey!
While Peary is not always likeable, there is much to admire about him.