Dr Henson, I presume: normally when two people make a discovery, common sense dictates that they should share the credit. But not when one is black and the other white. This is what happened to Matthew Henson, an African-American explorer, who escorted the American Rear Admiral Robert E. Peary (left) to the Geographic North Pole in 1909. Peary became a hero, Henson was buried in a common grave, reports Curtis Abraham.
In 1986 while on a medical research trip to northern Greenland to investigate cases of ear disease among the indigenous Inuits ("Eskimos"), the Harvard University professor, S. Allen Counter, an African-American neurologist and neurophysiologist, made one of the most intriguing discoveties in the history of geographic exploration.
Counter had been a life-long admirer of Matthew Henson, the African-American explorer who accompanied Rear Admiral Robert E. Peary as the first humans to reach the Geographic North Pole (the point in the northern hemisphere where the Earth's axis of rotation meets the Earth's surface) in 1909. However, for the remainder of his life, and for most of the 20th century for that matter, Henson's contribution to the North Pole discovery, which Allen Counter calls one of the greatest achievements in the history of geographic exploration, was largely ignored.
"Since childhood my grandmother talked about a hero named Matthew Henson who literally picked up and carried a white man to the North Pole in 1909 but had never been given credit for it in her lifetime," says Counter.
The story of Henson's heroics stayed with Counter until many years later when he was given the rare opportunity to read further archival material on Henson while in Sweden preparing for his Greenland expedition. He was particularly interested in learning from the Inuits about Henson the man; what these native peoples thought about him and about the North Pole discovery generally.
From Sweden, Counter made arrangements with the US Air Force and subsequently flew to the northernmost air-force base in the world, located in northern Greenland. Later, he was taken further north to the village of Moriusaq.
"In this village I was introduced to an elderly dark-skinned Eskimo [called Anaukaq] with big curly hair," remembers Counter. "He thought I was a relative because we were the same complexion. I assured him that I was another human relative but not a blood relative. But he refused to believe me.
"He was sure I was a blood relative; why else would anyone come so far north if they didn't come to visit a blood relative? However, I finally convinced this wonderful man that while I was not a blood relative, I wanted to get information about Matthew Henson. And at that moment he said to me: "I am the son of Manipanuk", which is what the Eskimos called Henson."
Allen Counter could scarcely believe his ears when this was translated to him. After all, in 1986, the year of Counter's visit to Greenland, it was almost 80 years since the Peary/Henson discovery of the Geographic North Pole in 1909.
However, Anaukaq's claim of being Matthew Henson's legitimate son was later confirmed by other Inuits in Greenland. Equally incredible was that Anaukaq would later introduce Counter to Kali, son of Robert E. Peary. Realising the historical importance of his own discovery and with his translator in tow, Counter documented as much as he could.
"Being octogenarians, Anaukaq and Kali knew that they were not going to live much longer and said to me that before they died, they just wanted to reach out and physically touch a family member in America because they had never been to the land of their fathers or knew anything about any relatives," remembers Counter, who is also the founding director of the Harvard Foundation, an agency established by the president and deans of Harvard University in 1980 to improve intercuitural understanding, equality and peace among students, faculty, and the entire university community.
Back in the US, Counter tracked down several surviving family members of both men and ultimately managed to arrange, with the help of the US government, for them to travel from Greenland to America on board a C141 military plane.
In the US, Anaukaq and Kali met their respective relatives and toured cities that were important places in the lives of their fathers: Maryland and Maine where Henson and Peary were born as well as Washington DC and New York.
Prior to the visit of Anaukaq and Kali to America, there was the small matter of tracking down Henson's final resting place. "I never knew where Henson was buried," says Counter, "but later I found out that he was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York. I went out to the cemetery and discovered he was buried in a common grave. But because Peary was a white American, he was buried in a hero's grave at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC."
Although Woodlawn Cemetery would be the final resting place for many promi- nent African-Americans, including Nobel laureate Ralph Bunche, Jazz impresario Miles Davis, and romantic poet Countee Cullen among others, Counter wrote to the then US president, Ronald Reagan, telling him about this grave injustice to one of America's greatest heroes simply because of his skin colour, saying that Henson deserved better. Reagan agreed and through a presidential decree, Counter was granted permission to disinter Henson's remains from Woodlawn Cemetery and on 6 April 1988 he was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery among other American heroes.
Further recognition of Henson's contribution to polar exploration was to come. Counter had petitioned the National Geographic Society (NGS) for many years, asking the organisation to give Henson their much-coveted award, the Hubbard Medal. That day finally came on 28 November 2000.
Counter was in the company of Audrey Mebane, Henson's 74-year-old great-niece who received Henson's posthumous award. The medal was presented at the newly named Matthew A. Henson Earth Conservation Centre (MAHECC) in Washington DC, and inaugurated a scholarship given in Henson's name by the NGS.
But this was not to be the only serendipitous encounter Allen Counter had had or would have with "New World" African-American history while conducting scientific exploration. Some years prior to the meeting with the sons of Matthew Henson and Robert Peary, Counter had come face to face with a remarkable community of 17th and 18th century African descendants living in the rainforests of Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana) in South America. As a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, Professor Counter would often get the urge to abandon his laboratory environment for the wilds of Amazonia in South America. In the Amazon, Counter would take a dug-out canoe and simply paddle down the river's creeks and tributaries exploring nature.
It was an existence that harkened back to his boyhood spent on the edge of the Everglades in racially segregated southern Florida during the late 1950s and early 60s. He, along with other African-American and Seminole Indian friends, was not allowed to swim along with white children in the public swimming pools.
"What we did was resort to playing in the swamps and canals, which were abundant with all sorts of wild animals," recalls Counter. "As kids, we were also taught the local fauna and flora by our elders. This experience stimulated in me an interest in biology and biodiversity."
Counter was fascinated not only by the region's wilderness but also by the indigenous people, partly because like most African-Americans he also had American Indian heritage and thus felt an affinity with these local communities. It was during an early trip to Brazil, on one of his many South American sojourns, that Counter became fascinated by the history of "New World Africans". In Brazil, Counter visited areas such as Bahia where there are large numbers of African descendants of those who were brought to the "New World" as slaves by the Portuguese. "That history fascinated me and I wanted to learn more," says Counter. It was during the early 1970s that his insatiable appetite for exploration (he is currently a member of the prestigious Explorer's Club in New York City) took him to the rainforests of Suriname where he met several communities of African descendants collectively known today as the Saramacca.
"There is no purer group of Africans in the Western hemisphere than those communities living along the rivers of the Suriname interior," says Counter. "These people have changed very little in 300 years! In many ways they were more African than many Africans today!"
When Counter met the Saramacca a generation ago, they spoke a language that people in Ghana in West Africa can still understand today. Later, he collaborated with Nana Nketsia, an Oxford-educated, Ghanaian chief, who looked at the films that Counter and his colleagues made of the Saramacca, and much to everyone's astonishment Nketsia recognised much of their language and culture.
It was during this period that Counter developed a keen interest in environmental protection. "When I was in Suriname during the 1970s, I witnessed a lot of gold panning by greedy foreigners; though the work was being carried out by Amazon Indians," says Counter. "Subsequently, I developed a real dislike for gold to the point where I won't even wear it. Anyway, I would see these people destroying our bio-heritage, as I call it, just for the sake of gold. What I saw there was absolutely astounding and frightening."
Most frequently, tonnes of mercury were being used to extract gold from the alluvial sediments and this mercury was simply being discharged after use into the Amazon's river systems. In addition to mercury they were also using toxic cyanide to extract the larger specks of gold and then dumping it back into the environment. "Naturally, I found this absolutely appalling and I began to write about it."
Not long after Counter discovered that people were being poisoned by mercury. He and other university colleagues took some hair samples from school children in Ecuador and learned that these kids had considerable mercury exposure, and so did their parents. Counter and his colleagues also carried out blood tests to determine what the exact concentration of mercury was, and it was very high in many of these children. It was during Counter's lead and mercury investigations in Ecuador during the early 1990s that he encountered a people called the "Lost Africans of the Andes".
"They are a group of people who are clearly by their phenotype and in every other respect African," says Counter. "Curiously, many of them have the name Congo. About a decade ago I took a photograph of a beautiful black woman named Carmen Congo who spoke perfect Spanish. She is a classical image of the African of the New World. Even though her name was Congo, she did not relate to Africa at all. She would tell you that her people migrated from neighbouring Columbia."
Counter later met other 18th century African descendants in the interior rainforest below the Andes in Ecuador who also claimed that they had migrated from Columbia, but did not know where they came from before that. Many of them had no idea of their African ancestry, but their material culture also reflected African origins. Those living below the Andes were making skin drums which they also played. Many of these New World Africans are descendants of those brought from Africa as slaves by the Spanish into Ecuador and Columbia and they are still
suffering from that legacy today. "They have been traditionally excluded from the general population because the elite population of that part of the world wants to consider themselves as Spanish Caucasians," says Counter.
The societies of many South American countries are stratified by colour. Those who look more like the descendants of Spaniards have equal access to the hierarchy, but those who have dark skin are still excluded. Many of these Andes Africans still live on the haciendas where their ancestors were slaves. Counter was able to interview one man who was born during the 1930s, who said he was whipped when he was a child because his labour skills were not what the owners of the hacienda wanted. During the slavery period, these haciendas were owned by Jesuit priests.
"So there is a very ugly history that no one wants to talk about," says Counter, who has tried to use his considerable influence in pointing out the injustices dealt to these Andean Africans.
"I went to give a lecture at the Universidad San Francisco De Quito Medical School in the [Ecuadorian] capital Quito, and I said to the audience that I was so proud to be there," remembers Counter. "But I also told them that it breaks my heart to look around at the crowd and not see the face of a single African descendant at the university, or any of Ecuador's indigenous Amerilndians like the Otavalos.
"I don't think they felt comfortable hearing that, but I think at some point you have to take a stand. Personally, I really don't need to be lecturing anywhere since I already have a job teaching at Harvard. However, I don't have to compromise my values and become involved in their efforts to suppress people because of colour."
Counter is pragmatic, he sees the past as just that, but feels we can certainly do something about the present and the future. He has asked an American priest to help these New World African communities with medical care since they have been marginalised from wider Ecuadorian society. Furthermore, he has also immortalised them in his documentary film, The Lost Africans of the Andes.
"If you see the film," says Counter, "there is a scene that will bring you to tears where a little girl is reciting a national poem about her love for her country and her duty to the flag and she was dressed in tattered rags, totally impoverished with hardly enough to eat. How do you explain such disparity in terms of wealth when the other people's brains are just as good as yours and mine, but they are excluded because of the way people not of their colour mistreat them? This attitude keeps a lot of people impoverished in that area."
Counter's scientific explorations and ethnographic researches into New World African societies have earned him numerous accolades. Earlier in 2007, for example, he won the Paul Robeson Award for Leadership and Community Service given by the Concerned Black Men of Massachusetts (CBMM).
In 2004, Dr Counter was appointed consul general of Sweden in Boston and New England by a decree issued by King Carl Gustaf XVI of Sweden and by Jan Eliasson, ambassador of Sweden to the US. In 1994, he was given the National Medical Association Hall of Fame Award. And in 1989, he was the recipient of the distinguished NAACP Image Award.
But perhaps the ultimate recognition is being immortalised in a Hollywood flick. When asked how he feels being portrayed by Hollywood megastar Will Smith in a long overdue biopic, Counter says: "Well, I'm flattered to be involved with anything associated with Will Smith, who is one of the most brilliant and outstanding young men I've met. He is a role model for other young people in America and I really admire him . . . I'm honoured that he would consider my life for one of his films."
RELATED ARTICLE: Cleopatra's mother 'was African', so who was Cleopatra?
For years, Western scholars and historians have rubbished claims by African-American and other African scholars and Egyptologists that Cleopatra (statue above), the last Egyptian Pharaoh, renowned for her beauty, was African. On 16 March 2009, the West woke up to the "sensation" via a news report by a "BBC team" that Cleopatra was indeed "part African".
The SBC team "believes it has found [Cleopatra's] sister's tomb", said a BBC report broadcast around the world. The report said: "Queen Cleopatra was a descendant of Ptolemy, the Macedonian general who ruled Egypt after Alexander the Great. But remains of the queen's sister Princess Arsinoe, found in Ephesus, Turkey, indicate that her mother had an 'African' skeleton.
"Experts have described the results as 'a real sensation'. The discovery was made by Hilke Thuer of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. 'It is unique in the life of an archaeologist to find the tomb and the skeleton of a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty,' she said. 'That Arsinoe had an African mother is a real sensation, which leads to a new insight on Cleopatra's family and the relationship of the sisters--Cleopatra and Arsinoe."
According to the BBC team, there was plenty of sibling rivalry between Princess Arsinoe and her powerful sister Cleopatra--many believe the queen ordered Mark Anthony to murder her sister.