Who is the helmsman in Heart of Darkness?

The helmsman in Heart of Darkness is an unnamed African man with whom Marlow develops a bond before the man is killed.

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The helmsman in Heart of Darkness is never named. He is an "athletic" Black man whom Marlow describes in terms that stress his otherness from European men: he wears "brass earrings" and is wrapped from his waist to his ankles in a blue cloth. He has a good deal of pride, which Marlow describes as thinking "the world of himself."

Marlow has ambivalent feelings about this helmsman, calling him a "fool" and "second-rate," but he also values him. Viewed from our twenty-first century perspective, it appears that learned racism causes Marlow to denigrate this figure, while his more rational, compassionate, and untainted impulses help him perceive the humanity and worth of this man.

In addition to speaking of him dismissively, after his helmsman is killed by one of the attacker's spears, Marlow says he misses him "awfully" (though whether or not he misses the man himself or his role as a helmsman is not clear). He goes so far as to say he is not sure finding Kurtz was worth the life of this man. Marlow states:

Perhaps you will think it passing strange this regret for a savage who was no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara. Well, don't you see, he had done something, he had steered; for months I had him at my back—a help—an instrument. It was a kind of partnership.

This quote crystallizes much of Marlow's ambivalence about the helmsman. He knows that the social perception of his times means that he should think and speak dismissively about him, but his feelings of superiority to the man are complicated by his fondness for him. Regardless of the man's race and culture, he had a "partnership" with him and had developed a "bond" with him.

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