Green Hills Literary Lantern

 The Death of Conrad’s Helmsman


Chinua Achebe, who died March 21, 2013, wrote a provocative essay in 1977, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” I reread it, just after rereading The Heart, and was again greatly impressed by both. Others have defended Conrad from Achebe’s rebuke. I am not going out on a limb to say that the horror of European rule is a central theme of The Heart. A contradiction it may be, but a healthy one, to appreciate the power with which this theme is driven home while at the same time rejecting Conrad’s view of Africa.

I want, however, to take up a different feature of the tale, one that is neglected by Achebe—and most defenders of Conrad.

In the world of The Heart, labor is the measure of human character. Perhaps I am more likely to identify this as a central theme because of the 25 years I spent at jobs involving hard physical labor. Thanks to these years I cannot let the following sentences slide by without notice: “I don’t like work,” admits The Heart’s narrator, Marlow. “But I like what is in the work—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others.”

Conrad develops this theme further through the attitudes of Marlow, who scorns the Company’s agents, especially the chief agent and his spy, the brickmaster—because they do no real work. Their only activity is to construct a screen of excuses and lies behind which they hide their utter lack of purpose. The brickmaster, for example, produces no bricks and never intends to. This monstrous corruption at the heart of the Company’s station is “a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly,” and it is surrounded by the African reality, “the black shadows of disease and starvation.”  

Marlow’s shield against the turpitude of colonialism is to bury himself in physical work, in a piece-by-piece rebuilding of the foundered riverboat. For companionship he has “the few mechanics … whom the other pilgrims [Marlow’s term for the Company agents] naturally despised.”  The superior attitude on the part of the other pilgrims is one that blue-collar workers often see reflected in the eyes of their supervisors. “We're only a number to them,” is what workers confide to each other.

But the white mechanics of Heart are not counterpoints to the colonial evil. And in the whole tale, no character is esteemed by Marlow, not a single blessed human—except for the African Helmsman.

When the Helmsman is killed during an attack on the riverboat, a burden of sadness descends on Marlow. He finds his mood hard to explain in terms of the colonial relations familiar to him: “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.”  

Describing a human being as “an instrument” may seem dismissive, the attitude of a ship captain toward his subordinates, perhaps even a colonizer toward his subjects. But the statement “I had him at my back"” is strong language of trust for any worker, a sailor in particular.

Through the lens of work and the relations of trust that develop among coworkers, the humanity of the African comes into focus in a way that is not treated, not at all, in the pages of Achebe’s polemic.

The narrator salutes the “subtle bond [that] had been created, of which I only became aware when it was broken.” As the Helmsman slips away, a moment of moving contact unfolds: “And the intimate profundity of that look he gave me when he received his hurt remains to this day in my memory—like a claim of distant kinship affirmed in a supreme moment.” Conrad’s use of the word “hurt” underscores a wondering attitude toward the fragility of our species, African and European alike, that our days might end from a mere “hurt.” 

Heart of Darkness was first published in 1902. At that date it was certainly not impossible for Europeans to join forces with Africans in the anticolonial fight. Not impossible for some, but for a man like Marlow, unlikely. The truth is that Marlow is fascinated by the evil of Kurtz, this European Heart. He is drawn into the life of this man whom he despises, going so far as to travel to his widow’s side to console her with lies. The fate of the Helmsman’s African Heart fills Marlow with pity but does not propel him to action. But then, Marlow is a better narrator than he is a human being.

This tale has moral shortcomings, important defects discernible even by the standards of 1900. But it is a genuine horror story, not a mealy mouthed tract. The horror of it is relieved by two modest devotions: a humble respect for work and a moment of deep and authentic regret on the passing of the Helmsman.




David Salner worked for 25 years as an iron ore miner, steelworker, and general laborer. His second book, Working Here, was published by Minnesota State University’s Rooster Hill Press in 2010. His recent fiction, poetry, and essays appear in River Styx, Salmagundi, North American Review, Threepenny Review, and regularly in GHLL. He is working on a novel sequence based on working class life in the twentieth century: volume one, on hard rock miners in Montana, just completed; volume two, on the sand hogs who built the Holland Tunnel, now underway.