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"It was unearthly, and the men were – No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it – this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled, and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity – like yours – the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to your self that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you – you so remote from the night of first ages – could comprehend." (2.8)
Marlow begins to feel the faintest trace of kinship with the native Africans, those wild men who "howled, and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces." The horrible and alienating nature of the wilderness forces Marlow to see humanity even in those very different from himself. He even claims he is beginning to understand the meaning of the Africans’ screams. At this point, Marlow is turning away from the traditional views of imperialists, who do not see the conquered native Africans as human.
"And between whiles I had to look after the savage who was fireman. He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler. He was there below me, and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind-legs. A few months of training had done for that really fine chap. He squinted at the steam-gauge and at the water-gauge with an evident effort of intrepidity – and he had filed teeth too, the poor devil, and the wool of his pate shaved into queer patterns, and three ornamental scars on each of his cheeks. He ought to have been clapping his hands and stamping his feet on the bank, instead of which he was hard at work, a thrall to strange witchcraft, full of improving knowledge. He was useful because he had been instructed; and what he knew was this – that should the water in that transparent thing disappear, the evil spirit inside the boiler would get angry through the greatness of his thirst, and take a terrible vengeance. So he sweated and fired up and watched the glass fearfully (with an impromptu charm, made of rags, tied to his arm, and apiece of polished bone, as big as a watch stuck flatways through his lower lip), while the wooded banks slipped past us slowly…." (2.8)
This passage throws some doubt on what Marlow just said about savages being human. He still does not consider the native Africans his equal. He sees them instead as animals, calling this fireman "a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind-legs." Because the man has no knowledge of engineering or hydraulics, the white men train him on his lower level. By telling him there is an evil spirit who will take revenge if the boiler ever becomes empty, they scare him into keeping it full (and keeping the steamboat running). Thus, Marlow does not consider him enough of a man to try to make him understand the science behind the boiler.
[On the cannibals]: "Why in the name of all the gnawing devils of hunger they didn’t go for us – they were thirty to five – and have a good tuck-in for once, amazes me now when I think of it. They were big powerful men, with not much capacity to weigh the consequences, with courage, with strength, even yet, though their skins were no longer glossy and their muscles no longer hard. And I saw that something restraining, one of those human secrets that baffle probability, had come into play there. I looked at them with a swift quickening of interest – not because it occurred to me I might be eaten by them before very long, though I own to you that just then I perceived – in a new light, as it were – how unwholesome the pilgrims looked…Yes; I looked at them as you would on any human being, with a curiosity of their impulses, motives, capacities, weaknesses, when brought to the test of an inexorable physical necessity. Restraint! What possible restraint? Was it superstition, disgust, patience, fear – or some kind of primitive honour? No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can wear it out, disgust simply does not exit where hunger is; and as to superstition, beliefs, and what you may call principles, they are less than chaff in a breeze…Restraint! I would just as soon have expected restraint from a hyena prowling amongst the corpses of a battlefield. But there was the fact facing me…" (2.14)
Marlow discovers what to him is an unexpected morality in the cannibals. Despite being desperately hungry, they do not break their word to the pilgrims. They show a surprising amount of restraint, even when constantly tempted by human flesh. Marlow admires them for their restraint, which certain (white) men like Kurtz do not possess.