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The character Quatermain is an English-born professional big game hunter and occasional trader in southern Africa, who supports colonial efforts to 'spread civilization' in the 'dark continent', though he also favours native Africans having a say in their affairs. An outdoorsman who finds English cities and climate unbearable, he prefers to spend most of his life in Africa, where he grew up under the care of his widower father, a Christian missionary.
In the earliest-written novels, native Africans refer to Quatermain as Macumazahn, meaning "Watcher-by-Night," a reference to his nocturnal habits and keen instincts. In later-written novels, Macumazahn is said to be a short form of Macumazana, meaning "One who stands out." Quatermain is frequently accompanied by his native servant, the Hottentot Hans, a wise and caring family retainer from his youth. His sarcastic comments offer a sharp critique of European conventions. In his final adventures, Quatermain is joined by two British companions, Sir Henry Curtis and Captain John Good of the Royal Navy, and by his African friend Umslopogaas.