May 22, 2006
The Death Ship was the first of B. Traven’s novels. B. Traven is best known for his novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, made into a famous movie starring Humphrey Bogart.
While Treasure of the Sierra Madre showed how the pursuit of wealth distorts humanity, The Death Ship has as its target the power of the modern state and its endless layers of bureaucracies. “Stronger than God the Almighty,” says Traven of the bureaucracies, “because they could deny the existence of an actual living person,” simply because he had no papers.
The novel’s characters who “have no papers” are sailors stranded in Europe after World War I. Able-bodied seamen, seeking jobs on various ships, are denied and denied again because they have in one way or another lost their passports or seamen’s cards.
The sailors can plead with consulates, they spend nights in jail, they are secretly evicted from countries, they can pay enormous bribes and wait weeks for a promised document that never comes. There’s always a “catch” in the bureaucratic procedure.
The sailors are vital, intelligent, healthy, skilled workers. But the states all refuse to acknowledge their existence. In the end, they have no recourse but to take jobs on death ships – ships that are going to be intentionally sunk at sea for the insurance. The owners will collect the insurance and the witnesses have either gone down with the ship or, if they survive, do not count in court – because they have no papers.
Traven describes the adventures of such sailors, and through their stories, he carries the reader on large voyages, across the length and breadth of history, up and down the always-identical layers of state bureaucracies. Everyone who has been there will relate.
In these times of contrived debate over “illegal” immigrants and “closed” borders, The Death Ship presents the more fundamental questions.