“The Death Ship:” An Allegory for Today’s World

In 1926 B. Traven’s Das Totenschiff (The Death Ship) was published in Germany and became an international bestseller, though it wasn’t until 1934 that an English version reached the bookstores.  In translation The Death Ship was a major hit but was soon eclipsed by the 1935 publication in English of a subsequent B. Traven novel titled The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a bitter parable of greed and karmic justice that John Huston later sculpted into what is arguably his finest motion picture.

Traven himself became as famous as his internationally acclaimed novels due in no small part to his insistence on remaining anonymous and unknowable. Operating through agents and go-betweens, B. Traven maintained his obscurity long past the grave.  There are better than a dozen books devoted to the mystery of B. Traven’s true identity (counterintuitively, his life suggests that those seeking notoriety should insist on anonymity).  An anarchist who fled political repression in Europe and ultimately settled in Mexico, B. Traven composed his novels in German before having them translated.  These few facts his biographers agree on.  The question of who he actually was will in all likelihood never be satisfactorily answered, but the power of his fiction remains irrefutable (The Death Ship has never been out of print).

Traven’s anarchist sentiments fuel his writing—he considered Marx insufficiently radical and despised the provincialism and insularity of labor unions then emerging on both sides of the Atlantic. His harsh unflinching take on the human condition is unfettered by sentiment or sensation.  Gerald Gales, his protagonist in The Death Ship who would also appear in a later B. Traven novel titled The Bridge in the Jungle (first serialized in 1927), provides a straightforward narrative voice that tells it like it is.

The first book of The Death Ship details Gales’s various encounters with deathshipindifferent officialdom.  Left stranded by a US-registered freighter in Antwerp, Gales finds himself without sailor’s card or passport—a lack of documentation that reduces him to nonpersonhood.  Immigration officials, policemen and consuls care not for undocumented workers.  Gales is repeatedly jailed, hectored and hustled across borders by men in uniform—expelled for want of a few papers only to find himself in the same precarious situation in yet another unwelcoming country.

In the 21st century those lacking papers are herded into internment camps such as those located at Bicske, Austria, Idomeni, Greece, Kiskunhalas, Hungary and many others that collectively form a sinister gulag for the disenfranchised.  Those lacking papers drown by the hundreds fleeing across the Mediteranean and feed buzzards in the deserts of Texas and Arizona.  Sometimes they’re cooked to death in abandoned trailers or suffocate in forgotten shipping containers.  Often they survive, only to face a hostile world where at any moment they might be exposed as “illegal”.

In the second book, B. Traven’s protagonist, unable to find work on a legitimate vessel because he has no sailor’s card and passport, lands in Barcelona where he subsists on handouts from merchant seamen passing through the port town.  Here he encounters the Yorrike, a tramp steamer in need of crewmen.  A sailor first and foremost, Gales leaps at the opportunity for gainful employment aboard ship but almost immediately regrets his decision.  Yorrike, he discovers, is a death ship—a vessel of dubious provenance whose true owners remain hidden behind a facade of shady permits, questionable certificates and bogus proofs of authentication.

Yorrike is a vessel nobody wants.  When she reaches the end of her worklife—and that end is very much in sight—she will be scuttled at sea along with many of her crew.  Meantime she is to be bled of whatever serviceable value that still resides within her rusting bulwarks and failing machinery while her crew is reduced to near-slavery—most of them lack proper papers and can find work nowhere else.  Yorrike‘s owners reinvest almost nothing in the vessel itself, and still less in her crew.  Once a proud ship that hauled tons of durable goods and other important products across the oceans, Yorikke now earns her keep skirting the coasts of the Middle East and West Africa, where she furtively off-loads illicit munitions for shadowy men no legitimate freighter would do business with.

As the 21st century proceeds, the United States is far and away the world’s largest producer of weapons.  Stoking death and mass destruction is just about the only source of profitable exports the US economy can now boast of.  Once the world’s largest creditor nation, the US is today the world’s largest debtor nation and yet it insanely continues to spend more for military purposes than any other nation in all of human history.  And nothing is reinvested in the US itself.  Not in its infrastructure and certainly not in the lives and the future of its citizens.

Traven describes in detail his protagonist’s hellish existence aboard Yorrike. Assigned work as a coal-drag, Gerald Gales is condemned to the stoke hold where the furnaces reside.  Yorrike‘s beating heart, these furnaces heat boilers that power the ship.  There are three boilers and six furnaces, which in normal circumstances should provide more than enough power for a vessel the Yorrike‘s size, but deterioration of the steam pipes has so reduced efficiency that all six furnaces must be constantly fed.  Valuable steam leaks out everywhere, so that descending a long steel ladder down a narrow passageway to the stoke hold is a frightening journey into darkness and peril where a single misstep can cause severe burns from scalding or—should one fall—serious injury or even death.  The hapless men assigned the stoke hold perform what B. Traven labels a “snake-dance” to negotiate the ladder successfully.

“Illegals” in this country regularly perform a snake-dance through thousands of cutting blades at meat processing plants and man fire-lines anywhere forest fires and wildfires threaten.  They harvest brocolli and clean hotel rooms, rake leaves, pick up trash, pluck weeds and perform myriad other tasks disdained by those with proper papers.  “Illegals” take many forms: as a young man, Willem de Kooning stowed away aboard a freighter bound for the US.  His biographers Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan write: “[de Kooning] found the English ship filthy and, for much of the trip, was forced to hide in the hot, dark engine room where the sailors—while never officially acknowledging his presence—gave him lots of work.  “Look what needs doing here,” they would say to the empty air, knowing that he would have to do what they suggested.”  (Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, de Kooning, An American Master, Alfred A. Knopf, 2004, at p. 61)  For many “illegals” this form of indentured servitude is not a brief one-time thing.

Aboard Yorrike the equipment constantly fails.  Lights no longer function and in their place smoky kerosene lamps are employed.  Grate-bars on the furnace grates routinely come loose and fall into hot ashes and must be retrieved. A heavy iron ash-chute comes loose from the deckhead and crashes to the deck, narrowly missing the protagonist.  Adding to Gales’s misery, petty officers hector him and make pointless demonstrations of their own petty authority (much like the execrable low-level management types Barbara Ehrenreich describes in Nickle and Dimed (Henry Holt & Company, LLC, 2001)).

Power generated by hydro-electric facilities in the Pacific Northwest dwindles as glacial streams dry up and is replaced with power generated by fossil fuels.  Bridge and dam failures occur with increasing frequency.  In Alaska trees tilt drunkenly as permafrost melts while in Miami flooding becomes routine as sea levels rise.  Everywhere roads deteriorate, abandoned shopping malls and vast unused parking lots of ruptured asphalt mar the landscape, former tool-and-die shops shelter martial arts studios and tattoo parlors, and the One Step Down—one of the last true jazz parlors on the East Coast—is now a Subway sandwich shop.  Nihilism has supplanted optimism, while hope for the future has been all but extinguished.  Yet the death ship sails on, peddling arms and destruction around the world while her equipment and crew slowly perish from neglect.

Traven’s bleak 20th century allegory stands in striking contrast to a 19th century shipboard novel penned by Herman Melville: White Jacket (1850). In 1843, while working menial jobs in Honolulu—including pinsetter at a bowling alley—Melville learned of an opportunity to return home aboard the US Navy frigate United States, then anchoring at Callao in Peru.  His experiences aboard the United States inform White Jacket, which works both as a novel and as a lengthy broadside promoting democratic reform.  In it he describes the warship as a wooden box four hundred eighty feet long by forty-three feet wide where five hundred men must find room to live and work.  He details petty crime aboard the warship and brutal discipline imposed on ordinary seamen, the disparity in living conditions between those in the forecastle and those of officer rank, and the barbaric practice of flogging.  Yet the tone throughout White Jacket is one of optimism sparked by Melville’s belief that democratic processes shall ultimately defeat petty tyranny.  He sees the United States (called the Neversink in his novel) as a symbolic of the larger world—“We mortals are all onboard a fast-sailing, never-sinking world frigate”—and cautions that only the harmonious exertions of her crew can assure this world frigate’s safe voyage through space.

Later in life Melville would take a much darker view of the United States, but even Moby Dick (1851) he offers the promise of redemption—or, as the late Yogi Berra once put it: “You’re not really out of it until you’re really out of it.”

Chris Welzenbach is a playwright (“Downsize”) who for many years was a member of Walkabout Theater in Chicago. He can be reached at incoming@chriswelzenbach.com