B. Traven, Das Totenschiff. Die Geschichte eines amerikanischen Seemanns (The Death Ship)


Published by Diogenes, 1926


When the American deck-hand Gale, while on shore leave in Antwerp, misses the departure of his freighter, he does not know what catastrophic events he has just set in motion: the extinction of his existence …

Published by the Büchergilde Gutenberg in 1926, “Das Totenschiff” (English “The Death Ship”) seems to fall into the category of adventure books. The reader, however, quickly realizes that the exciting plot only serves as a façade, captivating and confronting with two issues that were of great concern to the author: the individual being reduced to its passport by a dehumanized bureaucracy and the ruthless exploitation of the proletariat by capitalist profiteers.

Gale relates his martyrdom in the novel, speaking in the first person: The sailor’s card, his only identity document, he had left on board of the missed freighter. The consequence: “I was not born, had no sailor’s card, could never get a passport in my whole life, and everyone could do with me whatever he wanted, because I was nobody, was not in the world officially and could thus not be missed”. In his odyssey through Western Europe, Gale is expelled everywhere he goes. His last refuge is a decrepit freighter, the “Yorikke”, the “Death Ship” where the crew consists of men who lack papers, an existence in the bureaucratic sense, and rights – in short, who are “living dead”. They are hindered to dock in any port by the authorities; they are completely in the hands of the ship’s owner who uses the ship for his dirty business.

Living conditions on board are beneath human dignity. Upon being hired, Gale instantly realizes: There are no blankets, no cushions, nothing of any kind: “I was really surprised to see that the company supplied at least the ship; and by no means would I have been perplexed if the company had demanded that the sailor bring his own ship along.“ It is this bitty irony that characterizes the narrative style. Although the first-person-speaker names and shames the social injustice, he is no shining hero but a victim. A victim who fights but achieves nothing more than mere survival.

Gale can only escape this floating hell when he is “pressed” into becoming a sailor on another freighter. That is where the political accusation culminates. On this freighter, people are not only exploited, their calculated death is part of the system. Because the ship has a defect, it’s more profitable for the ship-owner to commit insurance fraud. And so the freighter and its crew are destined to suffer shipwreck. As a matter of fact, at the end of the novel all crew members are killed, Gale being the only one still floating on the sea. As the author once hinted, the narrator must have survived, because otherwise there wouldn’t have been any book...

Romantic adventures and glorious sailor stories have no place in this book. Traven rather presents in detail the inhumane excesses of an economic system that gives profit maximization top priority. Another key issue is the statelessness in the aftermath of World War I which Traven was the first writer to address. In this novel the author may well have dealt with his own experiences. But B. Traven kept his identity a secret – certainly for marketing reasons. He didn’t even reveal his name when “The Death Ship” turned out to be a huge success. In times of criticism of the banks, of outflows of refugees, temporary work and the automation of large sectors in the world of work through IT developments, Traven’s “The Death Ship” remains as topical as ever.


Björn Schöpe

Translated by Annika Backe

Signet Sunflower Foundation