The death ship

David Bomberg, In the Basement, circa 1913-1914


Considerations about the book recently released in Brazil by B. Traven

“A ship of death, yes, Sir! There are coffin ships where you die inside, and there are coffin ships where you die outside, and there are those where you die everywhere. O Yorikke it was all that, it was a remarkable death ship” (B. Traven. The Death Ship , P. 171).


There is a shadow of mystery that surrounds the biography of the man who signed his books as B. Traven. However, as Traven himself once said, tired of being bothered by investigators almost paparazziz, “the biography of the creative man is completely unimportant. Not recognizing the man through his work means that either he or his work are worthless. Therefore, the creative man should have no other biography than his work. It is there that he exposes his personality and his life to the criticism of others”.[I]

This did not prevent great undertakings from being created to elucidate what was considered one of the greatest literary enigmas of the 20th century. The almost insane curiosity regarding B. Traven's biography resulted in some general guidelines about his life.

B. Traven was identified as the anarchist actor and journalist Ret Marut. This hypothesis arose in the late 1920s, after the publication, in Germany, of three works signed by B. Traven: The death ship (1926) The cotton pickers (1926) and The treasure of Sierra Madre (1927). The books were published by Büchergilde Gutemberg and soon caught the attention of the reading public, especially intellectuals linked to revolutionary activities, “who, upon reading Traven, identified him as the former Acratic comrade Ret Marut.”[ii]

Many researchers followed this clue in an attempt to elucidate the enigma, but such a link was always denied by Traven until the last day of his life. On his deathbed he confessed to his wife and translator, Rosa Elena Lujan, that he was really Ret Murat, the Bavarian anarchist.

The problem is that Ret Marut was most likely also a pseudonym, or even a false name. And what is known about Marut is limited, vague and mysterious: “Although it is clear that both names were used by the same man, the definitive identification of Traven with Marut has done little to bring us closer to the truth about Traven.”[iii]

James Goldwasser's article reconstructs the period of Ret Marut/B's life. Traven as theater artist, anarchist activist, director and newspaper writer Der Ziegelbrenner (The Potter), participant in the revolutionary movement that established the Republic of Bavarian Councilors (1918-19) and, finally, as a political fugitive and wanderer through several countries, until he managed to escape to Mexico, probably between 1923-24, where would adopt the name B. Traven.[iv]

His life in Mexico, however, was not so dark. He just continued to exercise his stubborn reserve regarding public exposure and denying his alleged past identities: “the mystery surrounding his literary and private life has rarely affected us” – wrote his wife and translator, Rosa Elena Lujan – “for we had our own 'private world'. Of course, avoiding reporters from many parts of the world was quite a task. I was the one who had to face the journalists and learned that they don't give up easily and don't even accept a simple 'no'. It seems to me that Traven enjoyed giving reporters and editors contradictory and inconsistent information; This was in line with his feeling that his personal life was unimportant. He said, 'My work is important, I'm not.' He probably didn’t realize the headache he was causing scholars!”[v]

All of Traven's books were written in Mexico, with most of them set in that country. There are even many film adaptations of several of her stories, with emphasis on the film The treasure of Sierra Madre, made in 1947 and directed by John Huston. According to Otto Maria Carpeaux, Traven became one of the most read authors in the world, publishing more than a dozen novels and some books of short stories, “translated into 22 languages ​​and published in several million copies.”[vi]


 The death ship. We are faced with a story, narrated in the first person, but with a hidden interface, a mysterious interlocutor who barely interferes with the text. Something that reminds us of the narrative structure of Grande Sertão: paths or the interviews from the late program Rehearsal, from Cultura TV.

We come into contact with this mysterious character through small interruptions, as if the narrator-character was giving a statement, perhaps to some police authority: “Second officer, me? No, sir. In that bathtub, I was not a second officer, but a simple sailor, a very humble worker.”   

It is the story of a humble worker, told by himself, that we will find in the almost three hundred pages of this fascinating book. And right from the start we are warned about the nature of the story: there is nothing romantic about it, “the romanticism of sailors' stories is in the past. In fact, for me, this romanticism never existed, it was a fruit of the imagination of those who wrote about the sea. Captains and helmsmen appear in operas, romances and ballads. But the hymn to the glory of the hero who does the hard work was never sung. This hymn would be too harsh to awaken the desire to sing it. yes sir. "

The death ship is divided into three parts, which make the story move in a continuum which ranges from almost bliss to total disgrace. The American sailor, who throughout the book adopts a few names, arrives in Europe – in the port of Antwerp – aboard the SS Tuscaloosa, transporting a shipment of cotton from New Orleans. It was a great ship Tuscaloosa: “magnificent quarters for the crew, plenty of bathrooms and clean clothes, all mosquito-proof; good and plentiful food, clean plates and polished knives, forks and spoons. The company had finally discovered that it was more profitable to keep the crew in good spirits than to belittle them.”

The narrator's irony is one of the main keys to accessing the meaning of the work, but not only that. The entire book is composed of the contrast between the prosaism of the mundane reports and the fierce criticisms of the narrator-character. Thus, commenting on the salary earned by the Tuscaloosa, which wasn't exactly high, the narrator ironizes that situation by saying that after twenty-five years of work, rigorously saving every penny received, “I wouldn't be able to retire, it's true, but, after twenty-five years of work and uninterrupted economy, I would be able, with a certain pride, to integrate the lowest layer of the middle class, the vaunted class that supports the State, then I would be considered a valued member of human society.”

O Tuscaloosa dock for unloading. The sailor, looking for some fun in the city, ended up sleeping with a girl and, when he returned to the port, the ship was no longer there: “nothing is sadder than a sailor in a foreign land, whose ship has just been leave without taking him on board. The sailor who stayed behind. The remaining sailor.”

Without any type of document proving his identity, he goes through interrogations, detentions, he is thrown from one country to another, no one believes that his nationality is North American and so we embark, together with this sailor who lost his ship and his documents, in a bureaucratic trap like that set up by Franz Kafka to cage his characters.

But, unlike the Kafkaesque characters, our sailor retains a great power of understanding about the sufferings that suffocate him and the reality that crushes him. The narrator of The death ship it doesn't leak, it's not reified. He interprets the almost surreal episodes in which he is entangled. These are very accurate reflections on the pariah condition in which he finds himself. I will quote a very representative excerpt from this structure that combines prosaic description and critical judgment.

The character, we still don't know his name, was in Holland – the Belgians managed to throw him to the neighboring country – and managed to stay in a hostel for three days. The police arrive in the morning looking for him:

"'Open it. Police. We want to speak to you for a moment.'

I begin to suspect very seriously that there is no one in the world who is not a police officer. The police exist to guarantee tranquility, and no one disturbs more, no one harasses more, no one drives people more crazy than the police. Certainly, no one has spread more misfortune on Earth than the police, since soldiers are all police officers.

'What do you want with me?'

'We just want to talk to you.'

'You can do it through the door.'

'We want to see you in person. Open it, or we'll break in.'

Let them break in! And they are the ones who must protect us from thieves…

Okay, I'll open it. But as soon as I open a crack, one of them already puts his foot in the middle. That old trick they're so proud of. It seems like it's the first one they have to learn.

They enter. Two men in civilian clothes. I sit on the edge of the bed and start to get dressed. I can handle Dutch well. I've been on Dutch ships and learned something else here. But both guys speak a little English.

'Are you american?'

'Yes I think.'

'Your sailor's notebook, please?'

It seems that the sailor's logbook is the center of the universe. I am sure that the war only happened so that in each country sailors' logbooks or passports would be requested. Before the war, no one asked about the passbook or the passport, and people were happy. But wars in the name of freedom, democracy and people's rights are always suspect. When a war for freedom is won, after it people will be deprived of their freedom, because it was the war that won freedom, not people, yes sir. "

There is a well-defined historical context in the book – post-World War I Europe. The outbreak of nationalism, the issue of borders, xenophobia, the persecution of communists, socialists and anarchists. And there is also a well-defined position taken by the narrator – that of individual freedom against the crushing promoted by the State and institutions.

In the opinion of this humble and insightful sailor, who at this point in the book we already know is called Gales, all these forms of coercion of individuality are nothing more than mental constructions, which would be impossible to exist and even a sign of madness, if there were no bureaucracy, borders and passports: “The most intimate and original laws of nature can be eliminated and denied, if the State wants to expand and deepen its power at the expense of that which is the foundation of the universe. Because the universe is made up of individuals and not herds. It exists through the interaction between individuals, and collapses if each person's free movement is restricted. Individuals are the atoms of the human race.”       

Passages like this can indicate to us an enthusiast for liberalism. It is, however, an anarchist-inspired individualism. As Professor Alcir Pécora, who signs the book's afterword, has well demonstrated, “the anarchism that appears in B. Traven's books certainly defends the idea of ​​the free will of the worker and the individual as a subsidiary source of law, but it is difficult to characterize it within any programmatic theoretical line. It is an intuitive, rebellious anarchism, sometimes lyrical, other times skeptical, but above all an affirmation of the defense of the independence of the will and nomadic and erratic existence.”[vii]

 One of the most interesting episodes in Book I is the one that deals with the arrival of Wales in Spain. After going through a true picaresque wandering, persecutions, arrests, interrogations, hearings at consulates, having fallen in love in a peasant county while fleeing through France, he finally finds a place where he can live in peace.

After being captured by guards on the border between France and Spain, Gales ends up omitting his American nationality: “Oh, sunny Spain! The first country I found where no one asked about my sailor's log, where no one wanted to know my name, my age, my height, my fingerprints. Where no one searched my pockets or dragged me to a border at night, where they hunted me like a disabled dog…”

The Spanish reception was so intense and warm that the guards themselves took the sailor to their homes. And the families fought with each other and did not want to give up their turn to host the man. That excess of cordiality ended up suffocating the freedom of Wales, as the competition that arose to see which family took better care of the sailor made his stay there unbearable: “Death by shooting or hanging was a comedy compared to the agonizing death that was waiting for me in that place, and from which I could only escape by fleeing during the night. Love not only turns into hate, but even worse, into slavery. There, slavery was murderous. I couldn't even go out into the yard without a family member running up to me and asking me worriedly if I had toilet paper. yes sir. "

Gales escapes community oppression and starts to wander the streets of Barcelona, ​​tries to catch some fish, reflects on life, until he realizes that he was already involved with the crew of the Yorikke, a death ship. He accepts the job offer, boards that completely dilapidated bathtub, and from then on the book takes on a dark, suffocating, unbearable aspect: “When I was on deck, the Yorikke It began to accelerate at a remarkable speed, and then I had the sensation that I had passed through that enormous portico where these fateful words are inscribed: He who enters here loses his entire being. It disappears with the wind."

Book II takes place aboard the Yorikke. The descriptions and scenes that Traven constructs of the interior of the vessel, the accommodation, the work in the boilers, the suffering of the workers, etc., are impressively realistic. The work in the ship's boilers becomes a real ordeal and occupies a large part of the narration.

No Yorikke, Wales renounces his name and nationality and changes his name to Pippip. Your objective is to survive the inhumane work in the boilers, where terrible accidents happen all the time, and to get some food. The friendship that emerges between Pippip and another boiler worker, Stanislaw, is one of the points where the narration gains in humanity. In fact, it is the very notion of humanity that falls apart as we share the hardships and suffering of that infernal vessel.

The narrator's laconic comments, sometimes cynical, other times ironic, punctuate the cruel description of the workers' lives with a certain philosophy: “No matter how much there were reasons to speak ill of the Yorikke, at least in one respect he deserved a crown of laurels: he was an excellent source of learning. Half a year in Yorikke, and we no longer worship any god.”

Little by little we learn that there was a substantial difference between a death ship, like the Yorikke and hundreds of other vessels like it, and other commercial ships. It is a vessel whose reason for being is to sink so that the company receives insurance: “Where will it end up? And me? And where will all the dead from that ship end up one day? On a reef. Sooner or later. The day ends. You can't sail a ship like that forever. One day, we'll have to pay for the trip, if we're lucky. There is no other way out when you are aboard a death ship.”

Among the many stories that are told to us are the deals that happen during travel. Always described with a strong dose of irony, the bizarre encounters between the ship's commander and the crew of small boats take place on the high seas, far from the coast.

Some small boats approached the Yorikke, with some Moroccans on board who climb onto the ship like cats. Boxes begin to pass from the ship to the feluccas, where they are placed under loads of fish and fruit: “Once loaded, the felucca lifted anchor and moved away. Immediately another one approached, rowed, docked, and supplied itself with its cargo. After about fifteen minutes, the captain appeared on deck and shouted to the bridge:

'Where are we?'.

'Six miles from the coast.'

'Angry. So are we out yet?'

'Yes Sir!

'Come and have breakfast. Let's toast. Indicate the course to the helm and come.'

And so that ghostly episode ended.”


The death ship, as the narrator made evident in the opening pages of the book, is not a story of adventures on the high seas, although there is an adventurous turn in the final part of the book, with storms, gigantic waves, shipwrecks, etc., in addition to this hero's own pilgrimage- proletarian.

There is a political intention that frames the book. Alcir Pécora explores this issue very well in the afterword, suggesting that “at the limit of the capitalist allegory, the ship is a representation of a macabre economic system whose best performance occurs with the capitalization of the death of workers. This business model, so to speak, reaches its peak when the murder of the worker is a sure profit for the businessman.”[viii]   

Contrary to expectations, Pippip and Stanislaw manage to leave the Yorikke when they arrive at a port in Dakar, which means they managed to escape death. They escaped from one death ship and landed on another, or worse, were kidnapped to the Empress of Magagascar, a nine thousand ton English ship, within which the entire Book III will unfold.

I leave here a note of suspense, in the best serial style. I invite you to read this Germinal of the seas, a book written more than a century ago, very current in content and form.

*Alexandre Juliete Rosa holds a master's degree in Brazilian literature from the Institute of Brazilian Studies at the University of São Paulo (IEB-USP).


B. Traven. The death ship. Translation: Érica Gonçalves Ignacio de Castro. Rio de Janeiro. Imprimatur / Quimera, 2024, 320 pages. []


[I] Quoted in Jorge Munguía Espítia. A tuerca tour over B. Traven. Veredas Magazine (Mexico), N. 6, 2003, p. 42. Link to access the article:

[ii] Ditto, p. 43.

[iii] James Goldwasser. Marut, Ret: The Early B. Traven. Article from Link to access:

[iv] For a summary of the revolutionary period in which Marut/Traven participated, you can access this link:

And through the following link you can access the article written by Marut – In the Freest State in the World (In the freest State in the world) – in which he takes stock, full of irony and indignation, about the repression that fell on the revolutionaries, shortly after the fall of the Republic of Bavarian Councilors.

[v] Rosa Elena Lujan. “Remembering Traven.” In: The Kidnapped Saint & Other Stories. Edited by Rosa Elena Lujan, Mina C. and H. Arthur Klein. Lawrence Hill Books, Brooklyn, New York, 1991, p. xv.

Through the link below you have access to Rosa Elena's full text, which tells a little about Traven's life in Mexico.  

[vi] Otto Maria Carpeaux. Traven's anonymity. Correio da Manhã, Rio de Janeiro, March 16, 1963, p. 8. I would like to thank my friend Ieda Lebensztayn for recommending Carpeaux's texts. Link to access the article:

[vii] Alcir Pécora. “We are all sailing on a ship of death.” In: B. Traven. The Death Ship, p. 312.

[viii] Alcir Pécora, Idem, p. 308.

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