The Death Ship

The Death Ship



The Pequod Review:

B. Traven's third novel takes place aboard a death ship, the old German term for a commercial cargo ship insured for more than its market value. Needless to say, the moral hazard of such a situation makes it very dangerous for shipworkers. Traven was an anarcho-syndicalist and his characters voice somewhat crude anti-capitalist and anti-government attitudes throughout:

Sailors … are slaves that are not bought and that cannot be sold. Nobody is interested in their well-being, because if one of them falls overboard, or dies in the dung, no one loses any money on him. Besides, there are thousands eagerly waiting to take the place of him who is thrown into the ditch along the road to the progress and the prosperity of the shipping business.


Why passports? Why immigration restriction? Why not let human beings go where they wish to go, North Pole or South Pole, Russia or Turkey? The States or Bolivia? Human beings must be kept under control. They cannot fly like insects about the world into which they were born without being asked. Human beings must be brought under control, under passports, under finger-print registrations. For what reason? Only to show the omnipotence of the state, and of the holy servant of the state, the bureaucrat. Bureaucracy has come to stay.

The foreword by John Anthony West in the 1991 Lawrence Hill edition is excellent (“Behind the gripping adventure of a Traven novel, there runs the theme that motivates much of the rare literature that may age, but never dies: the ability of the human spirit to withstand and ultimately to transcend every onslaught made upon its inherent nobility — whether engineered by the caprices of the gods, or by the diabolical ingenuity of man himself.”). Traven was a pseudonym for most likely Ret Marut, a German actor and anarchist. Here is a useful Wikipedia page on his background.