Can you prove that you were born?

Review of B. Traven's novel 'The Death Ship'

In B. Traven’s novel The Death Ship, sailor Gales misses the departure of his ship, which had his sailor’s card on board. Without papers he finds himself lost in Europe’s early bureaucracy, being told by officials:

“In any civilised country he who has no passport is nobody. He does not exist for us or for anybody else. We can do whatever we want to. […] If we want to, we can even hang you or shoot you or kill you like a louse.” (Traven 1934: 23)

Although published 92 years ago, Traven created a relatable character going through the same struggles many stateless people face today. Commonly, scholars distinguish between de jure and de facto statelessness. Both types have similar consequences for individuals: there are material consequences, like lacking security and missing opportunities to work safely, as well as personal, psychosocial consequences, expressly the questioning of one’s identity and where one belongs. Statelessness still matters because of its material and personal consequences, often resulting in vulnerable people being exploited and humans becoming a mere shadow of their ability to prove their legal status.

Existing literature distinguishes de jure and de facto statelessness. De jure stateless are those who legally lack citizenship and, consequently, are not recognised by any government as protectees (Goris et al. 2009: 4). Some lost their citizenship due to changes in law (e.g. expatriation in authoritarian states). Others are born without citizenship, either because of discriminatory practices, such as prohibiting women from passing on their nationality, or due to conflicting citizenship laws (ibid.).

De facto statelessness is a more controversial concept. It refers to the benefits one is provided with on the basis of citizenship, such as voting rights, health care, or education, and defines people who are denied these citizenship-tied benefits by all states as stateless (Goris et al. 2009: 4). If someone lacks papers to prove their nationality, like the sailor in The Death Ship, they are not able to access the rights their nationality formally gives them. In areas where birth registration is impossible, children are often left with limited access to education (Lynch and Teff 2009: 32); they can be considered de facto stateless.

This distinction shows that ‘statelessness’ can include many different people from different backgrounds. It can apply to new-born babies who are not being granted readily available health care, as well as elderly people whose relatives are being deported. It accurately described the circumstances of workers over a century ago, as well as the situation of displaced refugees after theSecond World War (Social Service Review 1951). Goris et al. (2009: 4) suggest a new stateless group – people forced to move away from small islands due to climate change have no prospects of becoming citizens elsewhere.

The problems stateless persons face have often been misjudged, especially when groups intersect, or when particular groups seem more urgent to the political agenda – for instance, this might have been the case with refugees after the Second World War. A UN ‘Study of Statelessness’ (1949: 8) claims that the situation of stateless refugees is automatically worse than the situation of stateless persons who are not refugees because

“the stateless person who is not a refugee can obtain documents establishing his civil status from the authorities of the countries where these documents were originally issued, because these authorities have no reason to refuse them to him.”

In fact, many stateless persons face similar consequences, whether de jure or de facto stateless. This means we should take all affected people into careful consideration and recognise that most of them cannot hope for any support from their original authorities.

When sailor Gales attempts to return to his home country, he learns that, having lost his papers, no one feels responsible for him. Being often secretly sent from one country to another he gets the impression that officials are uninterested in solving his problem; instead, he is being offered short-term assistance, like food vouchers for a few days, and he quickly understands that this only serves the purpose of getting rid of him (Traven 1934: 33). This impression is amplified when the American consul, whom Gales expected to help, rejects him.

This situation is comparable to what irregular migrants experience nowadays. Refugees often lose their papers on the journey, or do not have access to them in the first place. This leaves them exposed to the capriciousness of the countries they arrive in; they cannot prove their origin, which prevents them being granted asylum (e.g. UK government 2018). If they are willing to go back to their countries of origin, their governments frequently refuse to cooperate, referring to a lack of evidence that the people at hand are truly nationals. In news coverage of international relations, this issue is discussed from a macro perspective (Brantner 2016); the individuals affected, however, experience de facto statelessness.

Feeling unprotected by the state becomes problematic when one does not enjoy financial stability. This is illustrated by the following example: not everyone who loses their passport slips into statelessness. When Gales waits to see the ambassador, a woman loaded with jewellery walks in, vociferously demanding a new passport because she has a train to catch (Traven 1934: 60). Her forms are being filled out for her immediately, she has spare photographs at hand, and half an hour later she collects her new passport. Gales describes how she snaps her handbag, a gesture he interprets as signalling she had paid the consul to handle her request with urgency and rigour (Traven 1934: 61), while the sailor is offered food vouchers once more.

Gales has no means of making the ambassador believe who he is. He cannot get a new sailor’s card, which is needed to work on a trustworthy, flagged ship. Boarding a ship that takes him without proper identification papers is his only option – that way he ends up on the Yorikke, a washed-up vessel whose origin could not be identified and which he quickly suspects to be a ‘coffin ship’. Coffin ships, due to overinsurance and overloading with worthless cargo, were ships worth more to the owner if sunk than if delivering goods (Jones 2006: 8). In his book ‘Our Seamen’ (1873), British MP Samuel Plimsoll describes how a combination of the split burden carried by insurance companies, the lack of occupational freedom experienced by the working class, and the immense profitability of overloading to the ship owner lead to the toxic environment that claimed thousands of sailors’ lives.

The reader is confronted with the absurd classism that citizenship and bureaucracy can entail. Not only is the stateless working class less capable of proving their identity; they also easily become subjected to exploitative work relations without any means to influence their working conditions (Plimsoll 1873: 38) . These material consequences, the fact that no one claims responsibility for stateless lower classes as well as their resulting precarious employment, shows that the most vulnerable people of society suffer the most from statelessness. 150 years after Plimsoll pioneered and achieved increasing sailors’ protection, the problems of stateless workers are still frequently overlooked. Coffin ships are portrayed as eliminated – but, for instance, the case of the sunk vessel Lucona (Blum 1995) in 1977 shows that exploitation of vulnerability for profit is still alive and well.

When Gales tries to convince the ambassador of his American nationality, he mentions that his birth was never registered. He reacts to the consul’s tenacity saying that “[i]t looks, sir, as though you would even doubt the fact that I was born at all?”, to which the consul replies: “The fact that you are sitting right in front of me is no proof of your birth” (Traven 1934: 67). With this statement, the sailor’s very existence seems inevitably tied to the provision of official documents; he is told that his identity expired the moment he lost his papers. Traven expresses directly what statelessness, de jure and de facto, does to individuals; it deprives them of their right to their own consciousness and selfhood (see McNevin 2011: 14-15).

Indeed, de facto stateless persons are being put in a special dilemma when it comes to ‘belonging’. Many people made de jure stateless during the Second World War were eventually repatriated (Social Service Report 1951: 88). The de facto stateless will often never have the opportunity of obtaining new citizenship (for this would require proof of their former citizenship). Unable to acquire traveling documents they cannot return to where they are from and where their families live (McNevin 2011: 12). This combination of ties to their original nationality and far distance of acquiring alternative nationalities means that the bureaucratic barriers raise questions about their identity in general. Stateless individuals, therefore, carry an eternal divergence between existing as a self-conscious human being and being recognised as such.

This lack of recognition adds to (by material vulnerability) already diminished feelings of social value. When someone’s ability to participate in society depends on papers and formalities, their self-esteem becomes eradicated in the very literal sense of the word – the root (lat. ‘radic’) of their social being is forcefully removed. Hegel established that recognition must be mutual for individuals to be free, and that self-consciousness exists “only by being acknowledged or ‘recognised’” (Hegel 1807). Applied to the concept of statelessness, the subtraction of social value deprives stateless persons of an integral part of their personal freedom.

The missing sense of belonging and the lack of recognition as a person result from, but also reproduce, the Verdinglichung (1) of humans given the labyrinth of bureaucracy: Gales experiences humankind as serving the bureaucratic needs of the state, rather than bureaucracy serving the people. Working on board the Yorikke, he lives among people who have no status at all – a feeling that inherently contradicts the hard manual labour on board. Like no other group in society, stateless people notice the degree to which bureaucracy determines our lives in a globalised, on international exchange relying world. Hence, when Traven lets Gales describe the ambassador’s office as “the holy chamber” (Traven 1934: 61), he deliberately chooses a stateless person’s perspective to illustrate the bizarre standing that officialism has reached.

Before the introduction of the passport and visa system in the early 20th century, most people were never required to prove their identity (Social Service Review 1951: 89). The system emerging hand in hand with globalism makes it necessary to look at the influence bureaucracy has on ‘belonging’. ‘Statelessness’ is a starting point for understanding this influence. The sailor in The Death Ship remains a relatable character to everyone who has once lost their passport and certainly to everyone for whom this was a permanent loss, showing that the combination of material and mental consequences makes statelessness useful when analysing crises of belonging in a globalised world.


(1) The distortion of social relations into relations between objects (Lukács 1967) is commonly translated as ‘reification’. I stick with the German term, translating to ‘turning something into a thing’, because it ascribes an active influence to the system rather than linguistically shifting the blame onto individuals who ‘reify’ something.


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