Set just after World War I, The Death Ship describes the predicament of merchant seamen who lack documentation of citizenship and cannot find legal residence or employment in any nation. The narrator is Gerard Gales, an American sailor who claims to be from New Orleans, and who is stranded in Antwerp without passport or working papers. Unable to prove his identity or his eligibility for employment, Gales is repeatedly arrested and deported from one country to the next, by government officials who do not want to be bothered with either assisting or prosecuting him. When he finally manages to find work, it is on the Yorikke, the dangerous and decrepit ship of the title, where undocumented workers from around the world are treated as expendable slaves.
The term "death ship" refers to any boat so decrepit that it is worth more to its owners overinsured and sunk than it would be worth afloat. The title of the book is translated directly from the German "Das Totenschiff"; in English, they are called "coffin ships".
Just before the German version went to press, the publisher wrote to Traven asking for publicity information and photographs. The author replied:
My personal history would not be disappointing to readers, but it is my own affair which I want to keep to myself. I am in fact in no way more important than is the typesetter for my books, the man who works the mill; ... no more important than the man who binds my books and the woman who wraps them and the scrubwoman who cleans up the office.