Chris Harman


Voice of the hanged

(July 1980)

From Socialist Review, 1980 : 7, 14 July–6 September 1980, p.–22.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

I came across the novels of B. Traven by accident – I saw a copy of March to Caobaland on a half-price bookstall and bought it out of curiosity over the strange name of the author. He is not one of those writers that older socialists usually recommend to younger ones. And when people do read him it is usually for a reason as accidental as mine – because he wrote, the original of the John Huston film, The Treasure of Sierra Madre.

Yet Traven’s novels – especially March to Caobaland and The Rebellion of the Hanged – are marvellous reading for any socialist. They are exciting, very readable stories, which tell what it’s like to be on the receiving end of imperialism.

March to Caobaland is the story of a Mexican Indian peasant, Celso, trapped into debt slavery in a mahogany (caoba) camp deep in the jungle, which he slowly realises he will never be able to get away from, earning barely enough to sustain his endless labours.

‘For the 50 centavos which Celso was getting per day, 20 centavos were deducted for food ... Occasionally Celso felt like smoking and so he had to buy tobacco leaves. He needed camphor to heal mosquito bites ... Occasionally he had to buy tallow to be used on his back after a whipping.

‘Celso spent for clothes less than 10 per cent of what an American spinster spends on clothing for her lap dog.’

At the beginning of the book Celso is still a peasant, incredibly naive about the world at large, taking it for granted that he has no choice but to cringe before white men. But as he treks to become a mahogany worker for the second time his attitudes change. He tells those who are new to the camps:

‘Unless you become like caoba, hard like steel, then you will find your last resting place near one of the camps. Here you’ve got to fight tooth and nail against the capataces (gangers), against the whippings and hangings, and above all against the jungle that wants to devour you ...’

Yet he remains, in March to Caobaland, the victim of an imperialism he cannot begin to understand:

‘If the muchachos had been taken to New York and been shown there the offices of Central American Hardwoods, Chicle and Fruit Corporations, they would never have believed that such a small army of amiable men, girls and office boys lounging around desks were the power which had condemned them to the inferno of monterias, chicle camps and coffee and fruit plantations ... Everyone in this long chain of men who were interested in the mahogany business was, himself, only a link completely innocent of the cruelties, misery and suffering of the caoba workers. Everyone, had he been asked, would have replied, “I never knew anything like that could happen”.’

We encounter Celso again half way through The Rebellion of the Hanged. The mahogany camps are more hellish than ever. In an effort to ward off bankruptcy, the owners have devised the spur to productivity of hanging Indians alive. The mood of the peasant-become-worker Celso is no longer acquiescent. A new worker is told of him, ‘he was among the first of us to rebel’.

Yet, most of the Indians still hold back:

‘None of these men had ever risen in rebellion in their lives. They had not even protected their faces when lashed with a whip. The masters, the descendants of the colonisers, the Spaniards, the white generally, all were gods against whom an Indian peon never dared to revolt. The Indians knew only two categories: gods and servants. And not being a god, one can only be a servant, a humble and submissive one.’

But a wider perspective is provided by the arrival as workers at the camp of three fugitives from crushed rebellions elsewhere in the country.

In a moment of desperation a group of Indians kill one of the white bosses. Suddenly they can’t turn back.

They rise in a bitter, bloody, brutal rebellion, murdering the bosses, the foremen, the whites who provide services for the camps, their wives and children.

For Traven:

‘It was no fault of the rebels that they were animated by sentiments of death and destruction. They had never been allowed to express their rights. A blind obedience was inculcated in them by flogging until it became second nature. Hence it was not mere savagery which drove the Indians to kill and despoil. They gave proofs of. cruelty only because their adversaries and oppressors were a hundred times more savage than they themselves...’

In the act of rebellion:

‘The Indians learned something of which until then they had not had the least idea: that they themselves were capable of giving orders. Until that moment they had always imagined that in order to command it was necessary to be a crafty white ladino or a ruling class gachupin. Now they saw it was not difficult to give orders. Anyone can do that, right down to the most backward Indian, the most illiterate. An idiot is capable of being dictator.’

There is much more to The Rebellion of the Hanged. But for that you will need to read the book.

To my mind Traven’s other novels (or at least the ones I’ve been able to get hold of) do not reach the same heights. The Death Ship – about deported immigrants compelled to spend their lives shuttling between ports doing the most arduous work on the most dangerous ships – is good, but drags on a bit. The Treasure of Sierra Madre contains some biting irony, but lacks the power of Traven’s best works. The Cotton Pickers begins well, but degenerates into a sort; of sentimental folksiness in places.

Traven’s own identity was for long a mystery. But now it seems certain that he was originally Ret Marut, one of the anarchist literateurs involved in the Bavarian Soviet republic of April 1919. After its crushing, he made a near-miraculous escape from a death sentence to turn up a few years later in Mexico. Here he lived until his death in 1969 with the Indians and hoboes who provide the material for his novels.

The tone of the novels remains very much anarchist. But it is a powerful, insurgent, almost political anarchism which has learnt from Traven’s own experiences of civil war in Germany and the Indians’ experiences of fighting in the revolutionary armies of Villa and Zapata. There are faults in his anarchism. But it nevertheless enabled Traven to produce some of the best revolutionary novels of the twentieth century.

* * *

Books by Traven

March to Caobaland and Rebellion of the Hanged used to be in Penguins, but are no longer in print. Still, you will probably find them in libraries and on second hand bookstalls. Alison & Busby are reprinting nearly all of Traven’s work. They have started with the Kidnapped Saint and Other Stories (£2.50 paperback), The Cotton Pickers (£2.50 paperback), White Rose (£2.50), and Government (the first of the jungle books’ series that includes the two books I’ve most referred to). March to Caobaland is due later this year under the alternative title, March to Monteria.

Last updated on 21 September 2019