Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 573
Gerald Gales, an American seaman without a passport who wanders through Europe in the period following World War I and eventually joins the crew of a “death ship.” He arrives in Antwerp, Belgium, as a plain sailor on the SSTuscaloosa out of New Orleans, Louisiana. When his ship makes an early departure while he spends a night ashore, Gales discovers that in the aftermath of the war, European authorities have no interest in assisting an undocumented working-class alien, and he is pushed from Belgium to Holland to France and finally to Spain, spending some time in custody in each country. His appeals to American consuls prove fruitless: Paradoxically, he must have proof of his American citizenship for a consul to assist him in obtaining proof of his American citizenship. In Barcelona, Spain, Gales is enticed into signing on as a “coal-drag” on the Yorikke, a battered freighter. Occupying the lowest, most dangerous, and most strenuous position on this miserable ship, Gales finds one compensation in his friendship with Stanislav Koslovski, his fellow coal-drag. The Yorikke sails the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean off Africa, smuggling munitions and other goods. During a call in the African port of Dakar, both Gales and Koslovski are kidnapped by the crew of the Empress of Madagascar, a ship whose owners have decided that their profit lies in sinking their vessel for its insurance value. When the Empress of Madagascar finally breaks up against a reef, only Gales and Koslovski survive. They live together on the floating wreckage until Koslovski drowns, and Gales alone survives to tell the story.
Stanislav Koslovski, the only important named character other than the narrator, Gales. When Gales discovers himself trapped on the Yorikke, his fellow coal-drag, Koslovski, emerges as his ally and supporter. Born in Poznan, a city whose nationality has shifted between Germany and Poland, Koslovski is another stateless itinerant worker who stoically accepts the hard work, low pay, and essential homelessness of his status. As a coal-drag, he is responsible for shoveling coal into the Yorikke’s furnaces, repairing the grates, and hauling the ashes. Although this brutal labor is necessary for the steamship to move, Koslovski does not expect or receive recompense for his efforts. He resists violently when he and Gales are abducted onto the Empress of Madagascar, but once aboard that ship, he works diligently as a fireman. Marooned with Gales on that ship’s wreckage, Koslovski finally loses his sanity and leaps into the sea, believing that he is rejoining the Yorikke.
The consul, a type rather than an individual. Both Gales and Koslovski seek the assistance of consuls (American for Gales, German and Polish for Koslovski) in their journeys around Europe. Their uniform experience is that the consuls happily assist the wealthy citizens of their respective nations but present unhelpful, bureaucratic faces to undocumented workers who make appeals to them.
The skipper, another type, embodied in the two captains of the Yorikke and the Empress of Madagascar. Both are dedicated to money; their own personal profit and the profit of their ships’ owners. Unlike seamen such as Gales and Koslovski, who come to love the ships on which they suffer, the comfortable captains have no regard for their men or their vessels. The skipper of the Yorikke tolerates inhuman working conditions, and the skipper of the Empress of Madagascar is willing to sabotage his own ship.