The Legend of B. Traven, Author of ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ » Explorersweb
In 1991, I gave a lecture on my ethnographic fieldwork with the Innu of Labrador in the library of Na-Bolom (House of the Jaguar) in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. The establishment’s 90-year-old owner, environmental activist and photographer, Gertrude “Trudy” Blom, introduced me to the dozen or so people in the audience. After my speech, I sat down for the Q&A, and Trudy said, “You’re sitting in B. Traven’s favorite chair…”
Hearing this remark, I felt honored. “Have you ever met Señor Traven?” I asked him.
“No,” she replied, “but my husband Frans knew him well.” Frans Blom, who died in 1963, was a Danish explorer and archaeologist, sometimes nicknamed “the Indiana Jones of Chiapas”. He seems to have known everyone who ventured into these regions with exploration in mind.
The reader of this essay may know Traven as the author of (among other books) The treasure of the Sierra Madre, whose director John Huston made a film with Humphrey Bogart. The reader may also be aware that Traven’s identity was such a mystery that he was believed to be an illegitimate son of Kaiser Wilhelm II, author Jack London, Devil’s Island convict, anarchist Bavarian Ret Marut, a German jack-of-all-trades. trades named Otto Max Fiege, or even Frans Blom himself. But the reader may not know that, whatever his identity, Traven was an explorer and ethnographer.
In May 1926, he joined a scientific expedition in the state of Chiapas as a Norwegian named Traven Torsvan. Shortly after the expedition’s departure, he decides to travel alone, accompanied by a solitary native guide…a not unusual decision by a man anxious to keep his identity a secret. The expedition was sponsored by the Mexican government, and for a diehard anarchist like Traven, anything supported by a government would have been an offense against humanity – perhaps another reason for his early departure from the other expeditionaries .
Chiapas provided Traven with habitats beyond anything he had ever imagined. In his untranslated book Land of the Frühlings (Land of Springtime), he describes his travels in these habitats as follows:
“I have traversed jungles, waded through swamps, swum across rivers, scaled sheer cliffs, slipped into unexplored caves, and offered myself to thirsty vampires.”
One has the impression that he fed on discomfort, even adversity. Otherwise, he would probably have hunted the thirsty vampires rather than offering himself to them!
Traven traveled several times to remote areas of Chiapas in the late 1920s. During these trips, he visited traditional Maya peoples such as the Lacandones and the Tzitzol to gather their knowledge. He used this tradition not in academic papers, as he was no more an academic than he was Ambrose Bierce (another of his putative identities), but in his fiction. He also put in his fiction, especially the so-called Jungle Novels, accounts of the abuses suffered by his Maya informants at the hands of wealthy plantation owners. These wealthy honchos were unhappy with what Traven wrote about them and apparently threatened revenge, which may be why he did not return to Chiapas after 1930.
My own expedition to Chiapas ran into a problem, but not because of angry landowners. I wanted to interview the elders of San Juan Chamula to find out whether or not magic mushrooms were part of their culture. Just outside this village, two young men, probably Guatemalan refugees, came out of the bush and demanded my money. Since one of them was wielding a handgun and the other a numchuck, I had no choice but to give them all the money in my wallet. They also took my library card, probably assuming it was a credit card.
That evening I consoled myself by visiting the library at Na-Bolom and reading not B. Traven but some short stories by PG Wodehouse. I sat in Traven’s favorite chair, though.