#36. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Treasure Island is an adventure novel by Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, narrating a tale of “buccaneers and buried gold”. First published as a book on May 23, 1883, it was originally serialized in the children’s magazine Young Folks between 1881–82 under the title Treasure Island or, The Mutiny of the Hispaniola with Stevenson adopting the pseudonym Captain George North.
Traditionally considered a coming-of-age story, Treasure Island is an adventure tale known for its atmosphere, characters and action, and also as a wry commentary on the ambiguity of morality — as seen in Long John Silver — unusual for children’s literature then and now. It is one of the most frequently dramatized of all novels. The influence of Treasure Island on popular perceptions of pirates is enormous, including treasure maps marked with an “X”, schooners, the Black Spot, tropical islands, and one-legged seamen carrying parrots on their shoulders.
Five real-life pirates mentioned are William Kidd (active 1696-1699), Blackbeard (1716–1718), Edward England (1717–1720), Howell Davis (1718–1719), and Bartholomew Roberts (1718–1722). Kidd actually buried treasure on Gardiners Island, though the booty was recovered by authorities soon afterwards.
The name “Israel Hands” was taken from that of a real pirate in Blackbeard’s crew, whom Blackbeard maimed (by shooting him in the knee) simply to assure that his crew remained in terror of him. Allegedly Hands was taken ashore to be treated for his injury and was not at Blackbeard’s last fight (the incident is depicted in Tim Powers’ novel On Stranger Tides); this alone saved him from the gallows; supposedly he later became a beggar in England.
Silver refers to “three hundred and fifty thousand” pieces of eight at the “fishing up of the wrecked plate ships”. This remark conflates two related events; first, the salvage of the treasure of the hurricane-wrecked 1715 Treasure Fleet off the coast of Florida, and second the seizure the following year of 350,000 salvaged pieces of eight (out of several million) by privateer Henry Jennings. This event is mentioned in the introduction to Johnson’s General History of the Pyrates.
Silver refers to a ship’s surgeon from Roberts’ crew who amputated his leg and was later hanged at Cape Corso Castle, a British fortification on the Gold Coast of Africa. The records of the trial of Roberts’ men list one Peter Scudamore as the chief surgeon of Roberts’ ship Royal Fortune. Scudamore was found guilty of willingly serving with Roberts’ pirates and various related criminal acts, as well as attempting to lead a rebellion to escape once he had been apprehended. He was, as Silver relates, hanged, in 1722.
Stevenson refers to the Viceroy of the Indies, a ship sailing from Goa, India (then a Portuguese colony), which was taken by Edward England off Malabar while John Silver was serving aboard England’s ship the Cassandra. No such exploit of England’s is known, nor any ship by the name of the Viceroy of the Indies. However, in April 1721 the captain of the Cassandra, John Taylor (originally England’s second in command who had marooned him for being insufficiently ruthless), together with his pirate partner, Olivier Levasseur captured the vessel Nostra Senhora do Cabo near Réunion island in the Indian Ocean. The Portuguese galleon was returning from Goa to Lisbon with the Conde da Ericeira, the recently retired Viceroy of Portuguese India, aboard. The viceroy had much of his treasure with him, making this capture one of the richest pirate hauls ever. This is likely the event that Stevenson referred to, though his (or Silver’s) memory of the event seems to be slightly confused. The Cassandra is last heard of in 1723 at Portobelo, Panama, a place that also briefly figures in Treasure Island as “Portobello”.
The preceding two references are inconsistent, as the Cassandra (and presumably Silver) was in the Indian Ocean during the entire time that Scudamore was surgeon on board the Royal Fortune, in the Gulf of Guinea.
Squire Trelawney may have been named for Edward Trelawney, Governor of Jamaica 1738-1752.
Dr. Livesey may have been named for Joseph Livesey (1794–1884), a famous 19th-century temperance advocate, founder of the tee-total “Preston Pledge”. In the novel, Dr. Livesey warns the drunkard Billy Bones that “the name of rum for you is death.”
I watched the 1999 version of Treasure Island starring Kevin Zegers and Jack Palance. I was very disappointed that it didn’t keep to the story. It even had Hawkins taking up with Long John Silver and left the Doctor, Captain, and Squire dead. I was very disappointed in it.