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What Treasure Island can teach us about pirates

I could tell you that I first read Treasure Island as a kid and it sparked a lifelong passion for the world of pirates and their place in history. But this is not true. In fact, I never read it. I know I definitely owned the book and I can even picture it on my childhood bookshelf. I expect it probably sat on the same shelf as a whole pile of other ignored classic novels my mother purchased for me and my sister from a Reader’s Digest in the Eighties. No, despite my credentials as a piracy historian, and being very aware of the book’s extremely important role in piracy history, I had never read it until last week.

And you know what? I discovered something quite unexpected... it’s delightful. And funny. And has a whole sub-plot about cheese. I can not believe I did not know this. I love pirates AND cheese.

So here is where my reading of Treasure Island and my piracy knowledge merge.

The influences of Robert Louis Stevenson

It is clear from how Robert Louis Stevenson structured Treasure Island’s narrative that he was well-versed in early piracy texts. He wrote Treasure Island as the first person memoir of Jim Hawkins. Jim reminisces about his discovery of a pirate treasure map and his adventures as a cabin boy on a mission to search for buried pirate treasure. Jim tells the story of how after his ship Hispaniola arrives at the famous Treasure Island, some of the ship’s crew, led by the one-legged cook Long John Silver, mutinies. The race between the legitimate crew and the mutineers to find the treasure begins.

Stevenson’s narrative structure draws from the very first personal narrative that lifted the lid on the mysterious and dramatic world of Caribbean sea-raiding: Alexander Exquemelin’s Buccaneers of America. Published in 1682, this is the primary source on the Caribbean raiders of the 1660s, including Francois L’Ollonois, Pierre Le Grand, and the English terroriser of the Spanish, Henry Morgan. The way Stevenson wrote Jim’s story is a reflection of how Exquemelin positioned himself as an honourable man caught up in an unfortunate situation but determined to be a faithful witness to events.

Stevenson’s decision to set Treasure Island in the 1740s, a good 20 years after the last peak of Caribbean piracy, allowed him to draw from the stories in Captain Johnson’s General History of the Pyrates. He even name-checked a few of them in the book: Howell Davis, Edward England, and Bartholomew Roberts. A fictionalised Israel Hands, second in command to Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, plays a supporting role. Although not in Johnson’s book, the hapless William Kidd is also mentioned.

Stevenson’s fascination with pirates directly influenced the foundation of the academic study of them. He was a friend of the parents of Phillip Gosse, the author of 1932’s The History of Piracy. Stevenson quickly infected Gosse with his passion. He used to tell Gosse and his siblings exciting pirate-themed bedtime stories. As an adult, Gosse went on to amass an important collection of piracy books published in the early 18th century. He then used his collection to write two highly influential books: The Pirates Who’s Who (1924) and the History of Piracy. These books established piracy as an academic field of study within history. They are freely available online. Unfortunately, they are of dubious historical accuracy.

What Gosse didn’t seem to realise was that people writing about pirates in the early 18th century fabricated a huge amount of information for entertainment and profit. They were never intending to create factual historical sources. Yet the survival of the books for over 200 years gave them a misplaced air of legitimacy to Gosse. Ironically, the survival of Gosse’s own books suffers the same fate today.

Gosse’s book collection is still very important. It is now housed in the Caird Library of the Royal Maritime Museum in Greenwich, UK. It informs historians’ understanding of how publishers constructed pirate stories, used pirates to influence patriotic agendas, and turned pirates from criminals into folk heroes.

Themes of the book

Stevenson deliberately created Treasure Island as a coming-of-age story for children. Throughout the book, Jim is honest, hard-working, loyal and brave. He never wavered from the right side of the law, despite his fascination with Long John Silver. Yet Stevenson does not romanticise the violence of piracy. Several characters die brutally and Jim himself had a hand in the death of some of them. Perhaps the tolerance for violence in children’s books was far higher in Stevenson’s day.

I think Treasure Island is really a mid-life crisis story.

That a handful of irrelevant middle-aged men, including the legitimate treasure-hunters AND the pirates, would unite to reconnect with their adventurous younger selves 20 years after their pirate heyday in search of buried treasure is pretty much the definition of a midlife crisis.

It’s at least the plot of every Adam Sandler movie made this century. I think the potential reward of riches at the end of it is just the sweetener to escape their monotonous grey lives in cold England to a tropical island.

Long John Silver

Like most pirate captains, Long John Silver is not a purely evil person. He is at first kind, then casually brutal. He is disabled but incredibly physically strong. He uses his considerable charisma and intelligence to quickly adapt himself to his circumstances and negotiate himself out of trouble. He genuinely cares for Jim yet fears the hangman.

Of all these characteristics, it is the fear of the hangman that is the least probable. Most pirates escaped and those that went to the gallows were not usually repentant. Silver had lived in legitimate society for years without suspicion before he met Jim. It would be very easy for him to escape. In keeping with the stories of many real pirates, Stevenson ensured Long John Silver did exactly that.

Ben Gunn

The discovery of Ben Gunn on Treasure Island and his quest for cheese is reminiscent of the true story of Alexander Selkirk. Woodes Rogers, a prominent hunter of Caribbean pirates in the 1720s, discovered Selkirk marooned on an island. Selkirk’s story became the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe. In Stevenson’s time, Defoe was considered the likely pseudonym of Captain Charles Johnson, the author of one of his inspirations, General History of the Pyrates. Today, Defoe’s authorship has now been largely debunked but it is easy to see how the connection between Selkirk, Rogers and Defoe influenced the creation of the Ben Gunn character.

Truth in fiction

It’s most unlikely that pirates who survived the Caribbean era would wait years to hunt down the treasure of one of their compatriots. Contrary to popular belief and culture, there was no war that ended the reign of Caribbean pirates. The vast majority were pardoned, not executed. So any pirate who had knowledge of Flint’s treasure and knew where it was could pretty easily find it unmolested by navies or pirate-hunters and disappear.

Pirates very occasionally buried their treasure (most notably William Kidd on Gardiner’s Island of New York) but this was always a temporary measure. Kidd’s treasure was only buried a few days before he realised the stupidity of that idea and dug it up. No pirate would be foolish enough to deliberately bury treasure in its entirety. To do this on a readily accessible island, helpfully called ‘Treasure Island’ and creating a map with the location of the treasure indicated on it is completely ludicrous.

However, the book does get aspects of pirate life right. Central to the plot is the very real problem of crew dying in battle, survivors being wracked with malaria, and the subsequent shortage of sufficient crew to operate the ship. Disease was a massive killer of pirates, seafarers and colonists alike. When combined with excessive drunkenness, as Treasure Island aptly shows, crew shortages were a common problem for all sea captains and pirates.

Silver’s election to the role of pirate captain was also very real. Some early 18th century pirate ships operated as democracies, including the captaincies of Bartholomew Roberts and Benjamin Hornigold. But Silver’s capacity to control the unruly pirate crew by the sheer force of his personality is reminiscent of William Kidd, who spent two years successfully resisting his crew’s desire to turn pirate. He was then of course undone by an unfortunate administrative error, but that’s a whole other story!

The language

For a young person today, the language of the book will be a barrier. Most people today are unfamiliar with the vernacular of sailing ships and there are a lot of nautical references that will need Googling. For every humorous ‘shiver me timbers’ and ‘yo ho ho and a bottle of rum’s there are perplexing phrases like ‘smart as paint’ and describing someone as a ‘trump’. That has a whole other meaning these days.

But if you can get your head around the vocabulary, Treasure Island really does provide a gateway into the fascinating history of piracy that intrigues people like me today.

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