I am a big fan of Disney’s Pirates of the Carribean franchise, and the history of pirates and their depiction in general. Which is why I jumped at the chance to read this book and pen some thoughts to spread some love for the piracy trope.
The novel Treasure Island by RL Stevenson was first published on November 14, 1883. This novel is a coming-of-age story, narrated by Jim Hawkins in first person about his adventure when he was a teenager. Jim aids his parents in running the Admiral Benbow inn off the coast of the Bristol Channel. A pirate named Billy Bones visits the inn one day, and decides to stay in the inn for a long time. He passes away after a confrontation with a former crewmate, and it is revealed that he had a treasure map in his possession. A series of events follow, involving the recruitment of gentlemen by the local squire leading the expedition, setting sail for a tropic island for the treasure buried by Captain Flint, and the events happening aboard the ship en route to the island and most importantly, the events on the island. The reader is treated with a lot of action, sharp intelligence and honey-tongued oration. Stevenson, and centuries of pirate imagery, can help us visualize the events unfolding quite easily, and it is altogether a very enjoyable novel.
Treasure Island builds on many previously written fiction and non-fictional accounts of piracy, and lays down the groundwork for much of what we consider now as pirate-lore. Some of the tropes of piracy originally introduced in this book are:
(a) The image of a pirate having a peg-leg and a talking parrot, sourced directly from the character of Long John Silver.
(b) The chant ‘Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest, yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum; Drink and the devil has done to the rest, yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum‘.
(c) The idea of treasure maps and scavenger maps with treasures/prizes marked with a large ‘X’.
(d) The use of the black spot as a summons among pirates (this term also made an appearance in the Pirates of the Caribbean series).
For the uninitiated, the black spot in Treasure Island was a piece of paper which was blackened on one side, and had a collective decision taken by the crew in the other. In the book, Long John Silver is deposed as captain by the pirate faction and is given a black spot, but avoids being deposed by pointing out that the crew had mutilated a Bible to make the black spot, distracting the crew with superstitions until he could win them over again with new information on the treasure.
The book also uses symbolism to solidify what we consider defining traits of piracy-
(a) No desire to seem honorable– The book symbolizes the difference between the ‘honest sailors’ and the pirates, with the ‘honest pirates being God-fearing Christians who act for King and country. They are also shown as people who follow orders of their captain, and are true to their word. The doctor, who is a part of this expedition, even treats and bandages the pirates after the two camps have commenced hostilities. There’s an accurate line by the pirate Israel Hands on this note, when he talks to Jim Hawkins “For thirty years, I’ve sailed the seas, and seen good and bad, better and worse, fair weather and foul, provisions running out, knives going, and what not. Well, now, I tell you, I never seen good come o’ goodness yet. Him as strikes first is my fancy; dead men don’t bite; them’s my views – amen, so be it.“(sic)
(b) Self-destructive hedonism– Long John Silver, while briefing his fellow sailors of the treasure on Treasure Island and the opportunity to make away with it after disposing off the ‘honest sailors’ sailing with them, referred to pirates as ‘gentlemen of fortune’. He sums up the hedonistic, live-in-the-moment, brash trope of the pirate with the following sentence- “Here it is about gentlemen of fortune, They lives rough, and they risk swinging, but they eat and drink like fighting-cocks, and when a cruise is done, why it’s hundreds of pounds instead of hundreds of farthings in their pockets. Now, the most goes for rum and a good fling, and to sea again in their shirts.”(sic)
The pirates in the book are frequently depicted as needing alcohol to satiate themselves and return to their world of normalcy, even feeling better after having brandy despite suffering open wounds, against all medical sense. Finally, the first pirate introduced to the reader, Billy Bones, dies of overconsumption of alcohol despite having strictly been warned to lay off it by the local doctor on peril of death.
However, Long John Silver is shown to be a prudent person, advising other pirates to save their monies and having himself sold all his belongings and entrusted his life savings with his wife. He is also shown to be aware of, and fearful of, the eventual punishment of piracy- death by hanging, and attempts to plea bargain his way towards leniency from the protagonists of the novel. In portraying this, Stevenson adds a layer of complexity and gravity to the depiction of pirates and trying to avoid a trope of irresponsibility for all pirates.
Stevenson does not delve into the motivations for piracy in Treasure Island. Some of the motivations for piracy which existed in the 17th century included push factors such as:
(a) lack of on-shore opportunities for lower-class families;
(b) lack of social mobility and regular wage structures in aristocratic England; and
(c) ‘honest’ work at sea meant either merchant ships or the navy. Seamen in these jobs were treated harshly, beaten and punished for the slightest reasons, and had no say in decision-making. On the other hand, pirate ships usually ran with some form of democracy, with pirates sailing on a ship being assured voting rights on certain plunder and the right to depose and elect a captain.
to the pull factors of:
(a) the complete monopoly of sea routes on continental trade;
(b) tacit approval and unofficial state policy by the Crown and Parliament to allow the loot of Spanish fleets ferrying cargo and valuables from Spanish colonies in the Americas;
(c) tacit permission for piracy by recognizing them as privateers for the above reason
(d) unregulated domains with massive potential for pay-offs,
(e) examples of famous successful pirates, as below:
Famous Real Life Pirates:
(a) Captain Henry Avery who looted a Mughal fleet on its way towards Mecca, and made off with valuables valued today at over $130 million (this treasure was never found, for any treasure enthusiasts), and
(b) Captain Henry Morgan, who went on to be appointed as the governor of Jamaica by the Crown, serving as a great example for successful pirates to move upwards in society. He is a familiar face to many, as the eponymous logo for Captain Morgan’s Rum today.
The central story of Treasure Island has been covered in many adaptations since. One of my favorite works on this is the prequel television series Black Sails, which described how the treasure was originally left at Treasure Island and the back-story for Captain Flint, Long John Silver, Billy Bones, Ben Gunn, Israel Hands etc. Treasure Island is a short and easy read, and enormously fun to discover the roots of so many tropes. I would recommend having a dictionary or Google open to visualize the nautical nomenclature being used, if the reader so desires.