According to Mircea Eliade, myth, when it is vitally connected to the culture, speaks only of realities, which are far more real than mere hard facts (7). Treasure Island draws on the myth of the pirate, and it is a living myth, closely connected to the Western spirit of individualism and adventure. Therefore it is a mistake to dismiss Stevensons tale as a mere childrens adventure story. It is well documented how the novel has redefined the image of the pirate in the modern age, and continues to excite young and old with its unique spirit of adventure. It is only able to do so because Stevenson tapped a living myth.
In the search for the specific influences that shaped the composition of Treasure Island it is advisable to refer first of all to Stevensons own admissions. In this sense the author is extremely frank and forthcoming, and even admits to partial plagiarism in some instances. For example, he quotes Washington Irvings tale Wolfert Webber as an influence, and says in this regard,
It is my debt to Washington Irving that exercises my conscience, and justly so, for I believe plagiarism was rarely carried farther¦ the whole inner spirit and a good deal of the material detail of my first chapters¦ were the property of Washington Irving. (Stevenson, Letters, 308)
There is indeed a striking resemblance, and Stevenson certainly steals the scene in which a tenured pirate arrives in a sleepy hamlet, lodging in an inn, and day after day regaling to the regulars of the inn his endless store of bloodcurdling adventures on the high seas. There is also the suggestion of hidden pirate treasure, but not on a remote and deserted island. The pirate map is central to the plot of Treasure Island, and may be described as the singular stroke of genius that spelled the success of the novel.
The spark of the idea is from Edgar Allan Poes story The Gold Bug, whose plot hinges on ciphers and how to crack them (Zaczek 85). Instead of ciphers Stevenson gives us a map of a remote island, and a cross marked on the place where the treasure is supposed to be buried. It is when this map falls into the hands of Jim Hawkins that the adventure really begins. Poes story also has pirate treasure buried on an island, and where the pirates leave behind ciphers as the clue to the location. But Poes island is not remote and deserted. Stevenson most certainly got this idea from Defoes classic novel Robinson Crusoe. We elaborate on the influence of Defoe later on.
Another influence that Stevenson mentions is Charles Kingsleys travelogue At Last, which recounts a voyage to the Caribbean, with related reminiscences (Stevenson, Letters, 263). Though the direct references to pirates are limited, it is an important influence, because we may find in it the inner spirit that belongs to Treasure Island. Kingsley projects the spirit of independence and adventure, and this is certainly part of the imagination that that gives birth to Long John Silver. We feel this spirit palpably in the opening passage:
At last we, too, were crossing the Atlantic. At last the dream of forty years, please God, would be fulfilled, and I should see (and happily, not alone) the West Indies and the Spanish Main. From childhood I had studied their Natural History, their charts, their Romances, and alas! their Tragedies; and now, at last, I was about to compare books with facts, and judge for myself of the reported wonders of the Earthly Paradise. (Kingsley 9)
It is a mistake to judge the myth of the pirate to be concerned with the macabre. It is really about leaving behind the constraints of society and making it on ones own. In the end it is about individualism, which expresses the inner heart of Western man. This is not meant to condone piracy, nor to sanctify despicable real life villains, which no doubt the pirates were. But if the image of the pirate seizes the Western imagination so forcefully, it is because it speaks of an inner longing, and which we feign ignore. It is possibly because the pirate is an extreme example of the unfettered individual.
To the pirate it is only himself and the world, and we can understand why this resonates with the Western dream. [T]he Old World lay behind us like a dream, Kingsley expresses once he is ensconced on the Westward bound ship (Ibid). A fundamental dream is being realized, and the Old World is itself now rendered a dream. Such being the stated and implied influences of Stevenson, we must not expect more than a superficial resemblance between the pirates we find in Treasure Island and the real life counterparts. The novel established certain misconceptions about pirates which has become hard to eradicate now.
For example, it is widely believed now that pirates always buried their treasure on remote islands, and deserted locations, and kept maps to locate it when needed later on. Even before the evidence of the scholars arrives, we know that this is a silly thing to do, and the plot of Treasure Island itself will serve as an example. Captain Flint is the legendary pirate who buries his treasure of Skeleton Island, makes a map of the exact spot, which only a small inner band of his crew are privy to. Predictably, this leaves a legacy of backstabbing rivalry among them, and they all want get their hands on the map and appropriate the treasure for themselves. Evidence tells us that real life pirates acted in exactly the opposite way.
Having no propensity to save or stash, they spent their loot very quickly through drinking and revelry. Another belief engendered from the novel is that pirate ships always flew the Jolly Roger, the black flag with insignia of a skull and crossed bones. But this would also be foolhardy for pirates who were always desperate to deflect suspicion. According to Aubrey Burl, pirates used two flags, and raised them on the specific situations of a raid. The skull and bones flag was meant to intimidate the prey, goading them to surrender and abandon their ships. But if they did not do so, the black flag was replaced by a red one, which sent the message that violence was about to ensue. Both flags were used tactically in raids, and were not flown at other times.
He relates an incidence from 1720 when the notorious pirate Bartholomew Roberts sailed daringly into the harbor of Trepassey, in Newfoundland, flying the black flag. It was only one pirate ship against twenty-two maritime vessels, and yet the intimidation was sufficient, and the harbor surrendered all its vessels to the pirate (Aubrey 133-4). Most of the incidental details used to describe the pirates in Stevensons novel are, however, accurate, barring fictional exaggeration. Rum indeed was the favorite drink of pirates. The former crew members of Captain Flint describe him as habitually breaking into song when in the company of rum:
Fifteen men on the dead mans chest
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum! (Stevenson, Treasure, 9)
Drunken revelry, as already noted, was the favorite pastime of pirates. Long John Silver is depicted with a crosspatch on one eye, and a wooden leg. It is not unlikely that pirates bore handicaps, living as they did with daily violence. He also has a parrot perched perpetually on his shoulder. We know that pirates were fond of keeping tropical birds, which they did as souvenirs of the trips to wildlife locations around the world. The pirates in Treasure Island are of English and Dutch extraction, which is also the typical make up of pirates in the New World, and the French also included in the mix.
The ethnic map of piracy often followed the political map and the rivalry among the maritime powers, England, Holland and France being the principle political players, after the demise of the Spanish Empire. Indeed, the most notorious age of piracy was in the wake of the War of the Spanish Succession, when Spain finally relinquished its control of the high seas, and England, Holland and France entered the fray. Each employed privateers, who were legal pirates with commissions from their respective crowns to prey upon the ships of rival colonial powers. Initially their commissions had been to raid Spanish ships, because Spain ruled the seas, and their ships carried enticing booty. After the Spanish defeat on the mainland, the privateers remained, and soon began to prey on each other.
The illegal and proper pirates usually respected such political dividing lines (Lane 3-5). The pirates in Treasure Island conform to this picture, the novel being set in that particular period of high piracy in the eighteenth century. This is the extent to which Stevensons pirate is authentic, and we should not expect more. Though this pirate is a criminal thug, it is not this fact that strikes a chord in our imagination. It is rather the spirit of individualism and initiative that moves us, and makes someone who is essentially a robber of the high seas into a figure of romance for us. The tell tale sign for this is that these pirates are wont to bury their treasure on a remote and deserted island, instead of merely spending it.
The idea is clearly derived from reading Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoes story of a castaway who survives 28 years on a remote and deserted island, being the only survivor of a shipwreck. We know that Stevenson was an avid reader and admirer of Defoe. Stevenson is a kindred spirit to Defoe, though of a lesser genius. We examine Defoe in the hope of unlocking some secrets regarding Stevenson. Robinson Crusoe is not just an adventure tale, but is more a parable illustrating the Protestant work ethic. Crusoe establishes a personal relationship to God through his stay on the island, and in this sense is a consummate individual.
He is shown to build civilization anew on the basis of such a faith. Therefore, he embodies individuality and imitative, exactly as the mythological pirate does. The figure of Robinson Crusoe is therefore the flip side of the iconic pirate. Crusoe confronts the world through faith in God; the pirate is also alone pitched against the world, only that he employs violence and bloodshed. Crusoe also discovers buried treasure while on a remote and deserted island it is a spiritual treasure, and is hidden in the recesses of the soul. The counterpart for the pirate is material riches buried in a secret location. Both are emphasizing mystery, one religious, the other material.
To confirm that this analogy is not strained, we note that Defoe was a passionate enthusiast of pirates and piracy, and has authored a long list of books and novels related to the theme. Indeed, he is thought to have authored A General History of the Pyrates under the pseudonym Captain Charles Johnson, this being the definite text of pirate history that has come down to us (Novak 642). In conclusion, the iconic image of the pirate that has come down to us, largely influenced by Robert Louis Stevensons novel Treasure Island, is best described as a figment of the Western imagination.
The pirates described in the novel are on the whole accurate, but historical accuracy is not the aim here. Pirates were dangerous robbers of the high seas, but it is an aspect that the mythical pirate wants to evade. Instead it is the spirit of individualism and initiative that is meant to be emphasized, because it resonates with the Western spirit as a whole. It is because Stevenson captured this sprits in his tale, which is set in the golden age of piracy, that has endeared it to the Western audience, and continues to excite successive generations of readers, and not only the young.
Burl, Aubery. Black Barty: The Real Pirate of the Caribbean. Stroud, UK: Sutton Publishing, 2006.
Eliade, Mircea. Myth and Reality. New York: Waveland Press, 1998.
Kingsley, Charles. At Last. Charleston, SC: BiblioBazaar, 2007.
Lane, Kris E. Pillaging the Empire: Piracy in the Americas, 1500-1750. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1998.
Novak, Maximillian E. Daniel Defoe: Master of Fictions: His Life and Ideas. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. Selected Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson. Contributor Ernest Mehew. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. Treasure Island. New York: Sterling Publishing Company, 2004.
Zaczek, Iain. Pirates. London: AAPPL, 2007.