The Legacy of Treasure Island

You can thank Robert Louis Stevenson and his novel, Treasure Island, for much of what we think of when the word "pirate" is mentioned. Talking parrots, peg legs, and buried treasure maps are just a few of the "facts" Stevenson wrote about that have become part of pirate lore. Let's look at the description and life of pirates in his book, and see how that compares to actual pirate life.

Fun Fact: There are several theories about the existence of a real Treasure Island, with one of the leading ones being that it is actually Norman Island in the British Virgin Islands.

Captain Long John Silver

Stevenson admits that he borrowed from previous authors, citing Edgar Allan Poe's The Gold Bug, Charles Kingsley's At Last, Captain Charles Johnson's A General History of the Pyrates, Washington Irving, and others. He took ideas from these sources, added his own, and came up with one of the most recognizable fictional characters in literature, Captain Long John Silver. Mention "pirate" to someone, and the picture of a peg-legged, eyepatch wearing Captain Silver with a parrot on his shoulder usually comes to mind—though after the Pirates of the Caribbean series of movies, some might argue that Captain Jack Sparrow is the more iconic pirate. Stevenson's version of the pirate world became one of the most popular and long lasting views ever. There have been more than 50 film and television adaptations of Treasure Island, which has further imprinted his vision of a pirate in the public's eye.

Is Stevenson Accurate in His Portrayal of Pirates?

Some of the famous pirate characteristics from Treasure Island include:

  • The Eyepatch—Some, despite little concrete evidence, believe that pirates did indeed have eyepatches, but not because of injury. It has been theorized, and tested on an episode of television's "MythBusters," that pirates may have worn eyepatches over one eye to preserve night vision. So, Stevenson probably has this one right.
  • Drunk Pirates—Yes, pirates, as did those in the regular navy, imbibed alcoholic spirits—a lot. Liquor was even used to kill the taste of bad water. With sugar cane being prevalent in the Caribbean, rum was the drink of choice; although ale, wine, and other spirits were available, as well. Pirate ships didn't have the discipline found on board regular navy ships, so excessive drinking was more common. There are documented cases of pirate crews being too drunk to resist capture.
  • Wooden Peg Legs—According to known articles of surviving pirate codes, injured pirates were given compensation for their wounds. As long as the crewmember could manage the duties assigned him, he was allowed to stay aboard ship after the loss of limb. Since the supply was plentiful, it stands to reason that prosthetics, such as pegs to replace the leg, would be made of wood. Again, this would not be an incorrect picture of a pirate.
  • Pirate Parrots—It would make sense, since parrots were common in the areas the pirates roamed, for them to be on board ships. Parrots could have been fed easily and wouldn't have taken much room. They were also popular exotic pets in Europe, so they could have been taken on as trade cargo. While it is not known that any pirates actually had parrots as pets, it isn't inconceivable that they could have, either. It should be noted, though, that Stevenson admitted that the idea of a parrot on the shoulder came from the novel Robinson Crusoe, which was not a tale of pirates or piracy.
  • Buried Treasure and Treasure Maps—Here is where Treasure Island begins to stray from reality. There are few verified instances of pirates burying treasure, and in all those cases, the treasure was recovered. The life expectancy of the pirate was fairly short, most famous captains were captured and hung after a few years of piracy. This, coupled with the fact that the safe ports had plenty of opportunities for the crew to squander their earnings, makes it unlikely that burying treasure happened with any frequency. Furthermore, there has not been one verified pirate treasure map ever found.
  • The Black Spot—The Black Spot in Treasure Island was a circular piece of paper, darkened on one side, with a message written on the other. It was a warning given to a pirate about impending danger or doom. At the time of Stevenson's writing, Black Spot was a disease that attacked animals and plants, especially roses. The idea of warning a captain he was about to be replaced with the Black Spot warning was most likely an invention of Stevenson.
  • Walking the Plank—This didn't happen during the Golden Age of Piracy, and, in fact, there are only five documented cases of it happening at all. Instead of walking the plank for punishment, as was the case in Treasure Island, keel-hauling, or dragging the victim under the hull of the ship, was the preferred method.

It appears Robert Louis Stevenson may have gotten many pirate characteristics right. It is still fair to say, however, that Long John Silver is an exaggeration, and is an unrealistic view of the individual pirate. Treasure Island, and Long John Silver, are combinations of all things pirate, a mixture of myth and reality.

Treasure Island originally appeared in a journal for boys in 18 weekly installments. It was published under a pseudonym, partly because Stevenson's wife felt Treasure Island was beneath his talents.