THE CLASSICS CLUB: Treasure Island

By Robert Louis Stevenson

Fifteen men on the Dead Man’s Chest —
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest —
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!

TREASURE ISLAND COVERI vaguely remember owning a large, hardback edition of Treasure Island, filled with colourful illustrations of eighteenth-century swashbucklers and old sea dogs. Sadly, it disappeared many years ago, along with numerous books I was given as a child (possibly during a house move), but I still vividly recall a Sunday afternoon spent watching Robert Newton play Long John Silver in the 1950s film adaption of this quintessential YA adventure novel – no doubt on my grandparents old fashioned black and white TV set.

Published in 1883, this dramatic tale of pirates and buried treasure is largely narrated by the adult Jim Hawkins, son of a Cornish innkeeper, many years after the events he recalls. He takes us back to his boyhood when he first meets the habitually drunk Billy Bones in the guise of “the Captain”, as he arrives at the Admiral Benbow carrying a mysterious sea chest. The terrifying old salt takes a fancy to the inn and its commanding view of the surrounding coastline. He memorably describes it as a “pleasant sittyated grog-shop” and immediately takes a room for an indefinite period, slipping young Hawkins fourpence a month to watch out for “a seafaring man with one leg”.

From here on the boy finds himself embroiled in one hair-raising escapade after another. Following the sudden death of Bones, Hawkins discovers an oilskin packet containing a logbook detailing the whereabouts of treasure appropriated by one Captain Flint during his bloodthirsty career aboard The Walrus. Upon receiving this news, local nobleman Squire Trelawney sets off for Bristol with the intention of outfitting a sailing vessel and seeking the treasure, with the help of a Dr Livesey and Jim.

Here the aristocrat – a decent sort but with much too loose a tongue – meets the colourful and complex character Long John Silver, a one-legged, parrot-owning landlord of a dockside tavern. Unknown to the Squire, Silver is a crafty and opportunistic pirate who was once quartermaster under Captain Flint. He is persuaded to retain him as cook and allows him to recruit the crew for the voyage to Skeleton Island. Here the plot truly gets underway and we are treated to much rum, rowdiness and skulduggery aboard the Hispaniola.

This famous yarn, written by the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), was first serialised in the children’s magazine Young Folks in 1881. The writer described it as: “a story for boys; no need of psychology or fine writing. Women were excluded…”

Now considered a Victorian-era classic, Treasure Island is basically 34 chapters of entertainment and intrigue with a dash of moral ambiguity; a tale filled with twists and turns but with a simple and satisfying ending. It remains popular because it’s a deftly written quest for adventure combined with a coming-of-age story that has never lost its seductive power to engage readers of both sexes and all ages.

As an interesting side-note, I was fascinated to discover that the fictional Long John Silver is believed by some to have been based on the Welsh adventurer Owen Lloyd, who was born in the town of Rhuddlan, close to my home in North Wales. He was said to have sailed to the West Indies with his brother where they buried 52 chests filled with silver pieces of eight on the deserted Norman Island, which is located at the southern tip of the British Virgin Islands archipelago. The booty was apparently looted from a storm-stricken Spanish galleon filled with the spoils of war when in August 1750 it was forced to seek refuge in the American seaport of Ocracoke. The date on the Treasure Island map matches the month and year of the raid, and the book’s notorious Captain Flint appears to be named after Lloyd’s home county of Flintshire.

This is my sixth choice for The Classics Club.


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40 replies

  1. This is such fun isn’t it? I read it I think a couple of years ago after a long gap but had great fun.

  2. We recently read this for our Book Group. I first read it as a child and loved the adventure, but as an adult the moral ambiguity really does come through. Superb.

  3. I remember reading this with my nephew by phone (I lived 5 hours away). He wasn’t expressing any interest in books so I tried this and it worked. We’d do a chapter a session.

  4. This book must have made a big impression on my when I read it as a child because – many many years later – when I had to read it as an adult for a university module, I could remember the apple barrel scene clearly. It’s a great adventure story as you say Paula but I also enjoyed the moral ambiguities. Here is my review

  5. I still have an old A&P edition, with helpful margin notes for the young reader, that originally belonged to my dad. I also have 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Virginian, and Arabian Nights from the same set, all of which I’ve reread in the last several years. It is high time I reread Treasure Island, methinks…

  6. I’ve always loved this book!

  7. The N.C. Wyeth illustrations were amazing. It was put out by sundry publishers, over the course of the 20trh c. but I last recall the Macmillan Pub. version from the 80s or 90s. It was nicely done.

  8. I really should read more classics. I haven’t the time though.

  9. My father read this to us, as kids. but I haven’t looked at any Stevenson since. I guess it would be fun to reread this, among others.

    • How lovely that your dad recited poetry to you. 😊

      I read RLS’s Gothic novella, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde a couple of years ago and found it very good. I also have vague recollections of reading Kidnapped and memorising some of his poetry as a child, though I couldn’t for the life of me remember them now!

      • My parents were big on us reading, even if it was comic books! And yes, he loved to read and do voices, and get us engaged. It was one of the lasting memories I still have of a very quiet man.

      • He probably inspired your love of books, Alexandra. One of the finest things a parent can do for a child.

  10. On high school reading list decades ago, not usually my kind of book but just loved it once I got into reading it!

  11. Now I didn’t know about those Welsh connections you mention, but I know RLS happily plundered names and details from anywhere he could. Blind Pew I suspect was Welsh Pugh, and of course Wales and the West Country furnished many famous pirates like Black Bart from Pembrokeshire and Blackbeard from Bristol.

  12. Audible recently did a wonderful full-cast dramatization of this and I fell in love with it all over again! Have you read Andrew Motion’s follow-on novels? They don’t quite get the same adventurous tone but the writing is as gorgeous as you’d expect from a previous Poet Laureate.

    • Other than his poetry and the odd piece in The Guardian, I’ve read nothing by Andrew Motion – The Invention of Dr Cake has been on my TBR list for goodness knows how long. I’m aware of Silver but haven’t really picked up on any other of his follow-ons. I must make an effort to read them.

  13. Terrific and informative review, Paula! This is one of my favorites from childhood, and I think it’s about time for a reread. Loved reading about the Welsh connections.

  14. I love RLS but I’ve never actually read this – perhaps I thought it was too boyish for me! But I’ll have to get a copy, won’t I?

  15. Lovely review Paula! I haven’t read this since i was a child. I find it quite terrifying that the characters were based on real people 🙂

    • Thank you so much, Madame B. It was the first reread for me since childhood, too. I know what you mean about the characters being based on real people – you wouldn’t much fancy being stuck on a cruise with them!

  16. Hello Paula. You’ve inspired me to read something by RLS. It’s been quite a few years since I have. Did you ever read his travel book “Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes”? It’s a good one.


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