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!”
I 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.