Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)

16th November 2022

Although I missed out on reading this book in my youth, I am very familiar with its characters and plot thanks to the various versions presented over the years in comics and film and on the stage, the last of these most recently during lockdown via an online interpretation from The National Theatre. Nonetheless, it was a pleasure to savour the novel in the neat pocket-sized version published by Collector’s Library in 2004.

The story is set in the mid-18th Century. All bar a couple of the 34 chapters are narrated from the perspective of the young Jim Hawkins, whom we first meet in the Admiral Benbow Inn on the shore of the Bristol Channel, the establishment managed by his mother and ailing (and shortly deceased) father. The first of Stevenson’s brilliantly drawn characters – the formidable Billy Bones – appears on the first page “plodding to the inn door, his sea chest following behind him in a hand barrow; a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man; his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulders of his soiled blue coat; his hands ragged and scarred, with black broken nails; and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty livid white”.

Without turning the page, we are also introduced to Bones’s favoured sea-song –

Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest –

Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!

and we are hooked from that point on as the remainder of the familiar cast-list appear in the introductory chapters: Black Dog, Blind Pew, Squire Trelawney, Doctor Livesey…

Stevenson cleverly invites his young readers to put themselves in Jim Hawkins’s place at the centre of the action. Hawkins is brave and resourceful as well as impulsive and naïve. It is through him that we experience the key episodes in the fast-moving plot: the initial meeting with Long John Silver, the discovery of the planned mutiny on the schooner Hispaniola, the refuge in the island’s stockade, the discovery of the marooned Ben Gunn, the trek to the site of the treasure… He also witnesses at first hand some of the terrors of the adventure, including the brutal murder of one of the crew and the impact of the inadvertent discharge of two muskets during a close-quarter struggle.

Familiarity with the plot does not diminish the excitement of the yarn but, rather, adds the benefit of retrospective knowledge. When Trelawney employs Silver not only as the ship’s cook, but also as the recruiter of most of the crew, we sense that all might not go according to the Squire’s plan.

The narrative rattles along with little in the way of anachronistic language to hold things up. I was unfamiliar with some of the nautical terminology associated with the manoeuvrability of the ship, but it was of interest to learn that a “quid” was a lump of tobacco, “davy” was the diminutive of affidavit and a “trump” was an admirable person. We also note that a port in South America had “shore boats full of negroes and Mexican-Indians and half-bloods” and that Silver’s wife was “an old negress”, but there is really very little to offend those with even the most acute modern-day sensibilities to dated cultural portrayals. The book is illustrated by 18 exquisite line drawings by HM Brock (1875-1960).

It has been inevitable, perhaps, that academic researchers have looked into the underlying messages that Stevenson might have been attempting to relay to his (generally) youthful readers. One such is evident in Hawkins’s seriously ill-judged initial assessments of some of the adults with whom he comes into contact. To begin with, Silver was judged to be “one of the best possible shipmates”; by contrast, after his first meeting with the efficient and honourable Smollett, Hawkins “hated the captain deeply”. Related to this, according to some interpretations, is Hawkins’s implicit search for guidance from a replacement father-figure following the death of his parent: Trelawney, Livesey, Silver.

The complexity of the character of Long John Silver is such as to maintain the continual interest of the reader. At the most basic level, he is a callous and murderous pirate with a horrendously bloody past. He is also a skilled and experienced seaman with a network of contacts and a profoundly cunning intelligence. At the plot develops, we see how his two main objectives – locating the buried treasure of the late Captain Flint and saving his own neck from the gibbet at London’s Execution Dock – are sometimes in concert and, at other times, pull in opposite directions. He is a duplicitous and appalling man, whom – as with all the great anti-heroes of literature – the reader has a guilty half-wish to survive.

Treasure Island was published in 1883, the start of a productive time for Stevenson that culminated in the publication of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hide and Kidnapped, both in 1886. (Two years later, in search of a better climate for his chronic ill-health, he settled in Samoa, where he died in 1894). We have cause for gratitude that, during this relatively short period, he produced the classic literature that can be enjoyed by readers – young and old – nearly a century and a half later.

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