X Marks the Spot
Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island launched the hallmarks that have come to define the literature of golden-age pirates: X-marks-the-spot treasure maps, Caribbean caches of plunder, rogue seamen chanting “Yo-ho-ho” and peg-legged quartermasters with shoulder-perched parrots. Historical pirates, of course, were rarely as amiable as Long John Silver, and few amassed fortunes like Captain Flint’s, but Stevenson’s salty tale provides all the mugs of rum and golden doubloons readers could wish for.
The son of Scottish parents—a father who was a lighthouse engineer and a mother who traced her lineage to 15th-century landowners—Robert Louis Stevenson grew up listening to salty tales and developed a great respect for maritime history and culture. This bedrock of interests may explain how the idea of Treasure Island hit Stevenson so suddenly. Bored while on a family vacation in 1881, Stevenson began entertaining himself with his brother’s paints and produced a map of a tropical island. Once the map was painted, he later claimed, “the future characters of [Treasure Island] began to appear there visibly among imaginary woods, and their brown faces and bright weapons peeped out upon me from unexpected quarters, as they passed to and fro, fighting and hunting treasure, on these few square inches.… The next thing I knew, I had some paper before me and was writing out a list of chapters.” The treasure map, which Stevenson’s young protagonist, Jim Hawkins, finds among dead pirate Billy Bones’s belongings, kicks off the novel’s action, but by the time Hawkins and his companions reach the charted island, the marooned pirate Ben Gunn has removed the caches to a cave, rendering the map worthless.
Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh in 1850. J.M. Barrie was born 50 miles away in Kirriemuir 10 years later. During Stevenson’s last years in Samoa, where he had retired for his health, the two writers corresponded despite having never met. In a letter to American novelist Henry James, Stevenson claims to have three living muses: English writer Rudyard Kipling, James himself and Barrie. “We are both Scots,” he wrote in an 1892 letter to Barrie, “and I suspect both rather Scotty Scots.” The appreciation was mutual. After Stevenson’s death, Barrie wrote in I Can Remember Robert Louis Stevenson, “When I came to London, there was a blank spot in it; Stevenson had gone. It could not be filled till he came back, and he never came back.… It is not necessarily that he was the greatest. I don’t think he was the greatest, but of the men we might have seen, he is the one we would like best to come back.” The two writers also shared an interest in the problems of adult responsibility. Stevenson wrote adventures about boys forced to grow up, while in Peter Pan Barrie invented a land where they wouldn’t have to.
J.M. Barrie was inspired to write Peter Pan in part by watching a group of brothers, the Davies boys, playing together in London’s Kensington Park in 1898. Barrie befriended their parents and became the boys’ legal guardian after their mother died, in 1910.
Curiosity about how the brothers influenced Barrie has led a number of writers to consider, in books, documentaries and films, the nature of that inspiration and whether it was inappropriate; among these explorations are the BBC miniseries The Lost Boys, the Academy Award–winning Finding Neverland and Piers Dudgeon’s book Neverland: J.M. Barrie, the Du Mauriers and the Dark Side of Peter Pan. Even after he found success as a playwright and author, Barrie remained a child in spirit and delighted in the youthful imagination the Davies boys embodied. Their relationship initially involved cricket, games and reenactments of Barrie’s stories about pirates, castaways and fairies. The characters who populate Peter Pan’s Neverland were born in the parks, backyards and country houses where the brothers played.
Upon his death Barrie donated the rights to Peter Pan to London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, which continues to profit from it.
Originally conceived as a section of The Little White Bird, a novel written for adults, J.M. Barrie’s novel Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up features a band of pirates led by the aptly named Captain Hook, whose missing hand (cut off by Peter Pan) has been replaced with an iron hook—“and he claws with it.” Such was the extent of Robert Louis Stevenson’s influence on Peter Pan that Barrie writes of his villainous captain that he was the only man Stevenson’s tough pirate Long John Silver ever feared. Whereas Stevenson’s morally ambiguous Silver constantly shifts his allegiance depending on where he will profit most, Barrie’s Captain Hook is always an antagonist. He loathes Peter Pan for cutting off his hand and looks for a way to punish Peter’s gang, the Lost Boys. Still, he is dirty and hapless and terrified of the crocodile with a ticking clock in its belly.
Barrie originally named Hook Captain Swarthy and portrayed him as a coward, and Hook ultimately demonstrates that what we fear may itself be more fearful than fearsome: In most versions of the story, Captain Hook, though unsavory, is played for comic effect.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island is a tale about retrieving a pirate’s hidden fortune, yet the novel omits all but a trace of the swashbuckling story of how that treasure trove might have been amassed. In his prequel to Treasure Island, titled Flint and Silver, English novelist John Drake takes on the violent adventures of Stevenson’s famous peg-legged pirate quartermaster, Long John Silver, and his friend Captain J. Flint, who dies years before Treasure Island begins. In Drake’s novel, Silver is a pirate with no blood on his hands, and Flint is a sociopathic Royal Navy officer. When they team up, they form a nearly unstoppable partnership that is as violent as it is lucrative. Their friendship unravels, however, when they compete over a beautiful, murderous ex-slave named Selena.“I dare say he met his old Negress and perhaps still lives in comfort with her,” Jim Hawkins says of Long John Silver at the end of Treasure Island. Drake’s version of the Flint and Silver saga continues in the novels Pieces of Eight (2009) and Skull and Bones (2010).
Edgar Allan Poe’s story about real-life 17th-century Scottish pirate Captain Kidd may have inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write Treasure Island. Centered on a buried cache of booty, “The Gold Bug” features no mutinous crew. Instead Poe’s characters William Legrand, his ex-slave Jupiter and the tale’s unnamed narrator reckon with a treasure map written in Kidd’s strangely elaborate secret code—and with the possibility that Legrand may be losing his mind. Even more crucial to “The Gold Bug” than Stevenson’s map is to Treasure Island, Poe’s arcane cipher serves as the central plot device. Once Legrand finally cracks the code, he finds the treasure.
While historians debate whether Captain Kidd was responsible for the violent crimes of piracy and murder for which he was executed in 1701, there is no question about his success as a privateer—i.e., a licensed pirate, employed by the British Crown to attack its enemies’ ships, which were often laden with silks and gold. The treasure Kidd buried off the coast of New York’s Long Island was returned to England and used as evidence against him, but the legend of Kidd’s lost fortune lives on and continues to inspire writers today.
Although he studied secondary sources for his novels The Master of Ballantrae and Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson did no research for Treasure Island. His pirates are dramatic and colorful but appeal to his readers’ appetite for suggestions of violence more than they inform us about the privateers who took advantage of colonial trade in the 17th and 18th centuries. Of course, Treasure Island might have been inspired by tales of historical pirates such as Blackbeard and Captain Kidd, legends that continued to circulate well into the 19th century through songs and stories.
The Stevenson family profession was lighthouse engineering, and the Stevensons were happy to boast that Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Pirate (1821) was inspired by a trip the Scottish novelist took to the isles known as the Hebrides with Robert Louis Stevenson’s grandfather. In 1869 and 1870 Stevenson undertook a similar trip with his father, who as the commissioner of northern lights, was charged with ensuring the lighthouses in this isolated territory remained operational. Stevenson enjoyed the rigors of these trips and must also have appreciated the role his family played in Scott’s inspiration. Stevenson didn’t think highly of The Pirate, however, calling it an “ill-written, ragged book.”