Places Discussed

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Admiral Benbow Inn

Admiral Benbow Inn. Public inn owned by Jim Hawkins’s parents near Black Hill Cove, an isolated and sheltered bay on Devon’s north coast, along the road to Bristol, that is an ideal place for smugglers to come ashore. Tucked between somber hills and the rocky cove, up...

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Admiral Benbow Inn

Admiral Benbow Inn. Public inn owned by Jim Hawkins’s parents near Black Hill Cove, an isolated and sheltered bay on Devon’s north coast, along the road to Bristol, that is an ideal place for smugglers to come ashore. Tucked between somber hills and the rocky cove, up whose cliffs the surf roars during storms, the inn is remote from even the nearest hamlet, Kitt’s Hole, and conveys an atmosphere of unrelieved loneliness and foreboding. The novel opens with a menacing figure appearing at the inn and demanding a room. Later unmasked as the pirate captain Billy Bones, he long overstays his welcome and so tyrannizes the inn that other guests leave, and Jim’s father weakens and dies an early death. Having chosen the Benbow Inn because of its isolation, Bones lives in daily fear of being discovered by fellow pirates; after they finally appear, he dies of apoplexy, and Jim and his mother flee the inn before the other pirates return—but not before they open his seachest and find a map of Treasure Island. Despite the fear Jim experiences at the inn, he later dreams of returning there while he is experiencing even worse dangers on Treasure Island.

Admiral Benbow Inn is aptly named after a late seventeenth century English admiral, John Benbow, who won renown for fighting pirates in the West Indies and for his heroic death in action against the French after the captains serving under him mutinied.

*Bristol

*Bristol. Busy port city in southwestern England where the expedition of the Hispaniola begins and ends. Bristol is also the home of the crafty one-legged pirate Long John Silver, who signs on for the voyage as ship’s cook. Silver owns a tavern in Bristol called the Spy-glass. While waiting for the Hispaniola to sail, he befriends Jim, accompanies him around Bristol’s docks and teaches him about ships and the sea. To Jim, Bristol is an exciting portal to the world outside, and he says though he “had lived by the shore all my life, I seemed never to have been near the sea till then.”

Hispaniola

Hispaniola. Ship on which Jim and his companions sail from England to Treasure Island and back. Apart from the fact that the Hispaniola is a sturdy two-hundred-ton schooner that sails well and initially has a crew of about twenty men, Stevenson describes little about the ship and even less about its voyages across the Atlantic, thereby avoiding details of navigation with which he was not familiar. Nevertheless, he makes the ship the setting for several of the novel’s most thrilling moments. Even before its voyage begins, the captain expresses concern about the trustworthiness of the crew—which has been assembled by Squire Trelawney—so Jim’s companions “garrison” the after part of the ship in case trouble develops.

A key moment at sea occurs when Jim innocently climbs inside a large apple barrel on deck and overhears the crew plotting mutiny. The mutiny itself occurs ashore, after the ship anchors off Treasure Island, and the mutineers seize the ship only after the captain’s party go ashore to hole up in an old stockade. From that point, the ship becomes a kind of albatross; it is almost useless to the mutineers, who cannot navigate it, and is of limited use to the captain’s party because of their small numbers. The latter choose to take their chances ashore, confident that a relief ship will eventually find them. Meanwhile, the mutineers plunder the ship’s stores, get drunk, and fight among themselves. Their recklessness later allows Jim to retake the ship single-handedly and even work it around to the opposite side of the island, where he beaches it and kills a mutineer in a desperate fight in the ship’s rigging.

Treasure Island

Treasure Island. Small, uninhabited island, located in or near the West Indies—the classic center of pirate activity. The novel’s plot is driven by a map of the island revealing where a pirate named Captain Flint buried the fabulous treasure that Jim and his companions cross the Atlantic to find. Indeed, Stevenson created the map before he wrote the novel around it.

About nine miles long and five miles wide, the island is “like a fat dragon standing up,” with fine, nearly landlocked harbors at each end. Names of the island’s features make it resemble a ship: Three prominent hills, spread out in a line, are called Fore-mast. Main-mast (also called Spy-glass), and Mizzen-mast. Other features include Haulbowline Head, Captain Kidd’s anchorage, and Skeleton Island in the south harbor.

Although the map itself provides exact latitude and longitude, Jim never reveals the island’s exact location to readers because “there is still treasure not yet lifted.” The general direction that the Hispaniola sails to reach the island and remarks at the end of Jim’s narrative about the “nearest port in Spanish America,” where there are “shore boats full of Negroes and Mexican Indians,” suggest that the island is in the Caribbean Sea off Mexico. However, few real islands exist in that region, and the fact that Jim finds a castaway who has been alone on Treasure Island for three years suggests that the island is distant from shipping lanes. It is thus probably best to dismiss questions about the island’s location and accept it as a wholly imaginary creation. Indeed, before embarking on the expedition, Jim spends hours poring over the map of the island and fantasizing about the “savages” and “dangerous animals” he will find there. What he does find is unrealistic topography and flora and fauna uncharacteristic of the West Indies. Apart from its hot climate, the island could be located almost anywhere.

Shortly after the Hispaniola reaches Treasure Island, its crew members separate into mutinous and loyalist parties, and the balance of the narrative traces their skirmishes and maneuverings around the island. The loyalists under Captain Smollett take possession of a well-fortified stockade built by Flint’s men over a freshwater spring, while the mutineers weaken themselves by camping in a feverish swamp.

Historical Context

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Piracy
Piracy, which can be loosely defined as lawlessness and usually at sea, has a long history, dating as far back as the Phoenicians (1200 to 800 B.C.) Piracy occurred on almost every body of water from the China Sea to the Mediterranean and eventually along New World’s Atlantic shores and in the Caribbean. Pirates were both feared and romanticized as heroes. They thrived on the booty (or stolen wealth) they stole from merchant ships and shoreline villages. Their practice lasted well into the nineteenth century when British and U.S. naval forces eventually overwhelmed them. Nonetheless, some piracy continued throughout the twentieth century and into the early 2000s. Beyond crimes committed on the high sea, the term has been applied to many different types of theft, including the illegal downloading of material from the Internet.

One famous pirate is Blackbeard, whose real name was Edward Teach, a British man who scoured the Caribbean and the Atlantic coast of the United States during the eighteenth century. His outpost was on the North Carolina shoreline, where he was eventually hunted down and shot to death in 1718.

Although most stories and movies about pirates feature men, some pirates were female. One of the most notorious female pirates was Anne Bonny, the daughter of a well-to-do lawyer who amassed a fortune in North Carolina. Bonny was disowned by her father when she married a pirate. Bonny grew tired of her husband and eventually slipped away with a more notorious man nicknamed Calico Jack. In 1720, Bonny was caught and imprisoned and after being sentenced to hang, pleaded for her life based on the fact that she was pregnant. She disappeared before her hanging date, and some people believe that her father forgave her and paid handsomely for her release.

Living in Victorian London
Stevenson wrote Treasure Island while living in London. Queen Victoria (1819–1901), for which the age is named, deeply affected the people and culture of this world city with her sense of duty, her belief in moral righteousness, and her patriotism— traits that are mirrored in some of Stevenson’s characters. Because Victorian England was involved in the internal affairs of many other countries with its vast empire and the largest navy in the world, the population of London was made up of people from all over the world, and, in the 1880s, London had one of the largest international shipping ports in the world, receiving million of tons of goods each year.

The Houses of Parliament were built between 1840 and 1860, and Big Ben first rang in 1859. Compulsory universal education became law with the passage of the Education Act in 1870 (a secondary school education act passed in 1902). The first underground railway system in London began operation in 1863. However, illness and poverty were rampant. A significant proportion of the population died of tuberculosis each year. (Many people believe that this was the lung disease that Stevenson suffered from.) Child labor was prevalent— a condition that inspired Charles Dickens to write his novel Oliver Twist (1837).

Setting

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The story begins sometime in the eighteenth century on a remote stretch of the English coast. A mysterious seaman named Billy Bones appears one day at the Admiral Benbow Inn in Black Hill Cove and asks for lodging. After the death of Billy Bones, the action shifts to Bristol, where Squire Trelawney is outfitting the brig Hispaniola and hiring a crew to journey to Treasure Island. The bulk of the adventure takes place on board the Hispaniola or on Treasure Island itself—presumably a tiny fictional Caribbean island somewhere in the West Indies. After the treasure is recovered and the Hispaniola recaptured by the loyal crew members, the party sails into a West Indies port to reprovision before returning to Bristol.

Literary Style

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Serialized Novel
Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island was first published in a serialized form. This means that it was published chapter by chapter in separate small units. Serialization imposed its own form on plot design, dictating chapters that practically stand on their own with inconclusive endings. In other words, each chapter is a mini-adventure but designed to leave the reader wondering what will happen next. In Stevenson’s book, the stories are collected in parts, and within each part are separate sections. This arrangement intensifies the tension. The first part of the book, for example, is divided into six sections. At the end of the first section, it is hinted that Dr. Livesey and Billy Bones will meet again, and readers are left to wonder how the next confrontation between them will take place. The second section is called “Black Dog Appears and Disappears,” which sums up the action. But again, the reader senses at the end of this section that Black Dog will reappear, and when he does, something catastrophic will probably occur. By the end of the first part of the book, the reader has been introduced to most of the major characters. Readers are primed, much like Hawkins himself, and ready for the next part of the journey. The serialized form helps readers experience the excitement in sequence as Hawkins experiences it.

Point of View
The majority of this story is told by young Hawkins, who tells readers in the first few sentences that he has been asked by Dr. Livesey, the squire, and the rest of the professional crew of the Hispaniola to write this story with all its details. Readers watch the boy’s growth as he develops from a naïve teenager to an experienced man. It is clear what Hawkins is thinking, whether he is making bold decisions or stupid mistakes. Stevenson only changes point of view when Dr. Livesey recounts events that young Hawkins does not participate in. Stevenson uses the doctor, for instance, to tell about what happens on the ship when Hawkins is on shore. This shift gives readers a little advantage because they know more than Hawkins, but this gap is quickly closed. Once the doctor and Hawkins are reunited, Hawkins continues the narration of the story.

Literary Qualities

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Stevenson is a master storyteller who knows how to construct an engrossing tale. In Treasure Island, he makes skillful use of plot, setting, atmosphere, and character development to craft an enduring story of high suspense. Every episode in the novel is carefully developed to sustain the drama of the narrative.

Most of the tale is told from Jim's point of view, although Stevenson shifts the narration to Doctor Livesey for three chapters to give the reader a different perspective. What at first appears to be a conventional moral framework for the book—heroes on one side, villains on the other—soon reveals itself to be far more complex. Long John Silver is a more sympathetic character than any member of the loyal party save Jim, and Jim himself matures only by violating traditional moral norms. He frequently sneaks away from his more timid companions and takes matters into his own hands, stretching the limits of proper behavior in the pursuit of a greater good.

Stevenson captures the exotic atmosphere of the age of high-seas piracy. His prose recalls an era when British privateers and cutthroats, such as Captain Kidd and Bluebeard, were encouraged by the Crown to prey upon Spanish merchant ships returning from the New World laden with gold and silver. Stevenson shows a curious ambivalence toward the pirates, condemning their cruelty and ruthlessness while admiring their pluck and bravery.

Social Sensitivity

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In his emphasis on adventure as a formative influence on Jim, Stevenson shows a marked ambiguity toward the Victorian domestic virtues of his age. Domestic life is dull not only for Jim, but also for Squire Trelawney and Doctor Livesey, both of whom are quick to abandon their domestic and professional responsibilities to search for buried treasure on a remote island. Stevenson hints that adventure is the crucible of adulthood, and it seems that the adventure, not the gold, is the real purpose of the quest.

Stevenson focuses on violence and suspense, two essential elements of the adventure tale. Treasure Island shows the seamy side of seafaring life, and depicts the victimization of the innocent by the strong and ruthless. Jim himself barely escapes death when Israel Hands pins him to the mast with a knife; he survives by coolly shooting the pirate with a pair of pistols. By the end of the novel Jim has been initiated into a brutal world of violence, murder, greed, and treachery. He has certainly matured during the course of his adventures, but whether Jim learns any lasting moral lessons—aside from his loathing of the treasure—is uncertain. The experience itself, it seems, has been his primary gain.

Compare and Contrast

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1800s: Captain Kidd, a privateer, hired by the British to protect their ships, is accused of piracy and is hanged. He is said to have captured a ship with a British captain and a boatload of jewels. No treasure is ever uncovered.

1900s: The International Maritime Bureau praises Indian government officials and several ships’ crews for helping to recover a hijacked ship (an act of piracy) loaded with aluminum ingot. 2000s: The term piracy is often used when software, music, or movies are copied illegally.

1800s: Rumor has it that $300 million worth of treasure, stolen from mines in Lima, Peru, is buried on the island of Cocos off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. August Gissler buys half of the island and spends nineteen years searching for the missing goods but never finds any of it.

1900s: In 1988, the treasure of the S.S. Central America, a U.S. mail ship that sank in 1857, is recovered. Its huge shipment of freshly minted gold coins and gold bars, approximately onethird of the accumulated wealth of the gold rush years, is found intact.

2000s: Civil War era S.S. Republic a paddlewheel steam ship that sunk off the coast of Georgia in 1865 with a cargo of approximately $180 million of gold coins is located. Plans are underway to salvage the sunken treasure.

1800s: Doctors gain a better understanding of tuberculosis and begin to recommend the importance of fresh air and wholesome climates as treatment. Robert Koch discovers the microorganism that causes this disease.

1900s: Scientists determine that tuberculosis is not hereditary, and the disease can now be detected in its earliest stages through x-rays. By mid-century, antibiotics to combat the disease are in use.

2000s: Two million people worldwide still die of tuberculosis each year.

Media Adaptations

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Treasure Island has been produced as a movie several times. There is Paramount Studios’ 1920 version; MGM’s 1934 production; Disney’s 1950 presentation; and the 1972 UK project that starred Orson Wells as Long John Silver. In the 1990s, several animated versions of this story appeared on DVDs. Frank Oz and his muppets even made their version of this classic in 1996.

Treasure Island was produced by Books on Tape, Inc. in 2002, read by Richard Matthews.

For Further Reference

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Calder, Jenni. Robert Louis Stevenson: A Life Study. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. A new critical biography with a contemporary reassessment of Stevenson's life and work. Calder includes a useful discussion of the composition of Treasure Island.

Daiches, David. Robert Louis Stevenson. Norfolk, CT: New Directions Books, 1947. An excellent introductory biography of Stevenson by an eminent Scottish critic.

Eigner, Edwin M. Robert Louis Stevenson and Romantic Tradition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966. Includes a discussion of Treasure Island as it fits into the romance tradition.

Saposnik, Irving S. Robert Louis Stevenson. New York: Twayne, 1974. A reliable critical biography with a useful discussion of Treasure Island.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Bell, Ian, “Preface,” in Dreams of Exile: Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography, Mainstream Publishing, 1992.

Jones, William B., Jr., ed. “Preface,” in Robert Louis Stevenson Reconsidered, McFarland, 2003.

Moore, Laura, “Voices from the Middle,” in Urbana, Vol. 8, No. 2, December 2000, p. 75.

Stevenson, Robert Louis, “Essay: Treasure Island,” in Treasure Island, Courage Books, 1995, pp. 202–07.

Further Reading
Cordingly, David, The Black Flag, reprint, Harvest Books, 1997. Cordingly looks pirates in the eye and discovers the truth of their lives, which is far from the romanticized versions in literature. The author also ponders the myths of pirates in an attempt to figure out where and how those myths were born.

Lapierre, Alexandra, Fanny Stevenson: A Romance of Destiny, Carroll & Graf, 1995. Stevenson met Fanny, an American woman, in France and supposedly fell immediately in love with her, and she later became his wife. In the biography of Stevenson’s wife, Lapierre exposes Fanny’s emotions and her devotion to her husband, for whom she gave up her own creative endeavors as an artist.

McLynn, Frank, Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography, Random House, 1994. McLynn believes that Stevenson was much more than a writer of boys’ adventure stories. He sets out to demonstrate through this biography that Stevenson was a superb writer and also a great influence on other writers, such as Joseph Conrad, Oscar Wilde, and William Butler Yeats.

Pool, Daniel, What Jane Austin Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist—The Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England, reprint, Touchstone Books, 1994. Pool offers a glimpse into Victorian England, with interesting information on grave robbers, debtors’ prison, and other curiosities. Other topics include religion, sex, dinner parties, and politics.

Bibliography

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Eigner, Edwin M. Robert Louis Stevenson and Romantic Tradition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966. Places Stevenson and Treasure Island in the Romantic tradition established in the eighteenth century and defends him from the criticism of F. R. Leavis, who did much to lower Stevenson’s reputation in the mid-twentieth century.

Hellman, George S. The True Stevenson: A Study in Clarification. New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1972. A reprint of a 1925 study which draws upon Stevenson’s letters, conversations with his contemporaries, and his wife’s letters to elucidate points about the author and Treasure Island.

Leatham, James. The Style of Louis Stevenson. Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Press, 1970. A reprint of a 1908 study which considers Stevenson’s style, vocabulary, and use of Scottish idioms. An examination of Stevenson’s style and usage by a near contemporary in age and background.

McLynn, Frank. Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography. London: Hutchinson, 1993. The most comprehensive biography of Stevenson up to its date of publication. Considers the impact of Stevenson’s childhood and young adulthood on Treasure Island. Examines the sources for his story and characters and the immediate success of the work with the public.

Saposnik, Irving S. Robert Louis Stevenson. New York: Twayne, 1974. A good critical overview of Stevenson’s work which places Treasure Island properly in his entire canon. Connects the character Jim Hawkins to other youthful Stevenson heroes in Kidnapped and The Black Arrow (1888). Contains a good study of the character Long John Silver.

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