History of the Text

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Last Updated on November 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 493

Publication History and Reception: Treasure Island was initially serialized in the children’s magazine Young Folks from 1881 to 1882. In 1883, it was compiled into a novel and published by Cassell & Co in London. In its book form, Treasure Island quickly became a popular novel among children and adults alike. The novel has been adapted for film, television, theater, and comic books. It has also been referenced by many other works and has strongly influenced the popular conception of eighteenth-century pirates.

  • Literary Context: In the nineteenth century, works written specifically for children became more fantastical and less didactic. This led to a rise in stories about adventure, similar to those written for adults after the publication of Robinson Crusoe in 1719. Adventure novels often verged into the realm of historical fiction. Treasure Island is an example of such a combination, being set a century before its writing. Importantly, Treasure Island was published when Britain was an expansive empire with a strong naval presence. Given how many British citizens emigrated or took to the sea in the Victorian era, sea novels like Treasure Island captured the imaginations of Victorian children.
  • Robert Louis Stevenson and Treasure Island: Stevenson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1850. Although confined to his home due to poor health for most of his childhood, Stevenson attended university as a student of engineering in 1867. In 1871, Stevenson left his pursuit of engineering and devoted himself to writing. Treasure Island, his first published novel, was inspired by a treasure map that Stevenson drew with his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne. Stevenson is also widely known for his novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which was published in 1886.

Piracy in the Victorian Era: During the Victorian era, the British Empire had the largest navy in the world. Maritime trade and expansion constituted an influential and important part of British cultural identity. Pirates, and the licentiousness they were perceived to embody, contrasted with the orderliness of the British navy and captured the public imagination of Victorian Britain. Treasure Island draws from both the Victorian imagination and authentic pirate history, establishing a fantastical view of pirates’ lives.

  •  The Golden Age of Piracy: What is now called the Golden Age of Piracy lasted from the 1650s to the 1730s. People became pirates for various reasons, such as poverty, unemployment, and overcrowding in urban areas, as well as the chance for monetary gain abroad. Pirate activity spanned the Caribbean, the North American eastern seaboard, the West African coast, and the Indian Ocean. 
  • Pirate Culture: Contrary to the common perception of despotic pirate captains, decisions made aboard pirate ships were generally democratic in nature: captains were democratically elected by their crews, and “articles of agreement” set guidelines for crew behavior and the fair distribution of plunder. A system of checks and balances prevented any captain from exercising too great an authority over his crew, and pirates on the whole were much less violent than Stevenson’s Captain Flint.

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