Treasure Island | Study Guide

Robert Louis Stevenson

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Treasure Island | Context


The Golden Age of Piracy

Treasure Island captures the lawlessness, danger, and high adventure of the Golden Age of Piracy. Setting the scene for this era was the discovery of the West Indies and the North and South American continents by Christopher Columbus in 1492. He claimed the region for Spain, and soon after, the plundering of its vast stores of Aztec and Inca gold and treasure began. Other colonial empires swiftly moved to establish themselves in the New World. By the 1600s, battle for control of the region was in full swing. In addition to establishing mainland colonies, the Spanish, British, French, and Dutch were busy building settlements on islands including Barbados, Tortuga, and Jamaica in the Caribbean.

By the mid-1600s, ships loaded with valuable cargo were traversing the Atlantic and ripe for piracy. Prolonged wars in Europe left the battling empires with insufficient numbers of men or ships to protect vessels bearing rich cargo. Pirates, also called buccaneers, preyed on them and grew rich. Adding to this lawlessness was the British practice of issuing letters of marque (government licenses) permitting licensed pirates, or privateers, to attack enemy ships and claim their cargo. A significant share of the loot was then given to the crown. However, with the end of hostilities, letters of marque were canceled, and privateers suddenly found themselves hunted men, out of work and outside the law. A new phase of piracy began.

Between the late 1600s and 1725 or so, full-fledged illegal piracy plagued the oceans of the globe, including the waters of the Caribbean. This "Golden Age" period was romanticized in popular culture. From this era came pirates like Edward "Blackbeard" Teach, Bartholomew Roberts, and William Kidd, all three of whom are referenced in Treasure Island.

While the events of Treasure Island occur some 30 years after the Golden Age of Piracy peaked, there were still seaman roaming the ocean who found piracy an attractive way of life. Stevenson likely would have had access to A General History of Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson (whose real name and identity are shrouded in mystery). Published in 1784, it is one of the most authoritative works about this era and details the exploits of some of the most villainous buccaneers. As for his iconic pirate Long John Silver, Stevenson based the character on a friend, William Henley, who had lost a leg as a child. As Stevenson confessed after publication of the book, "It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot John Silver."

The Golden Age of Adventure Fiction

Stories like Stevenson's Treasure Island ushered in the genre of adventure fiction during "The Golden Age of Children's Literature" (1850–1914). It was first published as a weekly serial in Young Folks magazine from October 1871 to January 1882. Though intended for juveniles, it gained popularity among adults when it was published as a novel in 1883. Like other adventure tales of its time—also known as "ripping yarns"—Treasure Island offered readers young and old escape from safe, constrained, and conventional Victorian society. Readers were invited to explore exotic, primitive places in the world; they were freed to indulge in imagined acts of heroism and chivalry. These yarns romanticized some "other" time and place when bravery, daring deeds, and nobility triumphed over barbarism, and were an antidote to the reality of a messy, changing world.

During this period, the purpose of stories for young people shifted from religious and instructional themes toward wonder and imagination. Stories like John Newbery's The History of Little Goodie Two Shoes (1765), which celebrated the rewards of virtue, gave way to fantasy and adventure fiction, like Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). This shift mirrored society's changing perception of children and childhood. Earlier views saw children as needing moral training and childhood as filled with pitfalls to goodness, so children's literature focused on guidance and self-improvement. In contrast, the later Victorians viewed children as good by nature and idealized childhood as a time of innocence and awe. Literature characterized their clear-eyed purity as either conquering the darkness of the adult world or becoming its victim. Adventure stories—which specifically targeted boys—often featured a youth who was on his own in the world, yet resilient and resourceful. Treasure Island's Jim Hawkins is just such a boy.

Treasure Island's Influence on Popular Culture

Treasure Island is considered a classic in adventure fiction. Since its publication in 1883, it has been adapted countless times for stage and radio plays, movies, animated features, comic books, and graphic novels, and served as inspiration for many genres of music, not to mention a popular hotel in Las Vegas. In the character Long John Silver, Stevens created the archetypical pirate. He also introduced several literary props that have become fixed notions in pirate lore, including treasure maps, the idea that X marks the spot where booty is buried, the squawking parrot perched on a pirate's shoulder, and the black schooner.

Just as Stevenson drew inspiration from earlier works, like Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719), modern fantasy and adventure stories have been influenced by works like Treasure Island.

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