Treasure Island Robert Louis Stevenson

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Treasure Island Robert Louis Stevenson

Treasure Island Robert Louis Stevenson (1 883) For his classic adventure novel, Treasure Island, the Scots writer and poet ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON chose a title that suited the 19th century. His story portrays a period when England, Spain, and France claimed entitlement to the world's treasures, regardless of the bloody work of securing them. As in writings by the Danish storyteller ISAK DINESEN, RUDYARD KIPLING, the TRAVELOGUE authors David Livingstone and Mungo Park, and the FRONTIER writer CATHARINE PARR TRAILL, the text describes European risk takers in far-flung nooks of the globe. Set in 1745, the sea adventure story makes no overt claims for the British Empire beyond a break from urban ennui and an open-ended indulgence in intellectual curiosity. With GOTHIC allure, the voyage begins with the discovery of a map belonging to Captain Billy Bones. A forerunner of H. RIDER HAGGARD’S “Lost World” genre, the fantasy features lawless ruffians who enrich themselves from piracy and plunder of a sea trade spawned by colonialism in North, South, and Central America. The subtext links greed to the progressive mindset, “a shrill voice [that] broke forth out of the darkness … without pause or change, like the clacking of a tiny mill” (236).

Belittled by Haggard as mere propaganda for the true-blue British lad, Stevenson’s allegory served classrooms as a model of good fun overlaid with patriotism, audacity, and wholesome character building. The criminal element—for example, J. Flint, captain of the Walrus—reflects real privateering in the Caribbean. Historically, the pirates Howell Davis, Edward England, William Kidd, Bartholomew Roberts, and Edward “Blackbeard” Teach and the national hero Sir Francis Drake preyed on the Spanish gold and silver mines and mints in Central and South America. At a crucial epiphany in the coming to knowledge of the book’s HERO, Jim Hawkins, he realizes that he straddles the divide between civilization and lawless avarice. He states, “If I’m to choose, I declare I have a right to know what’s what, and why you’re here, and where my friends are” (Stevenson 1918, 244). At the adventure’s end, Jim distances himself from treasure hunting and vows, “Oxen and wain-ropes would not bring me back again to that accursed island” (306), a Jekyll-and-Hyde hellhole that haunts his dreams. The stirring pictorial novel was the basis of numerous films, including one starring Jackie Cooper and Wallace Beery as Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver in 1934 and another with Bobby Driscoll and Robert Newton in a 1950 Disney remake. Forty years later, the pairing of Christian Bale and Charlton Heston suited a television version filmed in part in Jamaica.


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Louis Stevenson: Writer of Boundaries. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006.

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Stevenson, Robert Louis. Treasure Island. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1918.