On a rainy day in August 1881, a make believe island map is created by an author with his stepson as they mark in various features and landmarks..
As they do so, the inception of an adventure story takes shape inspiring future generations of readers. Rum Cove, Spy-glass Hill, the infamous ‘X’ marks the spot (for the buried treasure of course!).
Gauging the reaction of his stepson, Robert Louis Stevenson carefully crafts a story around their fictitious island map with a cast of colourful characters including Long John Silver, Jim Hawkins, Billy Bones, and Captain Smollett among others. The pirate map is dated at 1750 and gives directions and coordinates for the secret island with its buried treasure somewhere in the Caribbean.
In retrospect the development of the novel is a tale in itself and certain events played a key role in the story’s development before final publication.
Stevenson initially serialized it in a children’s magazine called Young Folks in 1881 – 1882 titled The Sea Cook: Treasure Island or Mutiny of the Hispaniola and heres the rub – without illustrations – meaning, without the treasure map. The reason according to sources was his relative lack of recognition as an author.
The pirate story only garnered moderate interest but it was sufficient enough to republish as a single volume (as it happens, Stevenson’s intention all along). Even at this stage certain key elements of the story are missing including the final title. But ingeniously, Stevenson realizes the significance of adding illustrations – and importantly – the map with the location of the treasure. While this may appear an obvious inclusion it may not have been as evident at the time.
But as if writing himself into the script, Stevenson’s original map is lost and he is forced to recall it as best he can albeit as an altered version. It resembles an 18th century sea chart with its date of 1754 referencing all the features as we know them today (see map). The first illustrated edition of Treasure Island is published in 1884 through American publishers Roberts Brothers following an English publication without illustrations in 1883 (Cassell and company). It is a critical success bringing him fame and fortune.
Historically, buried pirate treasure is more myth than reality. But one such case actually exits. William Kidd is the only known pirate who is believed to have buried treasure – buried on Long Island before sailing to New York. Indeed Kidd’s story is commonly accepted as the basis for subsequent fictitious pirate tales.
Kidd’s motivation was to negotiate a conviction but he ended up hanged for the crime none the less.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island along with Washington Irving’s Wolfert Webber and Edger Allan Poe’s The Gold-Bug have their origins in William Kidd but also, according to Ralph D. Paine (American author), have commonality in other pirate tales. In The book of Buried Treasure he reveals a key trait where a lone surviving pirate takes possession of the treasure map and transfers it to a person on his deathbed. The map is passed to yet another (person) following thwarted attempts to locate the treasure. And so ‘Dead Man’s Chest’ serves well to dramatise and romanticise the tale of Treasure Island for example.
The remoteness of the places of burial further enhances the formula; far away islands with inaccessible features such as swamps and impenetrable jungle etc. But always a map leading back to the buried ‘loot’ for the pirates’ later retrieval. The mystery draws the reader in tracing the pirates path and motivation. Robert Louis Stevenson’s device, where ‘X’ marks the spot completes the illusion.
Christianson, Scott 2012, 100 Diagrams that Changed the World, Salamander Books