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Treasure Island — fiction or reality? Kirill Nazarenko

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Treasure Island — fiction or reality? Kirill Nazarenko

This article was prepared during the development of the pirate life simulation game Corsairs Legacy by Ukrainian Mauris studio in order to popularize the marine theme in general and games about pirates in particular. You can follow the project news on our website, YouTube channel, and Telegram.

In this article, Kirill Nazarenko will talk about the book "Treasure Island" by Robert Stevenson, one of the most famous works about pirates. This article is dedicated to all fans of Sea Dogs, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Black Sails.

Hello! Today's presentation will be devoted to the novel "Treasure Island" by Robert Louis Stevenson, or rather fiction and reality on its pages.

Robert Louis Stevenson lived a short life, and by today's standards, he died pretty young - at 44 from tuberculosis. However, during his life, he managed to write quite a lot. His writing career began in the late 70s of the XIX century with two stories that immediately brought him fame - this is "The Suicide Club" and "Diamond of the Raja", but we know this dilogy better from the film "The Adventures of Prince Florizel". Two years later, he published “The House on the Dunes”, and in 1881 Stevenson first time published in the magazine — “Treasure Island”, however, initially this work somehow did not go. Only a couple of years later, when the book edition was released, it began to gain popularity to some extent thanks not only to the text but also to the illustrations. In 1984 “Black Arrow” came out, followed by “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, “Master of Ballantrae”, and finally Stevenson's last completed novel, “The Castaways”.

Of course, "Treasure Island" is Stevenson's most famous novel, and already 2 years after the British book was published in the mid-80s, it is being translated into Russian and many other languages ​​​​around the world. As soon as the cinema began to develop, films began to be made on Treasure Island. There were 2 silent films, 6 sound films in English, 4 television films, 13 television series, and many films in other languages, theatrical productions, radio plays, and comics.

The first Russian adaptation of Treasure Island was filmed in 1937 by director V. Weinstock. John Silver in the first film adaptation was played by Osip Abdulov. In general, from the point of view of dramaturgy, the role of Silver is probably the strongest in the film based on this story. Two more films followed, namely a 1971 adaptation by Yevgeny Fridman and a 1982 film by Vladimir Vorobyov. Silver was played by Boris Andreev and Oleg Borisov, respectively. Probably, the most famous domestic film adaptation of Treasure Island was the cartoon by David Cherkassky of the Kyivnauchfilm studio, where Armen Dzhigarkhanyan voiced Silver. This cartoon was filmed in an unusual manner, where animated and game fragments are mixed in which actors perform songs. Moreover, these game fragments are stylized as an old movie.

If we talk about the film adaptations of the 71st and 82nd years, then they are very close to Stevenson's original, but the first film adaptation of the 37th year deviates quite strongly from the original, especially in one moment, that it is not Jim Hawkins who acts there, but the girl Jenny who dresses up as a boy to look for treasure.

If we talk about the novel itself, then its source was one of the two main books on the history of classical piracy of the 17th - 18th centuries, Charles Johnson's book “A General History of Robberies and Murders Committed by the Most Famous Pirates”. But still, there are disputes about its authorship, and many believed that it was written by the author of "Robinson Crusoe" Daniel Defoe. However, now scientists are more inclined to believe that Charles Johnson was a real person, some kind of captain who stated these things. And, if even 100 years ago the idea that this book was largely fiction prevailed; now there is a point of view that this is a fairly close-to-reality account of events, perhaps except for a few fictional stories that are included in its composition. But, the more documents about the activities of the pirates that are mentioned in this book are found, the more they believe Johnson's book, which withstands fact-checking. It is quite possible that this was a rather serious presentation of those rumors, conversations, and information that circulated in the Caribbean regarding well-known figures of piracy. Still, to understand the atmosphere in which all this happened, you need to turn to the historical background.

The political backdrop to this pirate story was primarily the War of the Spanish Succession. Yet, lately, it has become quite fashionable to look for a “zero” world war, and the Napoleonic Wars, the Seven Years' War, and the War of the Spanish Succession, which covered a significant part of Europe and the entire globe, claim this role. Although all this is conditional, we just got used to the fact that a world war is a big conflict, so they try to call anything a world war. The War of the Spanish Succession, for all its scale, proceeded in parallel with another great war - the Northern War, which formally did not intersect with it. But this was the last time in Europe when two major wars unrelated to each other raged here.

Let me remind you that in the War of the Spanish Succession, a powerful coalition consisting of Great Britain, Austria, the Netherlands, and several other states came out against France. The reason for the war was the question of the succession to the Spanish throne, when, before his death, the childless Spanish king Charles II passed the throne to his distant relative, who was also the grandson of the French king Louis XIV, and thus there was a threat of unification of the French and Spanish lands. This unification would make the Franco-Spanish power very strong and potentially dominant in Europe. And this immediately aroused the opposition of all those who feared such an increase. The war was very costly and enough to say that Great Britain and France came out of this war with a debt exceeding about 5-7 times the annual budget of each of these countries. The countries were able to get out of this financial hole only as a result of state fraud. But during this war, the French still failed to win a complete victory, they had a formal victory - they put their pretender on the throne of Spain but did not receive the bonuses they expected. In England, this war is known as "Queen Anne's War" because for nearly the duration of this queen's reign there is war.

And of course, this war was accompanied by corsair actions. In support of the regular fleets, all the fighting sides recruited corsairs, that is, private individuals who equipped ships at their own expense received a royal charter and the right to seize enemy merchant and military ships. In this era, corsairism gained gigantic distribution, and when the war ended and the corsairs were left without work, some of them embarked on the path of piracy. It should be noted that almost all the famous pirates from Johnson's book operate in the 10-20s of the 18th century. But the political background is not limited to this, because in 1688 King James II, who was a Catholic, was overthrown in Great Britain. That was a problem because, in the UK, most of the population at that time were Protestants. However, Ireland was a completely Catholic country. In addition, there were many secret Catholics in all parts of the kingdom. Influential political forces tried to restore Catholicism in Great Britain as a state religion, or at least achieve religious freedom, which Catholics did not have.

The overthrow of James II was associated with this most serious struggle. He is overthrown by William III of England, the Dutch stadtholder, who was married to the daughter of James II, and on this basis, as it were, inherited the throne. But James II flees from Great Britain and his son and grandson continue to consider themselves legitimate kings, enjoying the support of, first of all, France and several other powers. They manage to carry out several very serious actions to regain the British throne, but they were unsuccessful. But the most famous action was the 1745 rebellion in Scotland, which ended with the Battle of Culloden, in which the Scots were defeated. The story of the young Prince Charlie, who led this rebellion, was connected with this battle. In general, the internal political situation in England was very tense. After the expulsion of James II, some of his supporters had every reason to take up arms and thus, in addition to unemployment after the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, take revenge on the Protestants.

In the meantime, the “Smell of Treasures” was hovering over Europe, which was an important part of this whole story. Not so much the pirates captured the booty as they talked about it. These conversations among the Europeans, that someone somewhere got some kind of gigantic booty, greatly spurred adventurers and people prone to easy money. For example, in 1702, at the beginning of the Spanish Succession War, the Spanish fleet, carrying a huge amount of jewelry from America, was caught by an Anglo-Dutch squadron and sunk in Vigo Bay. Then a rumor spread that the entire monstrous sum had sunk along with the ships. According to modern historians, the vast majority of these treasures were unloaded from ships and taken out even before the Anglo-Dutch squadron attacked the Spanish fleet in this bay.

On the other hand, there was another story: in 1715, 11 Spanish ships with silver crashed off the coast of Florida. The Spaniards picked up most of the treasure and took it to Havana. But Henry Jennings, one of the famous pirates of that time, seized a rather large amount - 87 thousand sterling silver. This, of course, is much less than what the Spanish fleet was transporting in Vigo Bay, but, by the standards of pirates, it was gigantic booty. Looking ahead, I will say that the pirate Flint allegedly buried 700 thousand pounds on Treasure Island, which is eight times bigger. But Jennings was such a powerful man that he created the Pirate Republic in the Bahamas, which existed there for 12 years. I emphasize that the pirates were not powerful enough to fight the state. Pirates could take advantage of the power vacuum, and the lack of a garrison on some islands, because the colonial possessions were vast and the European countries did not have the strength to control them to the same extent. Or they had to be based on the ports of some state and be corsairs. That is, such free pirates who rushed across the seas under a black sail were extremely rare simply because they had problems with a base that only states could provide. If the states turned a blind eye to the pranks of the pirates or even supported them to annoy their opponents, then the opportunity opened up for the pirates to operate successfully.

At the end of the 17th century, there were two more cases when Thomas Tew and Henry Avery captured one ship of the great Mongols of the Indian state, and the booty was very large. From Thomas Tew, the pirates received from 1200 to 3000 pounds sterling per person, and from Henry Avery, they received 1000 pounds and several precious stones, which they could not evaluate on the spot due to the lack of qualified jewelers. The booty of Thomas Tew and Henry Avery is considered one of the largest that was captured by pirates, and which was more or less documented.

Several historical pirates are mentioned in the novel, namely Edward Teach — Blackbeard, and William Kidd. Teach had a very exotic appearance: a hairy man with a huge beard, which was a sign of savagery and barbarism. Apparently, Teach deliberately used his appearance — he put burning wicks under his hat, and wore a lot of pistols in slings, although the stories about his cruelties are very exaggerated. Well, William Kidd is now even called the most innocent of all pirates, because he was a corsair who simply got into a difficult situation due to poor paperwork and intrigues among the British authorities.

Two more pirates, Bartholomew Roberts and Edward England were allegedly captains of the crews in which Silver served, and this provides a chronological reference. Both of these personalities acted at the turn of the 10-20s of the 18th century, and in the novel, it is written that Silver is 50 years old, so it is most logical to assume that the action of the novel takes place somewhere in the 30s of the 18th century. After 1722, piracy began to decline sharply, the Caribbean Sea was cleared, and such grandiose figures did not appear again. Therefore, it is very difficult to imagine that somewhere in the 30-40s there was pirate Flint, who was no less terrible than Robert, England, Kidd, or Blackbeard. But most importantly, he needs to be equally successful in order to bury 700,000 pounds on a desert island. Stevenson mentions the events of the 40-50s and, based on this, it turns out that the action of the novel takes place in the 60s. But still, I am a supporter of the fact that the action of the novel is most logically attributed to the 30-40s of the 18th century.

If we talk about piracy in general, then pirates were everywhere, not only in the Caribbean; but they were always tied to areas with a large flow of merchant ships. The conditions for piracy arose where there was a large trade flow and some kind of coast, not far from this flow, where it was convenient to base. But, in fact, now there are also some regions of the world ocean that are dangerous from the point of view of piracy, for example, Somalia or the area of ​​Singapore.

Several other historical figures are mentioned in the novel, and, above all, this is Admiral Benbow, a man who became famous for his last heroic battle during the War of the Spanish Succession. As a result of this battle, he lost his leg, and then died, and became a national hero of England, and a tavern was also named after him. As for Edward Hawke, he is mentioned by Silver, namely that he allegedly served under the command of Hawke and lost his leg. But this most likely refers to the battle of Quiberon in 1759, during which the French squadron was defeated and landing on the British coast was prevented. Therefore, the fame of Edward Hawke was very great and many sailors “clung to” him. Stevenson may be playing this situation because losing a leg in battle under Hawke's command was much more honorable than losing a leg somewhere else. Therefore, Silver, who deftly rubbed himself into the trust of his interlocutors, could play on this. But, in any case, then this refers to the action of the novel in the 60s, and I have already said why this is very doubtful. Well, Stevenson, indeed, did not really bother with historical realities, he just read this book about pirates and wrote a good novel. By the way, Rafael Sabatini is much more careful with historical facts in his novel about Captain Blood, so you can believe that Sabatini read historical literature when he wrote this novel.

Dr. Livesey mentions that he served in the troops of the Duke of Cumberland at Fontenoy, that is, the War of the Austrian Succession, in which the combined army of Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Austria was defeated by the famous French commander Maurice of Saxony. The Duke of Cumberland is the third son of George II, brother of George III. But here we come across a clear anachronism because from the words of Dr. Livesey it follows that he served as an officer in the troops of the Duke of Cumberland, but the status of a doctor in the 18th century was rather low and it is unbelievable that a person who could buy an officer rank, and officer ranks in the UK of that time they were bought after that would become a doctor. At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century in Great Britain, the doctor becomes a very important cultural figure, he is the main representative of the intelligentsia in the province, a very balanced, calm person, able to console and help. That's what Stevenson's Dr. Livesey has, Sabatini's Captain Blood, and Conan Doyle's Dr. Watson. The public status of a doctor in Great Britain at the time of Stevenson was very high, but in the 18th century it was quite low, and doctors were treated as semi-charlatans, so a doctor could not be a justice of the peace. And at the beginning of the novel, when Billy Bones starts fighting in the Admiral Benbow tavern, Dr. Livesey says that he is also a world judge, and he will punish Billy Bones for his bad behavior. But the world judge should have been Squire Trelawney, not the Doctor. In fact, Dr. Livesey takes up too much space in the novel.

If we talk about the appearance of the characters, then at that time the sailors wore a short jackets, sometimes several of these jackets worn on top of each other, and long pants that replaced culottes in the middle of the 18th century. The captains were dressed in luxurious attire, but one should not think that in the 18th-century people wore very bright clothes, although at the end of the 17th - at the very beginning of the 18th century there was a fashion for bright men's suits, and since the 10s, the fashion for brightly colored costumes. Still, this suit of relatively modest colors could be decorated with very expensive embroidery and could be combined with a very expensive camisole, which contrasted with the outwardly very simple caftan. During the time of wigs throughout the 18th century, when a wig was worn, the hair on the head was either shaved or cut very short. In general, the wig was considered a hygienic product, because it made it possible to keep the head perfectly clean and removed the problem of washing the head. When there was no wig on the head, they wore a hat, because otherwise, the bald head was shining, which was not accepted in the 18th century.

If you disassemble the image of Silver, then he had a wooden leg, that is, a prosthesis. And, since Silver is the owner of the tavern, he is not a beggar, he most likely had a polished and more decent prosthesis, although it still looked very simple, in the form of a wooden stick that was tied to an amputated limb. At some point in the pages of the novel in the Russian language, it is said that Silver was walking along the deck in a blue caftan with copper buttons and a hat with narrow gold lace. But this is a clear translation error because golden lace means not lace, it is a galloon on the edges of a hat. As for lace, such a hat is called “padishpan” or in French “point espan”, that is, Spanish stitch. This is a very expensive golden lace technology that was available to generals and admirals. People, even in officer ranks, could not wear such an expensive piece of jewelry, especially since it was absolutely inappropriate for a ship's cook. But the narrow gold lace was appropriate because the ship's cook was a senior non-commissioned officer who could wear narrow gold lace on cuffs, collar, and hat, which distinguished their status.

Hispaniola herself was a schooner, which is clearly stated in the novel. Let me remind you that a schooner is a vessel with oblique sailing, but in Hispaniola the sails of the lower tier are oblique, and the sails of the upper tier of the topsail are straight. Thus, this ship combined the advantages of a schooner and a barque, that is, a ship with direct sailing weapons. The main advantage of the schooner was the ability to control the sails from the deck, there was no need to climb the masts, and this made it possible to reduce the size of the crew, which was critical for merchant ships. Therefore, merchant ships in Europe, as a rule, were such two-masted schooners, but they were quite seaworthy ships that could even sail across the Atlantic, and even more so sail along the coast of Europe. They were also economical, durable, and reasonably affordable for ordinary shipowners. Very often a boat was fixed on the deck of the ship, but the fact that there are three boats on Hispaniola is rather unusual. Most likely, Stevenson missed the mark here and reproduced the reality of the second half of the 19th century, because in the 18th-century boats were not considered a life-saving means. In the 18th century, sailors fled on the wreckage, and a small schooner could, as a rule, accommodate 1 boat. So, three boats are a bit much. But then the intrigue with the departure of part of the crew to the island would have failed.

If we talk about the path to America, then it did not run along the line. In general, the heroes set sail from Bristol. Bristol was the most important port on the west coast of Great Britain at that time. It was also the main port through which trade was conducted with the Caribbean, so, logically, the heroes leave from here. They walked leaning towards the Azores because this is the most favorable route in terms of wind for moving from Europe to America. In fact, they go towards the Greater Antilles, because, given the geography of piracy in the Caribbean in the early years of the 18th century, most likely somewhere there Flint could bury his treasures. Moreover, at the end of the novel, the characters quickly end up in some Spanish port, having already sailed from Treasure Island, perhaps it was a port in Cuba. Cuba is located in a leeward position with respect to the Greater Antilles and getting there with the insufficient crew that Hispaniola had, sailing from Treasure Island, was super easy.

Further, if we remember Silver's conversation near the barrel of apples, we remember that it was about walking on the plank - one of the types of execution among pirates. It was an execution in which a person was forced to go to sea on a plank thrown overboard. But there are doubts that the pirates did it because the easiest way is to just throw a person overboard. It is quite possible that here we have an ancient reminiscence because in one of the stories of one of the ancient authors there is such a plot that the pirates, mockingly, offered a rich passenger to go ashore and lowered the gangway, but they did it in the middle of the sea, and in this way thus doomed him to death.

As the heroes flee Hispaniola, gunner Israel Hands, and a 9-pound copper swivel cannon come into action. Apparently, Stevenson had in mind what came into use in the 70s of the XIX century. Such guns were located at the stern of warships. Copper circular rails that were located on the deck helped these guns to be deployed to any side and this was a common technology in the 70s of the XIX century. But it was not used at all in the 18th century. In the 18th century, cannons could be safely rolled around the deck on wheels, but on its own, a 9-pound cannon is too big for a small schooner, which was Hispaniola. Such vessels were armed with 3-4-pounder guns in the 18th century. Here, most likely, Stevenson was just reading something about the Napoleonic Wars. Because in the era of the Napoleonic Wars, British frigates were necessarily armed with a pair of 9-pound long guns, which rolled out either on the bow or on the stern and served either in pursuit of the enemy or in flight from the enemy. They were long just for this, that is, they made it possible to shoot at a great distance and quite accurately. Usually, British naval officers spoke enthusiastically about 9-pounder copper guns. But apparently, Stevenson overlapped one another, and this copper 9-pounder appeared as Hispaniola's weapon. In general, the weight of this gun was rather big, and if you start rolling it from side to side on such a small ship, then the ship should have lurched quite strongly. So, there was hardly a 9-pounder on Hispaniola. But, on the other hand, if the cannon was made 3-pounder as it should be, then the spectacular bombardment of the fort, which the pirates engaged in, shelling the English flag, would not have turned out. Such a proud moment when Captain Smollett raises the national flag over the fort.

As for the fort itself or the blockhouse on the island, there are also subtle moments with it, because it is not clear why Flint built it. If it was a showdown between two pirate gangs, then it was easier to attack a rival gang. If it was a question of defense from the regular fleet, then this blockhouse could not help the pirates much, and it should have taken a lot of work to build it. But, of course, the most controversial point is the palisade, because it was not very difficult to build a hut from logs, but it was difficult to enclose a large space with a palisade. The palisade was not solid, it necessarily had gaps that served for shooting through it from guns and so less wood was spent on the construction of the palisade. Therefore, imagine a blockhouse, which is fenced, well, at least at a distance of 30 meters from the walls of the house with a palisade. It is easy to calculate that the circumference will be about 80 meters, and it is quite a lot of work to build such a fence. Why Flint did this is unclear. But on the other hand, this blockhouse allowed the heroes of Treasure Island to withstand the siege of pirates and allowed Stevenson to write another of the episodes of this novel.

And finally, the boat that Ben Gun built, and which Jim Hawkins so cleverly used to steal Hispaniola. Of course, this is a coracle, an Irish folk boat, which is a frame of rods that resembles a basket. This is a very strange ship, although the Irish even crossed the Irish Sea on coracles. But, in principle, for all its primitiveness, this is a relatively good vehicle, although it needs great dexterity to drive it, which was described by Stevenson, where Jim can barely cope with this wonderful boat. But, on the other hand, it was very easy to make and it was very light and could be carried.

Finally, let's talk about the loot from Treasure Island and how it was divided. 700 thousand pounds sterling is a monstrous amount of money for the 18th century. At the then exchange rate, this was 3.3 million rubles. - the annual budget of the Russian Empire at the beginning of the 18th century. If we take the UK or France, then this is about a seventh of the annual budget of these countries at that time. This is an incredible amount that could hardly have fallen into private hands. When I talk about the transfer of money into rubles of the 18th century, I rely on the weight of silver, which is an absolutely correct technology. But when I indicate the amounts in dollars, then here it is necessary to clarify that there are many conversion methods, and all of them have their drawbacks. But if we transfer at the price of silver, then we will greatly underestimate the value of the money of that time because at the end of the 19th century the value of silver fell sharply, and in the 18th-century gold was related to silver as 1/15, and now it is much cheaper. Therefore, I applied the method of converting the rate of silver money into gold at the rate of the 18th century, and then recalculated the price of gold into modern money. It was possible to share these treasures in different ways. And if we look at the division in a pirate way, it is, of course, more even, because the pirates had a fairly democratic order. In general, the pirate order was incomparable with what was in the royal fleets, where the distance between the sailor and the officer was gigantic. From pirates, the captain could get 3 or 4 shares of the booty, well, a maximum of 5. And in the royal fleet, the whole sum could not be divided between the entire fleet, and what was divided must necessarily emphasize this distance between an ordinary sailor and an officer. Well, in general, on large ships with large crews, the idea was that the captain gets a third of the booty, the officers get the second third of the booty, and the sailors get the last part of the booty, while there is only one captain, there are 15-20 officers, and there are about 300-500 sailors. From these considerations, I roughly divided the booty. Because when at the end of the 18th century there were real precedents for the capture of enemy ships by the remnants of the crews of English ships that escaped on a boat, and this boat could have 4-5 sailors, 1 officer, and 1 ship commander, then the division was not in thirds, because everyone would receive roughly the same amount. It has always been assumed that a sailor should receive hundreds of times less than a commander. Well, here the rank of Hawkins would be different because on a pirate ship he would be an ordinary cabin boy, who was entitled to half the share of a sailor, and on a royal ship, he would be a young gentleman, from which, after many years of service, an officer would come out.

As for the ship's doctor, his status on a warship would have been quite low at the level of junior officers, so Dr. Livesey shouldn't have received too much. As for Squire Trelawny, he acted here in the rank of admiral, because he is the owner of the ship and the organizer of this whole expedition. Captain Smollett, in theory, should obey him. Actually, the conflict between Squire Trelawney and Captain Smollet is largely connected with this.

In conclusion, I want to recommend what you can read about this. There is a lot of literature. Please note that Kir Bulychev, under his real name Mozheiko, took part in writing books about pirates. The most scientific for today are the works of Kopelev. But the works of Mozheiko, Makhovsky, Balandin, and Hanke are more popular science. I also must remind you that Stevenson's Treasure Island is a work of art, with all its characteristic features, with characters who have collected the features of various real historical figures, with fictional situations, but not a scientific treatise on piracy. Nevertheless, this is a lovely book and, probably, “Treasure Island” has been and will forever remain the main book about pirates in world literature.

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