Black Sails and the Pirates of Treasure Island

Black Sails draws heavily on characters from Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. TS Rhodes looks at the pirates of literature...

Den of Geek and Starz are throwing a Black Sails Party at NYCC with free rum on October 9th and 10th. Click here for details on how you can attend!

There’s a reason why Black Sails uses characters from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island with historical pirates in this TV drama. The Golden Age of Piracy is still hot, 300 years later, and Treasure Island is the most influential pirate novel of all time. In fact, for most people, the novel defines pirates.

If you haven’t read Treasure Island, hit Amazon and buy a copy right now. It’s gritty, thrilling, and a damn good read. Stevenson was no hack. His other notable works include The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Kidnapped, and A Child’s Garden of Verses. Stevenson’s work is some of the most translated in the world, and Treasure Island has been made into nearly a hundred movie adaptations. Long John Silver, with his missing leg, colorful language and parrot companion defines pirates.

Stevenson wanted to create an adventure story for boys, and the only female character in the book is the narrator’s mother, a woman who needs rescuing early on (this fulfilling many a young boy’s fantasy, at least until he’s old enough to fantasize about rescuing the cute girl in Middle School).

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Stevenson was inspired to create Silver, his most memorable character, by a family friend named W. E. Henley who was also missing a leg. Though Victorians like Stevenson were taught to regard people with disabilities as “cripples” objects of helplessness and pity, Stevenson saw in his friend the energy, determination, and drive to inspire a fascinating, threatening pirate.

The backstory of Treasure Island is that Flint, captain of the Walrus, had a major haul 20 years ago, and buried the bulk of the treasure on an uncharted island, murdering the crewmen who helped him to bury it. The rest of the crew were too afraid of Flint to complain. Besides, they were already rich from other plundering.

The crew broke up some time later, but the pirates burned through their loot far too fast in the way that pirates do. Pew, who received a disability benefit in addition to his plunder, is said to have run through £100,000 in a year, and been reduced to begging.

Most of the crew lasted longer. Billy Bones, who became a captain after leaving Flint’s crew, retained enough money to finance a moderate retirement, but also stole Flint’s map of the island’s location. What, exactly, he planned to do with the map is unclear. It’s a power play, apparently, against Silver. Silver wants vengeance. Bones is afraid.

Everyone feared Flint, and Flint feared Silver. That’s what the book says, and we believe it. Bones’ terror of being found by “the one-legged man” is palpable, thick, stinking. Ensconced in the Benbow Inn, he spends his days watching the horizon, his nights drinking himself into a stupor that kills nightmares.

Silver has it all. Alone, of all Flint’s crew, he invested his money. He has a bank account, a wife (often ignored in the films), and owns the Spyglass tavern, where he feeds and lords over pirates, smugglers, and other ne’r-do-wells. Though Silver has only one leg, he commands Flint’s old crew. When he says run, they only ask how fast, and he has them trained well enough to watch his mood and agree with him, even when they don’t follow his trickery.

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The mechanics of how Bones got the map, or why Silver hadn’t finagled a trip to the Caribbean before this are left vague. After all, in the book, it’s been twenty years since the old crew broke up.

And Flint? Well, one of the most famous pirates in fiction never actually appears in the book. When the action starts, Flint’s been dead for years. He succumbed to liver failure, singing, and calling for rum in a shabby room in Charlestown, attended only by a couple of loyal crew.

But his presence hangs over the book like a disturbed sea-god. It’s “Flint’s old crew,” that’s what they call themselves. The men’s terror of their old captain, and pride at having sailed with him are their unification and their identity. They’re old men now, old sailors who’ve long since tapped out their fortunes and their reputations, but they remain Flint’s men.

Their former leader’s ghost hangs over the island and over the men’s minds. When they believe that it’s risen to haunt them, the terror in the pirate’s minds overcomes even their greed for gold, even their fear of death. Talking them out of this terror is Silver’s greatest challenge, and it uses the last of his strength.

Silver’s motivations remain uncertain throughout the book. Yes, he wants the gold. But Silver starts out a prosperous man. Why is he still willing to go to sea, to risk everything for money he doesn’t need? I think Stevenson possessed a deep understanding of the human psyche. Silver is old, and the men are old, and they want, not only to have money to burn, as they did in the old days, but to alive the way they used to be alive, to have one last adventure, to be pirates again.

Silver’s better than the crew. He’s ruthless, and bloody-handed. But his nerves, even after all these years, are cold steel. Silver lies as a matter of course, and he never gets caught. He’s an honest man, everybody’s friend, right up until you find the knife in your back and wonder how it got there. Flint hid his passions under a cold heart. Silver seems to have no passions, only a mind that calculates like a computer and a dominating spirit that never quits.

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The men feared Flint because under his intelligence and his quiet was a man who would stop at nothing. Only Flint feared Silver as he should have been feared.

I’ll end on the subject of Silver’s wife. A “woman of color” the book says, and later, a “negress.”

Max, perhaps?

Den of Geek and Starz are throwing a Black Sails Party at NYCC with free rum on October 9th and 10th. Click here for details on how you can attend!

* This article orginally ran on February 28th, 2014. * 

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