Yes, Treasure Island is one of the greatest adventure novels of all time — but don’t be lulled into thinking that it’s nothing more than a swashbuckling tale of life on the high seas. Treasure Island is, in fact, an instructional text of significant educational value.
In writing Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson has done an extraordinary service to humankind: he has supplied us with a framework for the identification of true sailors and, in the process, aided generations of helpless children and adults in the bewildering task of discriminating between “sea dogs” and “landlubbers.”
If children are incapable of identifying a sailor today, it is entirely due to the failing of parents who did not introduce them to Treasure Island at an appropriate age. If you are one of those unfortunate children, I’ve summarized a few basic principles of maritime identification below. This should not be considered a substitute for actually reading Treasure Island yourself. Rather, consider it a companion to the novel, in which all of the crucial information has been consolidated so that you can just lie back and enjoy the terrors and triumphs of Jim Hawkins’ adventures at sea.
Identifying a Sailor: A Diagnostic Guide, Compiled from Evidence Presented by Robert Louis Stevenson in Treasure Island
Identifying a Sailor: Language
The simplest way of identifying a sailor is through his or her method of communication. Is the subject capable of using any word in English that is not associated with boats? If you can answer that question in the affirmative, then the subject is most likely not a sailor.
No true sailor can resist supplanting every normal word in the English language with some kind of sailing term. For a sailor, nothing lies “above,” but always “aloft.” Sailors don’t go to their “beds,” but their “berths,” and anyone who would say “yes” instead of “aye, aye” is clearly a dirty son of a lubber not fit to swab the decks. It should also be noted that, to the true sailor, every human, male or female, seagoing or not, is a “mate.” (Although, come to think of it, this is true in modern day Essex as well, so maybe it’s not such a great indicator.)
If you have observed any of these linguistic peculiarities in your subject, then you have most likely stumbled upon a sailor.
Identifying a Sailor: Appearance
If the potential sailor’s vocabulary is not a sufficient determinant of identity or he is too drunk to speak, note the presence of three or more of the following attributes:
brown skin; squinty eyes; pigtail; earring(s); tattoos; missing limbs/digits; scars; ragged hands; drinks rum; has spent time among wicked people; carries a cutlass; tallow skin; stares out to sea with hollow eyes; mortal fear of buccaneers (messmates excluded); has a silly nickname (e.g., Billy Bones, Black Dog); hails people through a combination of a random, meaningless syllables and “ho” (e.g. “so ho!” “yo ho!” or just “ho!”); sings sea songs at inappropriate moments; pays for grog and ale in doubloons or pieces of eight; has a swaggering walk, owns a parrot
If the subject fits the above criteria, then his or her identity as a sailor can be firmly established.
Identifying a Sailor: Taxonomy
The next and perhaps most crucial step in sailorly identification is determining to which category of mariner the subject belongs. This is a matter of immense importance to the observer and could mean the difference between life and death, as we shall see.
From our reading of Treasure Island, we can establish that there are three main species of sailor, each of which differs from the other in behavior, intellect, and moral rectitude. Because these three groups vary so greatly in nature and temperament, it is essential that you be able to identify correctly the species of sailor with which you are confronted.
Whether you care to mingle with members of all species or instead to limit your interactions to those with whom you share the greatest degree of moral sympathy and behavioral similarity is entirely a matter of personal choice. It is left to the reader to determine who is worthy of his or her company, although it must be noted that it is by no means guaranteed that the company will find you worthy of them.
The Three Species of Sailor:
1) The Captain and his Officers
2) Honorable Hands
The captain and his officers (i.e. the skipper and his mates) occupy the aft deck or the luxurious cabins below. They get the best food, the best wines, and the most comfortable beds — and that’s not just because they are wealthier or more important than the men “before the mast.” They deserve better things simply because they are better. They’re smarter, more temperate in their speech and behavior, have a more dignified bearing and outlook, and exhibit far higher standards of moral and ethical rectitude. You can distinguish the captain and his officers by their exemplary courage, elegant stature, and well-kempt uniforms.
Honest hands are simple men with good hearts. Perhaps they are hired hands, or maybe they are only humble servants so devoted to their masters on land that they cannot but follow them to sea. For the most part, however, they are able-bodied seamen who know the difference between right and wrong, even if they occasionally fall prey to the grand rhetoric of evil mutineers. You will know an honest hand by his earnest gaze, his big heart, and his sometimes reluctant resistance to the temptations of fortune and skullduggery.
Buccaneers are pirates, plain and simple. Also known as gentlemen of fortune, they are cutthroats to the very end. Don’t even talk to a pirate, unless you’re looking to swing from the gallows when you reach the next port. Sure, they’ll promise you treasure, but they’re too lazy and undisciplined to find it, so if you’re looking to get rich, it’s a better idea to stick close to the officers and hope that they’ll give you a .00001% cut of whatever booty they stumble upon. You can distinguish a buccaneer by his curious choice of hat, various amputations, generally gluttonous and slovenly behavior, and willingness to kill anyone who stands in his way.
All educational value aside, this book is also a reminder that children and adults used to read the same books, and that at one time children were generally believed to be able to comprehend words containing more than two syllables. It was also generally understood that they were able to contend with difficult themes, like blood-thirsty pirates and violent deaths by musket ball and cannon shot, without needing full-scale trauma intervention. Unfortunately, in 2017, the same cannot be said of America’s early 20-somethings, who run for a safe space at the slightest sign of trouble. But, who are we to judge? Are sailors any less guilty of seeking out safe-spaces? Is the sea not the ultimate safe-space, a free zone in which one can escape the torments of a troubled and unjust society?
“No way!” says Robert Louis Stevenson. The sea is a dangerous place, full of its fair share of trouble and injustice. Even young Jim Hawkins is glad to get home once he finally makes it, so don’t go mistaking Treasure Island for a book about the glories of the sea. It is a cautionary tale, meant as a warning to youngsters everywhere about the perils of a sea-faring life. If we learn to identify sailors, it is only so that we can stay away from them, and if we start to notice the worrying symptoms of sailorly behavior in ourselves, well, then it’s time to hightail it away from the coast and head for the mountains. It’s a wild, watery world out there, and we need to be vigilant in protecting ourselves from it. Treasure Island shows us how.
Swashbuckling Adventure: 10/10 stars
Useful Information: 10/10 stars
Vocabulary-Building Potential: 10/10 stars
Overall rating: 10/10 stars
A Glossary of Authentic Marine Terminology:
Belay!: (also: Belay that! Belay this!) Enough! (Meaning similar to “stow this!
Bumboat: a boat used to sell goods to boats at anchorage or in port; To stand off and on like a blessed bumboat: to dawdle, to waste time
Davy: affadavit. Why buccaneers were so obsessed with the law is unclear; once can only assume it was because they so often found themselves on the wrong side of it.
To take one’s davy: (as in I’ll take my davy that…) 1) To swear that something is true; 2) To bet.
Davy Jones: a mysterious figure of unknown origins, much feared and respected by true sailors. Most likely the name comes from a conflation of the names of St. David and Jonah, but came to signify a devilish, evil creature who presaged a watery death for any seaman who laid eyes on him. A locker is a storage cupboard, so Davy Jones’ locker is, of course, the sea.
Doldrums: The Intertropical Convergence Zone. This is as dull as the doldrums: this is incredibly boring
Dutch: the epitome of everything perverse and weird and wrong and bad (e.g. everything not English). Son of a Dutchman, or son of a double Dutchman: meaning similar to other idioms that start with “son of.”
Landlubber (or lubber for short): a perjorative term, meaning someone who is not a sailor — like the word gringo in Spanish; variation- shirking lubber
Lee shore: a windward shore. To be a poor old hulk on a lee shore: to be in bad condition, useless
Parrot: a fashionable accessory, usually worn on the shoulder of a buccaneer. To tell a secret to the parrot: to blab
Reef: to reduce the size of a sail. To shake out another reef: to perservere
Sea-calf: young, naive, or untested person — as bad as a cabin boy
Shiver my soul: alas!
Shiver me timbers: oh!
Swab: a general term for a loser
Weather: usually refers to bad weather, e.g. storms. To keep one’s weather eye open: to stay aware, look out.
Weevil: the bane of a hungry sailor’s existence. To not have the pluck of a weevil in a biscuit: to not have even the smallest amount of motivation or resourcefulness — and what kind of respectable sailor lacks pluck, I ask you?