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The untold story behind Treasure Island

Created date

October 22nd, 2013
Treasure Island

Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island is the quintessence of a classic novel. Since it first appeared in the early 1880s, this swashbuckling tale of a voyage to recover pirate treasure buried on a deserted island has captivated generations of readers, young and old. In continuous print for more than 130 years and the subject of some 50 film and television adaptations, Stevenson's book stands in a select class of literary monoliths the likes of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897)--timeless works as renowned today as they were over a century ago. Surely, Treasure Island is familiar to most everyone, yet how much do we know about the story behind the novel? A book so rich in adventure might seem the stuff of fantasy, a figment of Stevenson's febrile imagination. But one maritime historian says he can prove otherwise.

Real-life treasure

InTreasure Island: The Untold Story(New Maritima Press, 2012), author and shipwreck sleuth John Amrhein makes the case that Stevenson found his inspiration in a real-life tale of piracy just as exciting as the exploits of Jim Hawkins and the peg-legged Long John Silver. According to Amrhein, the true story began in August 1750, when the Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, a Spanish galleon loaded with eight tons of silver, set sail from Cuba for Spain. A week into the journey, she crossed paths with a fierce hurricane that drove her 500 miles off course, leaving her stranded in North Carolina's Ocracoke Inlet. A few days later, a sloop skippered by merchant captains Owen and John Lloyd put into the same harbor after it sprang a leak en route to St. Kitts. Until recently, Spain had been at war with England (a conflict known as King George's War), and like most British colonists, the Lloyd brothers hated the Spanish, especially John, who had lost a leg fighting them. When they encountered the helpless galleon, her holds brimming with treasure, they saw an opportunity for revenge and fabulous riches. Through an extraordinary chain of events, Owen and John managed to gain control of the precious cargo and ultimately sailed off to the Caribbean with 52 chests of Spanish silver. "The amazing thing about this story is that it's based on concrete historical documentation," says Amrhein, who spent nine years investigating the daring theft and its connection to Stevenson's novel.

Striking parallels

Amrhein and an international team of researchers scoured libraries and archives around the world, uncovering ship logs, court records, and contemporary newspaper reports. The search soon yielded details that bore a striking resemblance to those in Stevenson's Treasure Island. "Treasure Island has always been one of my favorite books," says Amrhein, "so the parallels between various elements of Stevenson's plot and the story of the Lloyd brothers really jumped out at me." Throughout his investigation, the list of corresponding facts grew; and in the second half of his own book, Amrhein makes the argument that Stevenson was very much aware of these events and used them as a wellspring of ideas when he put pen to paper. For instance, the Lloyd brothers frequented a tavern in Hampton Roads, Va., run by an Ann Hawkins, the same surname as the novel's protagonist, whose mother also operated a tavern. Furthermore, Stevenson drew up a fictional treasure map dated 1750, the same year that Owen Lloyd and several members of his crew buried their share of the treasure on Norman Island in the Caribbean. Indeed, the Scottish-born author had heard stories about Norman Island from his seafaring relatives, which Amrhein says is not surprising. While little known today, the Lloyd brothers' piracy was world news when it occurred and remained a popular yarn for years to come. Numerous factual vignettes like these continued to emerge as Amrhein plumbed volumes of historical records, further convincing him that he had found the real Treasure Island. "Had I come across one or two vague similarities, I probably would have dismissed them as circumstantial or coincidental," he explains. "What we have here is a whole series of correlations, and that's difficult to ignore." Of course, the strong likelihood that Stevenson used history as the basis for Treasure Island doesn t detract from the genius of his work. Fiction often imitates real life, but discovering the source of this great adventure story lends a fresh dynamic to his novel. For book lovers, in particular, Amrhein has unearthed a treasure every bit as valuable as buried silver.