Literature, History, Opinion

Long John Silver: The Siege of Stereotyping

Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson

Ever since Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, the image of pirating and privateering overseas during the Golden Age of Piracy has been forever tarnished. Long gone are the days of fearsome men like Edward Teach (better known as Blackbeard), who would siege densely populated towns and plunder ships/ransom citizens in return for medical supplies. In today’s day and age, pirates have turned into happy-go-lucky cheery figures in a wide variety of movies, television shows, books and even songs. Long John Silver isn’t just a stereotype. To say that would be a huge understatement. Long John Silver is the stereotype that started all other stereotypes for pirates.

Just Silver’s description alone on the first page he was mentioned in (page 51 in this specific print) shows how incredibly false his image is for the period of time, yet after years of adding onto the mold we as a society have created for pirating, it almost seems normal. While yes, pirates did in fact sometimes have to amputate limbs with “peg legs” due to inadequate medical supplies and knowledge, the idea of Silver having “his left leg cut off close by the hip” shows just a slight image of stereotypical classic pirating. The book even mentions several times that Silver had “Captain Flint (his green parrot) upon his shoulder”, which can be seen as the classic cliché for the idea of a pirate today. One thing that stood out through the book, as it was mentioned just about every other page of Silver’s dialogue, was the way he and his comrades sang.

“Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest —

Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!

Drink and the devil had done for the rest —

Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!”

Robert Newton

Robert Newton as Long John Silver

Just the idea of pirates actually singing this during the Golden Age of Piracy is horrendously false, and yet another stereotype created for the once feared image of the Pirate. The famous phrases such as “shiver me timbers”, and even the “traditional pirating tune” which has been written above, were made up and popularized by Robert Louis Stevenson during this very book. Treasure Island was published in 1883, a full 150 years after the end of the glorious days of the Golden Age of Piracy. Pirates would have spoken like lower-class sailors from England during the era. The way we hear of pirates speaking today bears very little resemblance to how these intimidating men spoke back in the day. And to add onto the case, Long John Silver is the reason we think of pirates and their stereotypical way of speaking. British actor Robert Newton played the role of Silver in several movies and television shows during the 1950’s. He created and defined the pirate accent and further popularized phrases in the original novel. In fact, most pirate metonymies were forged in the actual pages of this novel as well. The popularization of all pirates having peg legs, pirates and drunken mutinies on board any vessel can be traced back and stamped to the cover of this classic novel. And although these occasionally did occur, all of them rolled up into one 192-page novel summarized up the creation of the stereotypical pirate.

The "Classic" Jolly Roger

The “Classic” Jolly Roger

Another stereotype that can be pinned to Long John Silver is the use of the Jolly Roger flag. Throughout several pages of the book, it is told that Silver flies the Jolly Roger flag. One can assume that Silver used the original Jolly Roger, the depiction of a human skull with two human tibias in an x formation underneath. This has turned into the standard pirating flag in movies, video games and even children shows as seen by Pirates of the Caribbean, the 2005 Video Game hit Sid Meier’s Pirates, and for some reason the children christian show Veggie Tales. Yes, it is fact that some pirates during the Golden Age actually did use this flag, such as Edward England and John Taylor. However, many famous and intimidating men overseas used special flags. Most flags on pirate ships have since been given the nickname of Jolly Roger, so it could be that Long John Silver used just about any flag for his ship the Hispaniola. However, as Silver became the stereotype all stereotypes since were based on, one can assume and realize the flag he used was the “classic” edition seen everywhere today. Blackbeard, Henry Morgan, Edward Low, Bartholomew Roberts and Christopher Moody, all famous pirates during the era, flew distinctively different and recognizable flags. The only thing many of these flags shared was the depiction of a skull somewhere in the design.

Long John Silver is vastly different to all pirates, whether they be fictional or realistic, in many ways. He owns property, on which runs a legitimate business, has an actual high intellect level due to being educated, and he has a wife. He is the owner of a well known pub in the coastal town of Bristol, and he’s married to an unnamed yet shrewd African girl. These small details, only brought up once or twice throughout the entire duration of the novel, help show massive differences between the pirates feared by the world, of which he is supposedly based off of, and the stereotypes to come that were to be based of himself. All these small details point to the fact that he is someone living a life unlike the lives of pirates and privateers during the Golden Age of Piracy. Many pirates, such as Blackbeard, have little to no private life records we can look back upon. While others, like English privateer Sir Francis Drake, had a wife but no legitimate children.

While many can argue that Long John Silver can be seen as a true pirate in literature, the facts still stand. Silver is the work of fiction, straight from the mind of Robert Louis Stevenson, who classified what a stereotypical pirate is and should be. He didn’t act or speak like a true pirate, nor did he fly the correct style of flag. He didn’t have the backstory of a true pirate, and in short, he didn’t live the life of a true privateer as well. He is far different than what the Golden Age brought to history’s doorstep, yet due to years of molding, shaping, and brainwashing, he is what a vast majority of the world can see as the real thing. All pirates during the the climax of piracy left their signature mark on the world. Edward Teach is famous for his blockade of Charleston, South Carolina. Henry Morgan is remembered for his Attack on Porto Bello. Captain Silver should not be remembered for how he is portrayed as a character in Treasure Island; he should be remembered for what he really did to shape the world: his Siege of Stereotyping.

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Categorised in: Essays, Non-Fiction, The Writing Bulletin

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