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Robert Louis Stevenson “Talks Like a Pirate”

A portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson by John Singer Sargent.

A portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson by John Singer Sargent.

Yes, it’s that time of year again — Talk Like a Pirate Day is coming soon.  Brush up on your sailor slang, pirate patois and buccaneer bravado.

My first thought when I saw the 1950 movie “Treasure Island” wasn’t “Hey, me hearties, I love how those pirates talk.”  I had a school girl crush on one of the actors — Bobby Driscoll, the boy who plays Jim Hawkins, and I swooned over his more upper crust accent. (By the way, I’m not that old. The 1950 movie was many years old when I saw it.)  I became smitten with the fantasy of finding treasure, of treasure maps, of being a stole-away.

I have Robert Louis Stevenson to thank for my adventure fantasies. Stevenson published “Treasure Island” in 1883. Since then, more than fifty movies and television shows have been made adapted from the book. No wonder there’s a “Talk Like a Pirate Day,” which is September 19. (See the link at the bottom to my post on “Avast, Me Hearty! It’s Talk Like a Pirate Day!”) A National Geographic story throws cold seawater on the concept of pirate speech, claiming that most of what we think of pirate speech came from the 1950 movie, as spoken by the Long John Silver actor who spoke in his native dialect from southwestern England, which is where Silver came from. So it’s not a stretch to think pirates, many from southwestern England, did speak that way. I’ve linked the NatGeo spoilsport article at the very bottom of this post. Argggh!

Sailboats anchor in Frank Bay, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. The dark sailboat looks a little like the fictional pirate sailboats that sailed the Caribbean Sea waters in the movies. Caribbean pirates are said to be the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.”

I didn’t make a plan to follow Stevenson’s literary footsteps, but I have stumbled onto a few “Treasure Island” locations. On a trip to Savannah, Georgia, my husband and I visited “The Pirates House,” now a restaurant. This charming old building is reported to be where some of the characters of “Treasure Island” got together to plan and plot, and where Captain Flint is claimed to have spent his last days.  Legend says that Captain Flint’s ghost haunts the property.  We didn’t see old Captain Flint, but we got out of the building before nightfall!

Pirates from long ago have achieved a romantic patina, but they were ruthless murderers and thieves.  We identify with the adventure and the hunt for treasure rather than the pirates themselves.

“The effect of Treasure Island on our perception of pirates cannot be overestimated,” wrote David Cordingly in his book Under a Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates: “Robert Louis Stevenson “linked pirates forever with maps, black schooners, tropical islands, and one-legged seamen with parrots on their shoulders.  The treasure map with an X marking the location of the buried treasure is one of the most familiar pirate props.”  Stevenson popularized the nautical slang “Shiver My Timbers,” an oath that Stevenson’s archetypal pirate Long John Silver exclaimed.  Characters in other works, such as Popeye, changed the phrase to “Shiver me timbers.”

Robert Louis Stevenson visited northern California, the Hawaiian Islands and died in Samoa, but I haven’t found any evidence he visited Catalina Island. A 1918 “Treasure Island” movie was filmed on Catalina Island, which has its own history of a treasure map and hidden gold.

At a theater production I attended of “Treasure Island,” the playbill noted that “Shiver My Timbers” and other such oaths were child-friendly substitutions for more salty language.   Child-friendly or not, “Shiver My Timbers” was an actual nautical exclamation, describing the shivering or splintering of the ship’s boards, either from storms or battle.

On a trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands, I found a history of Treasure Island in one of the tourist brochures, which led me to the story of Owen Lloyd. Treasure Island — The Untold Story Other areas have claimed to have inspired Stevenson, included Napa, California, where he honeymooned with Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne, after their wedding in San Francisco.  A park there is named after him, which I’ll be visiting soon.

Stevenson was the son and grandson of lighthouse engineers, but he preferred to leave the safety of shore behind him when he became an adult.  He was a frail person, who spent much of his youth in the “land of the counterpane (bedspread)”  Despite his poor health, he traveled widely, spending a lot of time on sailing ships, saying “I wish to die in my boots…..”  He got his wish, dying too young at age 44 in Samoa where he had made his home.  Stevenson is ranked the 25th most translated author in the world, ahead of fellow Victorians Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allan Poe.

Savannah, Georgia, is mentioned several times in Robert Louis Stevenson’s book, “Treasure Island.” Some of the book’s action was said to take place in “The Pirates House,” one of Georgia’s most historic buildings. The building is now a restaurant, where meals are served in a multitude of charmingly ramshackle rooms, and tales of ghosts and pirates add to the atmosphere. My husband and I ate lunch there on a cheerful sunny autumn afternoon, so it took a little more imagination to conjure up menacing pirate spirits.

About Robert Louis Stevenson.   About “Treasure Island.”

The history of “The Pirates House” in Savannah, Georgia.  Shiver My Timbers.

Here’s a card I designed in honor of “Talk Like a Pirate Day.” I made a stab at a little Pirate Talk in the inside text.

Robert Louis Stevenson — Napa Valley’s First Tourist
A post I wrote in 2008: “Avast, Me Hearty! It’s Talk Like a Pirate Day!”

“Talk Like a Pirate Day” Busted: Not Even Pirates Spoke Pirate

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