Robert Louis Stevenson and the Missing Map of Treasure Island

The original map of Treasure Island was lost - if it still exists, it must surely be worth a fortune now...

Despite recent outbreaks off the Horn of Africa, piracy still conjures up other images than freebooting Somali fishermen.Your standard-issue pirate from Central Casting will have an eyepatch, an earring, a parrot on his shoulder or a wooden leg – or any combination of the above. He will almost inevitably have the accent of the English West Country (which explains all the Aarrrh-ing), and will surely be on a quest for treasure.


We owe this persistent stereotype to, and can blame its most recent incarnation in the increasingly awful Pirates of the Caribbean-franchise, on Robert Louis Stevenson‘s Treasure Island (1883), the classic adventure novel about pirates and buried treasure. Stevenson’s book also spawned, in later derivations and imitations, the trope of the treasure map as an essential part of the story.

Which makes the question all the more interesting: was there a real-life model for the generically named Treasure Island – and if so, where was it? It seems to have been a chance invention by Lloyd Osbourne, RLS’s stepson, while holidaying with the family in a Scottish Highland cottage. As Osbourne later recalled:

“… busy with a box of paints I happened to be tinting a map of an island I had drawn. Stevenson came in as I was finishing it, and with his affectionate interest in everything I was doing, leaned over my shoulder, and was soon elaborating the map and naming it. I shall never forget the thrill of Skeleton Island, Spyglass Hill, nor the heart-stirring climax of the three red crosses! And the greater climax still when he wrote down the words “Treasure Island” at the top right-hand corner! And he seemed to know so much about it too – the pirates, the buried treasure, the man who had been marooned on the island … . “Oh, for a story about it”, I exclaimed, in a heaven of enchantment …”

And that is how Stevenson got started writing Treasure Island - as a back story to the map originally drawn by his stepson. Curiously, the map reprinted in all subsequent editions of the book is not that first map. That got lost when he sent it to his publisher. Stevenson had to redraw his map from scratch, and although he got the chance to match the map to the story, he never was as satisfied with the copy as with the original. Could that original map - worth a treasure by now - still languish in some postal limbo between Scotland and London? 

Stevenson didn’t write his novel ex nihilo: he acknowledged the inspiration of works by Washington Irving and others, and of real-life characters and stories as inspirations for Treasure Island. But in how far does this also hold true for the Treasure Island depicted on the crucial map?

A number of speculations and suggestions have been made as to islands that might have inspired Treasure Island.

  • A seafaring uncle might have told Stevenson about Norman Island, a tiny uninhabited island in the British Virgin Islands. The island is the subject of many stories of hidden treasure, some of which might have some basis in reality.
  • Confusingly, a nearby island called Dead Man’s Chest Island might be named directly after piratey rumours of treasure (Blackbeard’s, no less) and thus have co-inspired Stevenson or be named indirectly, after… a song in Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
  • The shape of Treasure Island looks a bit like Unst, one of the Shetland Islands. Stevenson visited the area as a child, when his father and uncle were building a lighthouse on Muckle Flugga (sic).
  • In The Silverado Squatters (1883), Stevenson describes the scenery in Napa Valley (California), which would prove an inspiration for Treasure Island.
  • Stevenson visited Osborn Island in New Jersey’s Manasquan River and rechristened it Treasure Island. Unfortunately, he did so 5 years after writing the book. The island is now known as Nienstedt Island.
  • The map itself, then, is drawn to the scale of 3 English miles, and shows such landmarks as Foremast Hill, Spyglass Hill, Cape of the Woods, Mazenmast Hill and Hautbowline Head. Off the small Skeleton Island, south of the main island, is Foul Ground. Off the west coast is the warning: Strong tide here. On the island itself are mentioned mainly Swamps and Graves, and of course an X that marks the spot: Bulk of treasure buried here. Not all of the lettering is easily readable.

    This map was taken here from Kellscraft Studio, a website dedicated to presenting hard to find, previously printed books now in t he public domain, such as Treasure Island.

    Strange Maps #378

    Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

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    Beer is history's happiest accident. Though the discovery probably happened much earlier, our earliest evidence for beer dates back roughly 13,000 years ago. Around this time, the people of the Fertile Crescent had begun to gather grains as a food source and learned that if they moistened them, they could release their sweetness to create a gruel much tastier than the grains themselves.

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    Beer may also be proof of a God who wants us to be happy (Dionysus?), because the beverage* would be independently rediscovered by peoples across the ancient world, including those in China and South America.

    One such peoples, the pre-Inca Wari Civilization, made beer, specifically chicha de molle, a critical component in their religious and cultural ceremonies. In fact, a study published in Sustainability in April argues that the role was so important that beer helped keep Wari civilization intact for 500 years.

    Brewing social capital

    Twenty years ago, a team of archaeologists with the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, discovered a brewery in Cerro Baúl, a mesa in southern Peru that served as an ancient Wari outpost. The brewery contained original equipment, clay storage vessels, and compartments for milling, boiling, and fermentation.

    The team recently analyzed these on-site vessels to uncover the secrets of the Wari brewing process. Removing tiny amounts of material found in the spaces between the clay, they were able to reconstruct the molecules of the thousand-year-old drink. They then worked alongside Peruvian brewers to recreate the original brewing process.**

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    These details suggest that Cerro Baúl maintained a steady supply of chicha, limited by neither trade nor fair weather, and became a central hub for anyone wishing to partake. The Wari would likely make such trips during times of festivals and religious ceremonies. Social elites would consume chicha in vessels shaped like Wari gods and leaders as part of rituals attesting to social norms and a shared cultural mythology and heritage.

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    The Wari civilization was spread over a vast area of rain forests and highlands. In a time when news traveled at the speed of a llama, such distinct and distant geography could easily have fractured the Wari civilization into competing locales.

    Instead, the researchers argue, these festive gatherings (aided by the promise of beer) strengthened social capital enough to maintain a healthy national unity. This helped the Wari civilization last from 600 to 1100 CE, an impressive run for a historic civilization.

    Bringing people together (since 10,000 BCE)

    A Mesopotamian cylinder seal shows people drinking beer through long reed straws. Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

    Of course, the Wari weren't the first civilization to use beer to reaffirm bonds and maintain their social fabric. Returning to the Fertile Crescent, Sumerians regarded beer as a hallmark of their civilization.

    The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the adventures of the titular hero and his friend Enkidu. Enkidu beings as a savage living in the wilderness, but a young woman introduces him to the ways of civilization. That orientation begins with food and beer:

    "They placed food in front of him,
    They placed beer in front of him,
    Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
    And of drinking beer he had not been taught.
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    "Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
    Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
    Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
    He drank the beer — seven jugs! — and became expansive
    and sang with joy.
    He was elated and his face glowed.
    He splashed his shaggy body with water
    and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human
    ."

    Tom Standage, who recounts this scene in his History of the World in 6 Glasses, writes: "The Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread and beer as one of the things that distinguished them from savages and made them fully human." Such civilized staples not only demarcated their orderly life from that of hunter-gatherers, they also served a key role in their culture's unifying mythology.

    Furthermore, Standage notes, Sumerian iconography often shows two people sipping from waist-high jars through reed straws. The earliest beers were consumed in a similar fashion because technological limitations prevented baking individual cups or filtering the beverage. But the Sumerians had the pottery skills to make such cups and filter the dregs. That they kept the tradition suggests that they valued the camaraderie brought by the experience, a sign of communal hospitality and kinship.

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    During symposiums, upper-class Greek men would gather for a night of drinking, entertainment, and social bonding. In Alcohol: A history, Rod Phillips notes that symposiums were serious affairs where art, politics, and philosophy were discussed throughout the night and could serve as rites of passage for young men. (Though, music, drinking games, and sex with prostitutes may also be found on the itinerary.)

    Of course, we can amass social capital without resorting to alcohol, which has been known to damage social relationships as much as improve them.

    In the 17th century, London's coffeehouses stimulated the minds of thinkers with their caffeine-laden drinks, but also served as social hubs. Unlike the examples we've explored already, these coffeehouses brought together people of different backgrounds and expertise, unifying them in their pursuit of ideas and truths. Thus, coffeehouses can be seen as the nurseries of the Enlightenment.

    Relearning ancient lessons

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