Apr 04


The Brown Wedge • 212 views

DEAD MAN’S CHESS: (Three Questions abt Treasure Island pt 3)

#3 (and LAST): Why did the pirates not win?

Basically Treasure Island is an argument about the nature of authority: at sea*, this zone of lawless democracy, sovereignty is his who can seize and hold it (and God defend the right, as Kings and Revolutionaries both always insisted).** The unfolding story offers us a sequence of potential authority figures, each examined in turn and set aside.

i. Squire Trelawney is the representative of the conservative social order, who you tug yr forelock to (if you respect such things). He is treated as a bit of a fool from his first arrival: he is likeable enough, but no one looks up to him. The heirarchy-of-ageless-tradition is really worth very little to anyone.
ii. Dr Livesey is a man of skill and learning. He is respected: his authority is what he knows, and everyone, on all sides, defers to it. The pirates are quite comfortable allowing him come and dress their wounds during the period of truce: but the specialisation of his objective universality tells against his ability to help the pirates make the choices necessary to resolve their various conflicts and difficulties (the surgeon who amputated Silver’s leg had been a college-man who knew Latin ‘ ie his authority derived from the same things as Livesey’s ‘ but it didn’t save him from the gallows).
iii. Though Captain Smollett derives some of his authority from Trelawney-like tradition, and some from Livesey-like knowledge (he can read a chart and get the Hispaniola home), his is really an authority of narrow need. A pirate tolerates the idea that a ship under sail has to have someone taking the responsiblity for needful decisions ‘ eg steer to port not starboard NOW PLZ!! splice mainbrace when I give the order etc ‘ but is resentful of authoritarian discipline. Nor is it obvious that – outside his narrow area of expertise – Smollett is any good as a leader; his judgments aren’t great re Silver (pro OR con) and he manages to offend Trelawney immediately (Livesey acts as one expert acknowledging the expertise of others outside his own domain). Besides, when Smollett is hors de combat, this underlines the problem ‘ someone has to stand in for him (his chosen deputy being a drunk who vanishes overboard early in the voyage).
iv. Silver is the obvious choice. Charismatic, a manifestly clever charmer, an entertaining man with a plan, the ship’s cook is well-organised, foresightful, very well able to grasp the niceties of enlightened self-interest. In a sense, the pirates fail because they don’t trust him fully as leader (they mutiny way too early, against his advice, before they’d even found the treasure; he had intended to let Capt Smollett sail the whole expedition back into known waters, at which point the Respectable Treasure Seekers wd disappear over the ship’s rail and the renamed Hispaniola wd point prow at, well, who knows?) When things get too pear-shaped, black-spotwise, Silver carefully puts JimH in his debt by saving Jim’s life (and putting his own at forfeit). As a representative of libertarian revolutionary-bourgeois atomised free-market Nietzschean self-interest, he is immensely exciting and dynamic, but (ultimately) stymied by the inability of others like him ‘ other pirates ‘ to gamble accurately on the best games-theory strategy (which wd be TRUSTING him and vice versa), to realise his project. He has to compromise (ie in his terms become a careful canting moralist and/or sharing socialist) to survive at all…
v. At a meta-level, the pirates fail bcz they forget that they are in a children’s book in which JimH the boy-narrator will end up being triumphantly the smartest as well as nicest : that’s just the laws of the genre, and if you break them one will read about you!! (The pirates at one point accuse Jim of having forged the original map of Treasure Island, which of course a R.L.Stevenson he DID!!) But even ignoring our complicity in these processes of Literary Darwinism, JimH’s attraction to Silver signals from their first encounter that he is (as Silver himself says) a junior version of Silver. A quasi-pirate given insight into his mentor’s flaws of behaviour and judgment (he gets to eavesdrop on Silver twice: from the applebarrel during the planning of the betrayal, and then during a murder of a non-pirate crewmember on the island). Jim simply ignores everyone’s else’s orders, and follows his own counsel. He is inevitably revealed to have been wearing the mantle of authority from the outset, because everything that happens follows from his acts, his decisions. Look who we remember; that’s who we want to be: we think we want to be Silver, but actually we want to be Jim’s idea of himself being Silver.

*Not that TI is set ‘at sea’, strictly speaking: almost all the action is liminal, either in hearing of sea when on land or in sight of land when on water.
**The grounding of the American Revolution is simply that it had happened ‘ viz since neither vox populi nor vox dei had spoken convincingly out against it, it was meant to be, ie justified.

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