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Treasure Island. Reader’s companion - background. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. Written in the 1880’s, Stevenson set his story over 100 years in the past, in the Golden Age of pirates – the early 1700’s.

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treasure island

Treasure Island

Reader’s companion - background

treasure island by robert louis stevenson
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Written in the 1880’s, Stevenson set his story over 100 years in the past, in the Golden Age of pirates – the early 1700’s.
  • The early 1700’s is called the Golden Age because this era had a huge leap in the number and ferocity of pirates. It also marked a time of the most violent fighting between the pirates and the authorities, usually ending in pirates swinging from the yardarm (hanging)!
  • Why the big increase? Read on…
  • Did you know there were legal pirates? They were known as privateers, and were sent by kings and queens (particularly in England) to steal, plunder and disrupt shipping by their enemies – usually the Spanish and the French.
  • Privateers usually got to keep most of what they stole, and really caused big problems for the Spanish, who were making a fortune trading goods, slaves and gold with the New World.
  • Life on a privateer ship was pretty good – they usually had better food and more of it than the Royal Navy ships.
  • Sailors in the 18th Century had it about as bad as can be. They were usually the poorest of the poor – young men who were little more than beggars on the mainland. In England, there was a huge disparity between the rich and the poor – and “the growing riches of the few depended on the growing misery of the many” (Rediker, p. 23).

Once on ship, sailors faced many horrors. Captains had unlimited powers, and enforced their rules with a cat-o’-nine-tails or spectacular executions.

  • Food was extremely scarce and often rotten. Diseases were terrible and dismembering accidents were common.
  • Living quarters were impossibly cramped, which helped spread disease.
  • Generally, no one with other choices would choose to be a sailor.
privateer turned pirate
Privateer turned Pirate
  • When the war with Spain ended in 1713, many privateers did not want to give up their prosperous trade of looting ships. Privateers, sent by kings and queens, became pirates, hunted by their former employers!
  • Pirates became more bold and fearless, and punishments became more severe. Public executions of pirates became common occurrences, with the bodies left as warnings to others.