Treasure Island, an adventure novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, was first published in 1883.
Above: An early edition of Treasure Island (source)
Ever since the seafaring exploits of Jim Hawkins, Long John Silver and the Hispaniola were first introduced to the public, the book has been inspiring plays, films, costumes and all manner of creative interpretations. More importantly, elements from the story, such as ‘X marks the spot’, schooners, treasure maps and parrots, have since come to characterise popular definitions of pirates.
Above: A stereotypical depiction of a pirate (source)
Indeed, when the Scarborough Hispaniola – a 1/4 replica of an 18th century schooner – was built in 1949, Treasure Island’s popularity showed little sign of abating. Consequently the idea of sailing with pirates and digging for treasure was a familiar concept for many children – by visiting Scarborough Mere to do just that, they could imagine themselves as the Treasure Island protagonist – Jim Hawkins.
Above: Illustration of Jim Hawkins, shown on the left with a dubious looking character! (source)
However, in 1958, the Hispaniola’s Treasure Island heritage was under threat, according to an article in the Manchester Guardian. The Scarborough Corporation, who then owned the attraction, decided to put the vessel up for sale, only one year after changing the names of the pirates from Stevenson’s characters to Scar, Bow and Raw. ScarBowRaw. Scarborough?
Neither decision went down well with the Hispaniola’s crew.
Its skipper really was a one-legged man – ideal for the role of famous one-legged pirate Long John Silver. However, he was less than happy about his name being changed from infamous literary rogue to the awkward alternative: Captain Scar. Doesn’t really have the same ring to it, does it?
Of course, Old Ben Gunn on the island came off worse. Artful Artie they call him now. Proper peeved he is.
Fortunately for these angry pirates, visiting children were similarly reluctant to use the new names – they preferred to sail with Long John Silver.
Above: Robert Newton as Long John Silver in the 1950 film, Treasure Island (source)
Once on Treasure Island, children were given black masks, pirate badges and the option to purchase sweet cigarettes. Maps on the back of the sweetie boxes were all part of the elaborate masquerade, and Ben Gunn, aka Artful Artie, describes the hunt for treasure as thus:
Lovely life it is. I show the children where to dig for buried treasure. We don’t give them spades because the sand is only six inches deep and underneath is black mud. It stinks something horrible if it is exposed. Makes my life on the island miserable when that happens, it does.
The Scarborough Corporation never did replace the Hispaniola – the attraction went on to enjoy nearly forty more years of success on the Mere. The pirates even got their name back, and Malcolm Waller, whose memories are featured in the Scarborough Archaeological and Historical Society Community Archive, worked as Jim Hawkins on the boat:
Malcolm went to St Martins, Royal Avenue and Scalby school, leaving at 15 and spending his first summer working on the Hispaniola on the Mere dressed as Jim Hawkins
The archive also features an image of the crew on board the Hispaniola.
The playful pirates of the Hispaniola were a far cry, however, from real pirates. Indeed, piracy originally denoted criminal violence or robbery at sea, and still occurs today, although perhaps with less frequency than in preceding centuries. From the Sea Peoples of antiquity to the Vikings, history holds many examples of pirates. Indeed, Scarborough’s status as a coastal town (there are records of settlements dating back to the Bronze Age) means that such seafaring exploits were never far away.
Above: An illustration of Blackbeard, one of the most famous ‘real life’ pirates (source)
Scarborough Maritime Heritage Website lists a number of pirate stories with links to Scarborough, and given the popularisation of pirate stereotypes, it is unsurprising that the town has capitalised on this murkier side of its history. Although the Hispaniola no longer sails along the Mere, it takes passengers along the South Bay during the summer. There is also a pirate-themed crazy golf course near to the Sea Life Centre on the North Bay. Amateur rugby team the Scarborough Pirates have adopted the name of seafaring bandits, and further local references are highly probable. The pirate stereotype is everywhere.
And yet the friendly pirates who once sailed the Hispaniola on Scarborough Mere, in spite of their fierce pretensions, in no way resemble the horror that real-life pirates once evoked. And still do in some parts of the world. Scarborough’s pirates didn’t kill, maim and steal, and even Robert Louis Stevenson’s violent Long John Silver, is presented with ambiguity sufficient enough to make moral judgement perplexing.