I CONTINUE to gain high entertainment from annotated editions, even if they’re of familiar works. There are so many neat things to learn, some only peripherally related to the classic tale itself. Here are several tidbits from the latest addition to my annotated collection.
The Annotated Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, introduction and notes by Simon Barker-Benfield, illustrations by Louis Rhead, FIne & Kahn, 2014.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel of a young adventurer, a treasure map marked with an “X” and a one-legged pirate with a parrot on his shoulder was published in book form in 1883, having been serialized in the children’s magazine Young Folks the two years before. The precise time of Jim Hawkin’s adventure is left unspecified (related retrospectively “in the year of grace 17__”), though annotations peg the tale to the mid-1700s. And what a pleasant way to learn social, political and geographic tidbits of the era.
“Yo-Ho-Ho, and a Bottle of Rum!” goes the sea chanty, and a lot of this sugar-cane-based distilled beverage quenched plenty of thirsts in those days. Among other attributes, as noted by Barker-Benfield, rum was a cheap source of calories. In the British West Indies, white adult males averaged 21 gallons of rum annually—seven one-ounce shots 365 days a year.
A West Indies sugar mill, whence the waste-product molasses distilled into rum. This and other images from The Annotated Treasure Island.
Billy Bones, gruff ex-crewman with pirate Long John Silver, liked his rum and tells Jim Hawkins, “It’s been meat and drink, man and wife to me; and if I’m not to have my rum now I’m a poor old hulk on a lee shore.”
This fondness for rum might explain his misleading coordinates for Treasure Island, given as latitude 62 degrees 17 minutes 20 seconds, longitude 19 degrees 2 minutes 40 seconds, “Offe Caraccas.”
The map of Treasure Island.
As Barker-Benfield explains, the location of Treasure Island remains a mystery. One problem: Billy Bones cites no identification of N or S latitude. And, either way, this extreme latitude puts the island either up around Iceland or not far off Antarctica. Second, there’s no indication of E or W longitude, nor any citing of a 0 prime meridian.
Greenwich didn’t become Britain’s official 0 meridian until 1767; prior to this, (English) longitude could have been cited from St. Paul’s Cathedral in London or from The Lizard in the far west of England. Chart makers in France had a choice of five other starting points in Jim Hawkins’ day. Greenwich didn’t become the world’s standard until the International Meridian Conference of 1884.
I considered whether the rum-fueled Billy Bones might have carelessly swapped latitude and longitude. As a test, I entered N19 2.67 W62 17.33 into my Microsoft Flight Simulator and found myself appropriately in the West Indies, about 70 mile north of Anguilla, about 180 miles east-northeast of St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, but more than 600 miles northeast of Caracas.
Barker-Benfield cites a Hadley reflecting quadrant, also called an octant, as a navigator’s means of determining latitude by measuring the position of the sun or a star relative to the horizon. By Billy Bones’ day, the sextant was an improved version of this instrument.
My sextant, a functioning version of the real thing, in miniature.
Also, Barker-Benfield notes that identification to the nearest second of longitude suggests a precision of timepieces unknown in Billy Bones’ treasure-hunting days. The first accurate and reliable device for time-keeping at sea was a three-pound, five-inch-diameter watch designed by John Harrison and tested on a voyage to Jamaica and back in 1760 – 1762.
This, in itself, appears to knock Billy Bones’ coordinates into a cocked hat.
A three-cocked hat.
Barker-Benfield tells us that “to cock a hat” meant to fold up part of its brim. Some people cocked the front of the hat; others cocked both sides. During Jim Hawkins’ day, a hat cocked on three sides was quite the fashion. ds