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Plot Twist: The Most Famous Fictional Pirate Was Real

People | July 1, 2019

With a peg leg and a parrot on his shoulder, Long John Silver set the standard for literary pirates. Source: (medium.com)

When Robert Louis Stevenson published his swashbuckling novel, Treasure Island, in 1883, his descriptions of Long John Silver set the bar for all literary and film pirates to come. It was Stevenson’s character that gave us such pirate tropes as a shoulder parrot, wooden peg leg, and a chest of buried treasure. Nearly every pirate novels, movies, and TV shows since then have included some elements of the fictional Long John Silver. But recent research seems to show that Stevenson modeled his treacherous rogue after real-life pirates…two Welsh brothers. Let’s compare these brothers with the Treasure Island character, Long John Silver. 

Robert Newton (1905-1956), British actor, as Long John Silver, aiming a musket beside an open treasure chest, in a publicity portrait issued for the film, 'Treasure Island', 1950. Source: (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Who was Stevenson’s Famous Pirate?

In the novel, Treasure Island, Long John Silver was the ship’s cook, but he had a secret. He was really the leader of a band of ruthless pirates. He was an all-around terrible guy. He was a greedy, lying cutthroat who with impressive strength and determination. He would fight to the end with every ounce of his being just as easily as he would stab a friend in the back. He was a powerful personality. Stevenson wrote him to be vicious, mean-spirited, and malicious, yet he had a soft spot in his heart for the protagonist of Treasure Island, the enthusiastic young Jim Hawkins. 

Long John SIlver moved quickly on his peg leg. Source: (en.wikipedia.org)

A Parrot and a Peg Leg

Robert Louis Stevenson describes Long John Silver as being tall and sinewy strong. He uses a wooden peg in place of his missing leg. Silver has a plain, pale face. Perched on his shoulder is a parrot that Stevenson jokes is at least 200 years old. The parrot screeches out words, adding to the spooky aura around Silver. Unlike the other pirates, who are described as dirty, rough, and unkempt, Long John Silver is clean and somewhat gentlemanly, a characterization that we see in later pirate books and movies. 

Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island. Source: (lettersofnote.com)

Was Long John Silver Real?

Long John Silver was a fictional character in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, but, according to some researchers, Stevenson modeled his famous pirate after people he knew. Stevenson once stated that his pirate character was loosely based on his friend, William Henley. Henley, a poet, and writer had been described as being broad shouldered with a bushy red beard. He used a crutch to walk because of an injury to his leg. He was also said to be a clever gentleman. 

A Spanish galleon sought shelter at Ocracoke Island in the 1700s. Source: (witn.com)

Was Long John Silver a Mash-Up of Two Brothers?

Author John Amrhein proposes in his book that Stevenson combined qualities of two Welsh brothers when creating Long John Silver. They are Owen and John Lloyd, brothers from Rhuddlan, Denbighshire, Wales, who later lived in the West Indies. The Lloyd brothers began their sailing careers are legitimate sea captains, manning merchant ships. But they were disheartened by unfair treatment by the Spanish. So, when a Spanish galleon took shelter from a storm in a cove at Ocracoke, North Carolina, in 1750, the brothers used the opportunity to loot the ship and steal its treasures, turning the Lloyd brothers from respectable sea captains to pirates. 

Owen Lloyd buried treasure. Source: (scaramangashop.co.uk)

More Similarities Between Long John Silver and the Lloyd Brothers

Following the looting of the Spanish galleon, Owen Lloyd, according to legends, stashed the booty in wooden chests and buried them for safekeeping, just like Long John Silver in the novel. In all, it was claimed that Owen Lloyd buried 52 treasure chests on a deserted island, namely Norman Island in the British Virgin Islands. Owen’s brother, John, not only shared the first name with Stevenson’s character, but he also shared his most memorable trait – a wooden peg leg. Like the fictional pirate, John Lloyd lost his leg in an accident and used a makeshift artificial leg to get around. And, like Long John Silver, John Lloyd didn’t let his disability slow him down. 

Treasure Island contains a map dated the same time at the Lloyd brothers' escapades. Source: (bigthink.com)

A Clue in a Map?

In Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson includes a treasure map that is dated August of 1750. It was that same month and year that the Lloyd brothers seized and looted the Spanish galleon that sought shelter in North Carolina. This could be a direct link to prove that Stevenson’s inspiration for his most famous pirate came from the Lloyd brothers, Owen and John, and their real-life escapades. 

Tags: pirates | Robert Louis Stevenson | Long john silver

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.