mystery of the pirates’ song, “Fifteen men on
the dead man’s chest, yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum,” from
Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island , has
been solved. Until now, its meaning has baffled readers, and Stevenson
himself never offered any explanation.
The answer is provided by Geographical, published by the
Royal Geographical Society, by an explorer who says Dead Mans Chest
is part of the British Virgin Islands.
In the early 1700s, says Quentin van Marle , the pirate Edward
Teach – known
as “ Blackbeard ” – punished a mutinous crew by
marooning them on Dead Man’s Chest, an island 250 yards square
surrounded by high cliffs and without water or landing places. Each
was given a cutlass and a bottle of rum, and Teach’s hope
was that they would kill each other. But when he returned at
the end of 30 days he found that 15 had survived.
This would explain in full the verse:
Fifteen men on the dead man’s
chest Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum! Drink
and the devil had done for the rest Yo-ho-ho,
and a bottle of rum!
There is no food on the island, Mr van Marle says, which is occupied
by pelicans, lizards, non-poisonous snakes – and mosquitoes.
It has never been developed for tourism because of its inaccessibility.
Chest Island is to the North East of Peter Island. It
is described as “eerie and infamous” on a local calendar.
Mr van Marle, who discovered the true story by studying local history
and folklore, was himself marooned on it in 1969 when he lost his
outboard motor while on a scuba trip.
This article was written in the mid 1990’s by Adrian
Berry, who was Science Correspondent for the Daily Telegraph.
It has been kindly brought to our attention by LJS Trust supporter
Barry Wright .
Blackbeard enjoying a quiet bit of rest and
relaxation with his chums.