The narrator, Jim Hawkins, begins the first chapter ("The Old Sea Dog at the Admiral Benbow") by saying that he is writing this history at the request of Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesey, and other gentlemen, leaving out nothing but the location of the island, where some treasure still remains. Jim describes how a large, old sailor arrives one day to his father's inn, the Admiral Benbow, and rents a room. Saying they can call him "the captain," he spends his stay watching the sea. He pays Jim a small amount of money to watch out for other seamen, especially a sailor with one leg. He frequently gets drunk in the evenings and terrifies the other guests (who are nonetheless fascinated) by singing violent sea songs and demanding that everyone else join in. The captain is dressed in rough, filthy clothes and spends no money, not even to pay for his room and board, of which fact Jim's father is too intimidated to remind him.
One night the captain, drunk and roaring, signals for silence while he sings, but Dr. Livesey, the local physician who has come to treat Jim's ill (indeed, dying) father, goes on with his conversation. In response to the captain's curses and threats, Livesey calmly predicts that he'll die soon if he keeps on drinking. And the doctor, who is also a district law enforcement official, says he'll have the man arrested if he keeps on threatening people.
In the second chapter ("Black Dog Appears and Disappears") a stranger arrives one January morning while the captain is on the beach with his telescope and Jim is readying the breakfast table. The stranger asks if "his mate Bill" is there, and Jim tells him he knows no one by that name, that he is preparing the table for "the captain." Jim feels that this person means the captain no good, and he starts out to warn their guest, but the man prevents him from leaving. When the captain approaches, he reacts to the stranger with a kind of sickly fear, addressing him as "Black Dog." Black Dog orders Jim to bring him rum and then leave the room, and although Jim tries to overhear their conversation, he can make out nothing until suddenly there's a great crash and a clash of swords. He runs back in, just in time to see Black Dog, wounded, hurrying away. The captain seems greatly upset, demands rum, and says he must leave the inn. But before anything else can happen, he falls down unconscious. Soon the doctor arrives and tells Jim and his mother that the old man has had a stroke. He gets Jim to help him treat the captain, who eventually recovers consciousness. Livesey tells him that unless he stops drinking immediately he'll have another stroke, which will kill him.
Chapter 3 ("The Black Spot") begins later that day. When the captain hears he has been ordered to stay in bed for a week, he declares that this will be impossible. Black Dog and others worse than he will return, wanting to steal his sea chest. They will give him "the black spot," which he says is a summons. When they come, he says, Jim must get Dr. Livesey to call down the law on them. He explains very little, but says these men are "old Flint's crew," that he himself was Flint's first mate, and that Flint gave him something — he does not say what — before he died. Then the captain takes the medicine the doctor left for him and sleeps.
That evening, Jim's father dies, and Jim has little time to worry about their guest and his troubles. The next day the captain manages to come downstairs and help himself liberally to rum. For several days he keeps this up, growing weaker and weaker, until the day after the funeral. That afternoon another stranger arrives, a ragged and fearsome-looking blind man. He forces Jim to take him to the captain, who sees him with terror. The blind man puts something into the captain's hand and leaves quickly. When the captain sees what he has been given, he says: "Six hours. We'll do them yet." But as he gets to his feet he reels, sways, and falls dead to the floor.
As Chapter 4 ("The Sea Chest") begins, Jim tells his mother what the captain has told him and, knowing their danger, both walk to the nearby village for help. They arrive at dusk and can find no one brave enough to go back with them, although one boy says he'll ride for Livesey. Mrs. Hawkins says she'll go back alone, then, to get what the captain owes her, and Jim has no choice but to go with her. They return to the inn, and Jim reluctantly searches the captain's corpse to find the key to the sea chest. In the chest they discover various articles, including a few bars of silver, a few English and foreign coins, and a sealed packet. Jim's mother begins to count what coins she can recognize, but they hear the blind man's stick approaching and, in the dark, they run out of the inn. They are badly frightened, and Mrs. Hawkins faints. Jim hides her as well as he can, listening, as Chapter 5 ("The Last of the Blind Man") opens. He hears several men run into the inn, where they discover the captain is dead and the sea chest has been opened. Whatever they are looking for is gone. As a signal from their watchman sounds, most of the pirates want to run, but the blind man, Pew, insists they stay to search for Jim and his mother. They have reluctantly begun to do so when horsemen approach. The pirates scatter — all but Pew, who blunders down the road, deserted by his comrades, and is run down and killed by a man on horseback.
The boy who rode for Dr. Livesey has returned with a company of revenue men (tax collectors), whom Jim recognizes and hails. They find that the inn has been ransacked and robbed. The revenue officer, Mr. Dance, hearing Jim's story, says he must go report to the magistrate, Livesey, and will take Jim with him.
Chapter 6 ("The Captain's Papers") begins at Dr. Livesey's house, where they are told that the doctor has gone to dine with Squire Trelawney at his hall. They proceed there, and Dance tells his story to the doctor and squire. Livesey is interested in the packet Jim took from the sea chest, but he waits to open it until after Dance has gone. When it is opened, it is found to contain a book listing sums of money and dates covering over twenty years. Livesey deduces it is a record of the captain's share in plunder taken from many ships and towns by the notorious pirate Flint and his crew. Along with the book is a map showing where the treasure is hidden, buried on an island about 45 square miles in area. The squire immediately proposes to leave for the port city of Bristol, where he'll obtain a ship, hire a crew, and — taking Livesey as ship's doctor, Jim as cabin boy, and three other men whom he names (Redruth, Joyce, and Hunter) — they will sail in search of the island and the treasure. Livesey warns him not to tell anyone of his plans and destination, and the squire promises he'll be "silent as the grave."
To read the opening paragraph of Treasure Island is a bit like sneaking a look at the last page first. When you come to the end of the first sentence, you know that the treasure-seeking voyage is over and was successful — with part of what was found still left on the island — and that at least three of the major characters (although you do not yet know that they are major characters), the squire, the doctor, and the narrator, have survived it. That you are told these details at the outset does not affect your reading of the story, because you can tell from the tone of the paragraph that the story is not about whether Treasure Island and its cache of riches can be found but about how the story unfold and all the particulars that take place on the way. It is, in other words, about an adventure. And you believe in that adventure because its details are set down in writing by someone who experienced it, someone whom you are inclined to trust because he is recording it at the request of other men who experienced it, too. Thus, Stevenson's first-person narrator immediately transcends fiction and becomes, for the willing reader, a real person writing about real events.
The first part introduces you to several of the major characters of the novel. One of them, Billy Bones (whom Jim innocently calls "the captain," although this rank has been conferred on Billy by himself alone), is dead before the third chapter ends. Billy, despite his rough talk and ragged appearance, seems to Jim, and indeed to some of the neighbors who come to the inn for evening refreshment and conversation, to be fierce and commanding, something of an exotic figure. These are country people who, despite the fact that they live on the coast of southwestern England, are not very familiar with sea-faring men and their ways, and Billy is entertaining. But he is mostly bluster. He is a drunken old miser who bullies everyone he can, frightening Jim's father into giving him room, board, and plenty of rum at no charge and scaring the neighbors into joining him in drink and raucous song. But he backs down immediately when his loud bullying has no effect on Dr. Livesey, and he is horribly frightened of his erstwhile shipmates, especially the one-legged man for whom he urges Jim to keep a sharp lookout. What is Billy Bones doing at the Admiral Benbow? In fact, he seems to have no real idea. He has Flint's map, the key to a vast fortune, given him — as he says — by Flint on his deathbed, which is probably true, because Flint was much taken with rum himself (as is described in a later chapter) and perhaps Billy Bones seemed to him an appropriate heir. But Billy's former mates know that he has the map, and Billy knows that they know, and he knows they will eventually come after it and him (as of course they will, for his behavior has made it inevitable that people will spread the word of his being there, and he will be recognized by his description).
Billy has good reason to fear his pursuers, because they want his treasure and he does not want to share it. So he waits for the inevitable approach of his former shipmates and, meanwhile, drinks himself to death in an effort not to think about what will happen to him as a result of his unwillingness to give up any of the treasure. In the end, Jim Hawkins pities him.
Trelawney reveals himself as another blusterer, although of a pleasanter sort than Billy. He is openhanded, quick to think well of people (he pronounces Jim a "trump" without having any good reason to think so and offers him a hearty meal), and he is impulsive, deciding immediately to go after the treasure and telling not only Livesey but also Jim, whom he has just met and has no reason to trust, of his decision. He is also, as Jim says without resentment or irony, "condescending" — that is, he is aware of his wealth and position and pleased that others are aware of it. He has always been an important person in the district, a big frog in a small puddle, and you can see that he may be taken advantage of by a reasonably clever person. On the other hand, he is not offended when the doctor (a professional man but not the squire's social equal) tells him that he is likely to talk too much; the squire knows this is true and does not care, because it has never cost him what it may cost him now. Trelawney is a hearty man and, so far, a lucky one; readers like him but do not really trust him.
Dr. Livesey is trustworthy. He is revealed as a conventionally good man: honest, outspoken, courageous, steady, and notably un-condescending. You discover very little more about him than this as the novel progresses. But because you already know that he survives the voyage, Livesey becomes a sort of anchor for the reader, an adult whom you know will act firmly and with good sense throughout the book.
The fourth major character presented is Jim Hawkins himself, the narrator and apparently the novel's protagonist. What do you discover about Jim? His age is not immediately obvious, but you know something about the century in which he lives: "17__," he writes, and from later evidence in the book, you may put the events of this first chapter at no earlier than 1730 or so and no later than around 1750 or '55. During this time period, the age at which young men were considered adults and at which they often went to sea as common sailors or even junior officers was about sixteen; because the squire suggests that he be a cabin boy instead of an ensign or mate, you can guess that Jim is in or very near his early teens. He is young enough that Black Dog can patronize him as "sonny" and that blind Pew recognizes his youth; his voice has apparently not begun to deepen. (Stevenson's stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, in whose company he wrote Treasure Island, was about twelve years old when this writing began, so it is tempting to think that the young protagonist himself is about that age or perhaps a year older.) Jim must be literate and fairly intelligent, and he must subsequently have proved himself honest, or he would probably not have been asked to write this record of events. He is open and trusting, first of "the captain" and later of Black Dog and then of Pew, but he learns quickly and is mature enough to pity Billy Bones. He is responsible at his work, and although much later he tells you that he had often played "boys games," you do not see him doing that now, only working. It's probably fair to say that Jim at this point is a normal young teenager of his (or at least of Stevenson's) time, and, like boys of our own time — although perhaps in different ways — sometimes still a child and sometimes, when circumstances demand it, almost an adult.
The minor characters who appear in this part are relatively few. The pirates, Black Dog and Pew, give you a taste of some of the pirates Jim will meet on the voyage. Black Dog is patently a cruel, vicious man, patronizing Jim, calling him "sonny," talking about "discipline" — all very thinly veiled threats: Do what I say or I will hurt you. Pew, the blind beggar (and you later discover that he is indeed a beggar, having wasted his own wealth in record time), applies pain directly instead of merely threatening. Like another character whom you meet later, Pew is physically daunting, having overcome his disability to an extent that would be admirable in a different man and is frightening in this one. Although you see Black Dog for an instant in the next part of the book, neither of these men figures in the rest of the story. Yet their presence as individuals is felt effectively here; like Billy Bones, they lend Treasure Island color and texture from the beginning.
Jim's father, on the other hand, is almost a nonentity so far as the book is concerned. He scarcely speaks, and Jim scarcely speaks of him. All you know of Hawkins senior is that he owns and operates an inn that has very little business, that he is ill (dead before the end of the third chapter, like Billy Bones), and that he allows the person who is apparently the inn's only actual guest free room and board, not out of charity but out of timidity — he is afraid to face the old sailor and demand the money due him. One may say, of course, that he is not important to the book, that his fictional existence is necessary only as a nearly anonymous innkeeper whose young son finds a treasure map left by a deceased guest. But why, then, does he appear at all? Note, for example, that in the 1934 MGM film directed by Victor Fleming, in some ways the best of the movies made of Treasure Island, Jim's father is said to have died well before the film opens.
One possible reason for Mr. Hawkins' appearance seems to be related to one of the themes of the book, that its central action is a quest for Flint's treasure (just as Jason's quest, in Greek mythology, is for the Golden Fleece). But Jim's quest, too, is for a father. Not only do you know that is he suddenly left fatherless, you also know that the man who raised him lacked courage to collect payment for services he provided. No wonder Jim's father appears in the book as a nonentity; although the comparison is unspoken, the reader is aware throughout the novel that Jim must be comparing him, perhaps unconsciously, with all the other men into whose company he is now thrust.
Another minor character deserves a mention. Jim's mother, whose first name is never given, is the only female character in the book, and she is barely sketched as an individual, let alone drawn in any detail. Yet in the one instance of action she is allowed, she shows herself to be a stronger person than her husband (to whom she defers, as convention required, when he is alive). He does not dare to ask Billy Bones for the money owed them, but after both he and Billy are dead, Mrs. Hawkins berates the men of the village who refuse to accompany her back into danger. She insists on going back to the inn, on opening the sea chest, and on counting out as well as she can the exact amount due her. Jim leaves no doubt that he would not have chosen to go back, or that — having been forced to accompany his mother — he would have taken a random number of coins and left immediately. He blames her, he says in an interesting phrase, for her honesty as well as for her greed.
And, while greed is certainly one of the themes of Treasure Island, it is interesting to note here that greed is not attributed solely to the "bad" characters, represented in the first part of the novel by Billy Bones and by Pew, who loses his life mainly because he insists (like Mrs. Hawkins) upon finding what he and his mates have come for, even after the signal of danger has been heard and the others want to run away without the map. Squire Trelawney, too, who has plenty of money, is immediately eager to spend quite a lot of it in a search for the treasure; and Dr. Livesey, who seems happy in his position in the district and also seems to have a better idea of the dangers this enterprise may hold, is anything but reluctant to agree with Trelawney's hastily-formed plan. Seven hundred thousand pounds — as the island's treasure is eventually estimated — is a lot of money, and to some extent everyone in the book is under its spell from the start.
buccaneer a pirate, a sea robber.
saber a heavy cavalry sword with a slightly curved blade.
his tarry pigtail . . . Sailors of the period commonly treated their braided hair with the same tar they used to waterproof ropes and sails.
capstan an apparatus around which cables or hawsers are wound for hoisting anchors. The devise resembles a tuning peg on a stringed instrument, so the captain's voice sounds as if it had been tuned too tightly and broken.
handspike a heavy bar used as a lever, as in turning a capstan.
a man who sailed before the mast . . . a common sailor, not an officer; from the quarters of the crew ahead of the foremast.
cove a small bay or inlet.
mail a vehicle by which mail is delivered (in this case, a stage coach).
Dry Tortugas a group of small islands of Florida, west of Key West.
Spanish Main the Caribbean Sea, or that part of it adjacent to the northern coast of South America.
the sort of man that made England terrible at sea England was the strongest sea power among European nations of the period, both in its royal navy and its privateers; the man uses "terrible" in the sense of "terrifying, justifiably feared."
the cocks of his hat Sailors of the period wore hats whose brims they rolled on three sides to form a stiff triangle; the Captain's hat has come unrolled on one side.
his powder white as snow Fashionable upper- and middle-class men in the 1700s wore various styles of wig; these were often bleached white and treated regularly with white talc.
magistrate a civil officer empowered to administer the law.
assizes court sessions held periodically in each county of England to try civil and criminal cases.
cutlas an old spelling of cutlass; a short, thick, curving sword with a single cutting edge, used especially by sailors.
split him to the chine cut him through to the backbone.
I have drawn blood enough A common medical practice was to draw blood from a patient; this was standard treatment for a variety of ailments and was supposed to be effective.
swabs enlisted men or common sailors; a derisive term as the captain uses it.
Yellow Jack yellow fever, an acute, infectious tropical disease caused by a virus and spread by mosquitoes.
apoplexy a stroke.
hamlet a small village.
lugger a small vessel equipped with a lugsail (a four-sided sail supported by a spar — a slender wooden rod — that is fastened to the mast).
gully a large knife.
quadrant an instrument (later replaced by the sextant) used in navigating.
cannikin a small can; a metal drinking cup.
two brace two pair.
alow and aloft nautical terms for "below and above" meaning thoroughly, in every possible place.
their glim their light, in this case their candle, whose wax or tallow is still warm.
dingle a deep, wooded valley.
Master Pew's dead . . . if make it out they can The revenue officer (tax collector) is unpopular and knows it; he wants to report Pew's accidental death (which he caused) to the magistrate (Livesey) before someone else misreports it as deliberate.
the Hall . . . the squire The squire is the principal landowner of a district; the Hall is his place of residence, usually a large, old house.
a trump a good fellow.
sealed . . . thimble Letters and documents were sometimes stuck shut with wax, which was then impressed with a seal, a device to ensure they had not been opened; the captain has sealed his packet using a thimble, a metal cap used to protect a finger when sewing.
play duck and drake with waste, squander (from a game, "ducks and drakes," of skipping flat stones across water).