In re-visiting Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island", we were reminded of one thing that bothered us when we first read it as children: the character of Israel Hands.
For those unfamiliar with the timeless classic, Hands is one of Long John Silver's pirates who meets an untimely death in a fight with the novel's protagonist, young Jim Hawkins. But being killed by a 13-year-old is not what bothered us; Hands' first name did. Why Israel? (And yes, it bothered us when we read it as children. Our quest for Jews is long.)
Why would Stevenson give one of his pirates such an overtly Jewish name? Was he trying to tell us something? And if Stevenson was to make one character Jewish, why did he pick the despicable Hands, who straight out lies to Jim and then tries to murder him?
The answer is simple. Stevenson named his character after a real-life pirate, Israel Hands. And, as far as we can tell, there was nothing Jewish about him, other than a coincidental first name.
The real-life Hands was second in command to Blackbeard, in charge of one of his ships. After he was captured by the English, Hands turned in corrupt colonial North Carolina officials in exchange for his life. An 18th century whistle-blower, if you will.
Hands died a beggar on the streets of London. Whether that's a better end than his fictional doppelganger is up in the air. But at least now we can enjoy "Treasure Island" for what it is: a timeless swashbuckling adventure with NO latent antisemitism.
Yo ho ho, and a bottle of rum.