The History of Norman Island: In this fascinating post, you’re going to discover a short description about Norman Island, a private island in the British Virgin Islands, and for whom the island may have been named. You’ll also discover the island’s unique connection to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and the 14 similarities between Norman Island and Stevenson’s imaginary Island. 🏴☠️
The following account came from the new book entitled, Vintage Norman Island: True Treasure Tales by Valerie Sims.
☞ It’s currently available on amazon and in many of the local shops in the US and British Virgin Islands.
A Brief Description of Norman Island
Norman Island, a real-life pirate island, is believed to be the ninth largest island in the British Virgin Islands, nestled in the vibrant blue waters in the West Indies.
Its circumference is about 3 miles, containing over 620 acres, and lies fifteen miles due east of St. Thomas.
The isle is reputed to be the inspiration behind Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel, Treasure Island and soon you’ll know why.
The Sir Francis Drake Channel
Located astride the Sir Francis Drake Channel, one of the finest sailing grounds in the world, Norman Island is also one of the most popular yachting destinations in the Caribbean.
The Sir Francis Drake Channel was once known as the Virgin’s Gangway or Freebooters’ Gangway until it was renamed in honor of Drake, the most renowned privateer of the Elizabethan Age.
Sir Francis Drake, El Draque
In 1585, Sir Francis Drake, along with 1,800 men, were rumoured to have anchored in the Bight before they sailed on to capture the city of Santo Domingo.
Their visit may have been the reason Soldier’s Bay and Privateer’s Bay were aptly named.
Infamous captains like William Kidd, “Black Sam” Bellamy, and Blackbeard also frequented these waters, dashing into secret coves and inlets to hide their nefarious activities. The rocky bluffs that abound were the perfect hideaway for them.
At the northwestern end of the island, there’s a promontory called Treasure Point, where three musty caves open to the sea.
The largest cave extends about seventy feet into the mountainside, allowing snorkelers and small dinghies inside to explore. It twists around into a narrow chamber where a copper chest with over 200 coins was found in 1965.
Nearby, at Privateer’s Bay, the land rises steeply to 440-feet at the highest summit on the island. At its peak, a breathtakingly beautiful view awaits the adventurous explorer.
Along these slopes, huge turpentine trees with red columns grow in profusion.
Their paper-thin bark peels away in the scorching sun like a painful sunburn.
Did you know that a red-columned tree was the principal marker to the location where £700,000 in gold lay buried in Treasure Island?
Perhaps a legendary treasure still awaits discovery under one of their spreading shadows.
For Whom was Norman Island Named?
There are countless stories about how and for whom Norman Island was named, making it difficult to know with certainty.
- In 1997, Arnold R. Highfield, a local historian and author, translated J.L. Carstens’, Thomas in Early Danish Times. Carstens’ 1740 manuscript provided the earliest written perspective.
Carstens research led him to believe that “Norman Island was named for a Danish man who was called, ‘Nord Mand’. He was an inhabitant and planter on the nearby island of St. Thomas.
‘Nord Mand’ reportedly moved to Norman Island with his enslaved workers and his furnishings to cultivate the island.”
If this supposition was true, ‘Nord Mand’ would have to have lived on the island many years prior to 1737.
That’s when Governor John Hart granted the entire island to its first recorded owner, Colonel Francis Phipps.
- Hamilton Cochran, the author of These are the Virgin Islands, (1937) published an interesting letter written from a gentleman planter of Tortola in 1760 to his brother in Britain.
This letter described the buccaneers who freely used the Sir Francis Drake Channel.
The tale he shared was very similar to that of the money diggers. It read:
“Norman, a buccaneer, for whom the island may be named, separated himself from his associates, then in force on the island of Anegada, and settled with his portion of the general booty on this Cay.”
“When the news reached Puerto Rico, Spanish Guarda Costas were ordered up the channel to sink, burn, and destroy all the freebooters they encountered.
In a conflict of this nature, Norman and his followers allegedly perished, not however, until they had deposited their hoard in that secret strong box, the earth.”
- There was a similar interpretation found in Letters from the Virgin Islands, which was published by an unknown author. (1843)
- George T. Eggleston, author of Virgin Islands, (1959) concurred that, “Norman Island was named for a pirate skipper who had a one-man kingdom on the island, hence the name Norman’s Retreat. For many years, he preyed upon the shipping that passed through the Sir Francis Drake Channel.”
There’s no doubt that Norman Island’s past is steeped in mystery and pirate legends.
Perhaps the origin of its name is not as important as its contribution to the history and beauty of the British Virgin Islands.
The Robert Louis Stevenson Connection
It’s widely believed that Stevenson found inspiration for his novel from what he may have learned about the pirate history of Norman Island, but in reality, he never visited the island.
The Robert Louis Stevenson Club has another viewpoint regarding Stevenson’s inspirations which you’ll find in Chapter 6 of the book.
Stevenson’s Inspirations and Influences
What is known is that Stevenson found value in the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, Daniel Defoe, and Washington Irving to complete Treasure Island,
He was also influenced by other adventure writers, like:
- Captain Charles Johnson’s, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates.
- Charles Kingsley’s, At Last: A Christmas in the West Indies, where the name Dead Man’s Chest
- Edgar Allan Poe’s, Robinson Crusoe, where the parrot once belonged to, and The Gold Bug, for the idea of the skeleton.
- Frederick Marryat’s, Masterman Ready, for the idea of the stockade and,
- Washington Irving’s, Tales of a Traveler, where the idea for Billy Bones and his chest originated.
In one of the forwards of his novel, he acknowledged three additional authors, W.G.H. Kingston, R. M. Ballantyne, and James Fenimore Cooper.
Stevenson even added some of his own recollections of canoeing on the high seas and a cruise he took on a schooner.
However, the most important contribution, he said, came from the map itself, ‘with its infinite, eloquent suggestion.’
“Perhaps it is not often that a map figures so largely in a tale,” he added, “yet it is always important.”
“The author must know his countryside, whether real or imaginary, like his hand; the distances, the points of the compass, the place of the sun’s rising and the behavior of the moon, should all be beyond cavil.
And oh, how troublesome the moon was!”
If you’ve ever anchored in the Bight, hiked to Spyglass Hill, or explored the popular caves, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the uncanny resemblances between Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Norman Island.
Here are 14 Attributes Norman Island and the British Virgin Islands have in Common with Stevenson’s Treasure Island
1. ‘Like a Fat Dragon Standing Up’
Stevenson wrote, “It was an uninhabited island, about nine miles long and five across, shaped, you might say, like a fat dragon standing up.”
☞ References to the shape of Treasure Island looking like a fat dragon standing up are more in line with Guana Island off Tortola’s northeast coast.
Both Guana Island and Dead Chest Island are in the same local, giving credence to Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” being located in the British Virgin Islands
2. Skeleton Island and the Anchorage
“The mainland on one side and Skeleton Island on the other. The bottom was clean sand.
The plunge of our anchor sent up clouds of birds wheeling and crying over the woods, but in less than a minute they were down again, and all was once more silent. “
“We had a dreary morning’s work before us, for there was no sign of any wind, and the boats had to be got out and manned, and the ship warped three or four miles round the corner of the island and up the narrow passage to the haven behind Skeleton Island. “
“…and the anchorage, under lee of Skeleton Island, lay still and leaden as when first we entered it. The Hispaniola, in that unbroken mirror, was exactly portrayed from the truck to the waterline, the Jolly Roger hanging from her peak.”
“Yes, sir; Skeleton Island, they calls it. It was a main place for pirates once, and a hand we had on board knowed all their names for it. That hill to the nor’ard they calls the Fore-mast Hill; there are three hills in a row running south’ard–fore, main, and mizzen, sir.”
☞ Pelican Island, with a height of 180 feet, is located at the mouth of the Bight.
It fits the description perfectly of Stevenson’s Skeleton Island being located behind the anchorage. If you’ve ever been the first to drop your anchor in the Bight, you can relate to the cloud of birds that take flight after you do so.
Stevenson explained the effects of the ‘plunge of an anchor’ with precision, as if he had thrown the anchor himself. The three hills referenced could be Money Bay, representing the ‘Foremast’, Spyglass Hill in the center, and West Hill, although slightly taller than Spyglass Hill, could be the ‘Mizzen Mast’.
“The mainland on one side and Skeleton Island on the other. The bottom was clean sand. The plunge of our anchor sent up clouds of birds wheeling and crying over the woods, but in less than a minute they were down again, and all was once more silent. “
- “We had a dreary morning’s work before us, for there was no sign of any wind, and the boats had to be got out and manned, and the ship warped three or four miles round the corner of the island and up the narrow passage to the haven behind Skeleton Island. “
- “…and the anchorage, under lee of Skeleton Island, lay still and leaden as when first we entered it. The Hispaniola, in that unbroken mirror, was exactly portrayed from the truck to the waterline, the Jolly Roger hanging from her peak.”
- “Yes, sir; Skeleton Island, they calls it. It was a main place for pirates once, and a hand we had on board knowed all their names for it. That hill to the nor’ard they calls the Fore-mast Hill; there are three hills in a row running south’ard–fore, main, and mizzen, sir.” Pelican Island, with a height of 180 feet, is located at the mouth of the Bight.
☞ It fits the description perfectly of Stevenson’s Skeleton Island being located behind the anchorage.
If you’ve ever been the first to drop your anchor in the Bight, you can relate to the cloud of birds that take flight after you do so. Stevenson explained the effects of the ‘plunge of an anchor’ with precision, as if he had thrown the anchor himself.
The three hills referenced could be Money Bay, representing the ‘Foremast’, Spyglass Hill in the center, and West Hill, although slightly taller than Spyglass Hill, could be the ‘Mizzen Mast’.
3. Spyglass Hill
- “The hills ran up clear above the vegetation in spires of naked rock. All were strangely shaped, and the Spy-Glass, which was by three or four hundred feet the tallest on the island, was likewise the strangest in configuration, running up sheer from almost every side, and then suddenly cut off at the top like a pedestal to put a statue on.”
- “The outline of the Spyglass trembled through the haze, a tall pinnacle of the mountain.”
- “Sheer above us rose the Spyglass, here dotted with single pines, there black with precipices.
- “But the main–that’s the big un, with the cloud on it—they usually calls the Spy-glass, by reason of a lookout they kept when they was in the anchorage cleaning, for it’s there they cleaned their ships, sir, asking your pardon.”
☞ According to admiralty charts, Norman Island’s ‘Spyglass Hill’ is 429-feet high and commands a 365° sweeping view of the island’s surroundings, including the harbour where ships careened.
At the top are clusters of large rocks or boulders, uniformly shaped and thick. They’re like mismatched pieces of a jumbled puzzle.
Spyglass Hill is immediately recognizable on the horizon from any direction, for its center rises upwards towards the clouds, like a huge dormant volcano, similar to Stevenson’s Island.
4. The Caves
- “A gentle slope ran up from the beach to the entrance of the cave. At the top, the squire met us. To me, he was cordial and kind, saying nothing of my escapade either in the way of blame or praise. At Silver’s polite salute, he somewhat flushed.”
- “And thereupon we all entered the cave. It was a large, airy place, with a little spring and a pool of clear water, overhung with ferns. The floor was sand. Before a big fire lay Captain Smollett, and in a far corner, only duskily flickered over by the blaze, I beheld great heaps of coin and quadrilaterals built of bars of gold.”
- “For my part, as I was not much use at carrying, I was kept busy all day in the cave, packing the minted money into bread-bags.”
☞ Norman Island is home to four unique caves.
Three of them are located near Treasure Point on the western end of the island, and one is on the north shore beyond Soldier’s Bay.
The latter is not a sea-cave like the others. Its entrance is located a few yards from the ocean on higher ground.
However, there is a promontory on the southern side of the Island, that could be described as a ‘two-pointed hill’ when viewed on a map.
Unlike Stevenson’s Island, there are no caves at this location.
The mere fact that large caves in which several people can enter exist on Norman Island adds to the mounting similarities between the two locals.
5. The Swamps
“Two little rivers, or rather two swamps, emptied out into this pond, as you might call it: and the foliage round that part of the shore had a kind of poisonous brightness.”
☞ Just beyond the Bight, you’ll find two salty, swampy ponds at the base of two hills. They fill with every heavy rainfall.
6. The Amphitheatre
“The place was entirely land-locked, buried in woods, the trees coming right down to high-water mark, the shores mostly flat, and the hilltops standing round at a distance in a sort of amphitheater, one here, one there.”
☞ If you’re in the Bight on a quiet day, you’ll understand this feeling of being in an amphitheater. The sounds echo and reverberate off the surrounding hills like you’re standing in the center of a round stadium as undulating sound-waves pervade you from all sides.
7. The Black Crag
“The bar silver is in the north cache; you can find it by the trend of the east hummock, ten fathoms south of the black crag with the face on it.”
☞ Above the caves sits a large, upright rock with a ‘face’ carved into its surface. Its ‘eyes’ are slanted with the edges angled upwards. The ‘mouth’ is an opening to a shallow depression.
I climbed up from the Bight to get a closer look, only to be held back by the thought of a deathly drop of two hundred feet to the ocean floor below.
This was a dangerous climb and not recommended. Besides, you can only view the rock face from the sea below. “The bar silver and the arms still lie, for all that I know, where Flint buried them…”
8. The Goats
“Ah,” says he, “this here is a sweet spot, this island–a sweet spot for a lad to get ashore on. You’ll bathe, and you’ll climb trees, and you’ll hunt goats, you will; and you’ll get aloft on them hills like a goat yourself.”
“Ben Gunn’s cave was well supplied with goat’s meat, salted by himself.”
“Marooned three years agone,” he continued, “and lived on goats since then, and berries, and oysters.”
“Left, left,” says he; “keep to your left hand, mate Jim! Under the trees with you! Theer’s where I killed my first goat.”
“What a supper I had of it that night, with all my friends around me; and what a meal it was, with Ben Gunn’s salted goat and some delicacies and a bottle of old wine from the HISPANIOLA.”
“We left a good stock of powder and shot, the bulk of the salted goat, a few medicines, and some other necessaries, tools, clothing, a spare sail, a fathom or two of rope, and by the particular desire of the doctor, a handsome present of tobacco.
☞ Norman Island has been a sanctuary for small herds of wild goats for hundreds of years.
In 1916, when their number was counted for H.O. Creque’s estate, there were found to be 250 goats roaming wild on the island.
Goat meat was a necessary food source, so it’s no surprise that Ben Gunn’s fictional character enjoyed it too.
9. The Red-Columned Trees
The first of the tall trees was reached, and by the bearings proved the wrong one. So, with the second.
The third rose nearly two hundred feet into the air above a clump of underwood–a giant of a vegetable, with a red column as big as a cottage, and a wide shadow around in which a company could have maneuvered.
It was conspicuous far to sea, both on the east and west and might have been entered as a sailing mark upon the chart.
☞ The reference to the “red columned” tree is indicative of the turpentine trees or Gumbo-Limbo trees found all over Norman Island.
Locally, they are known as ‘tourist’ trees because the bark peels off easily in patches, as if sunburned.
They can grow from 25 to 40 feet tall, and 25 to 30 feet wide, so they can appear quite large, although not as tall as those described on Stevenson’s imaginary island.
Fast-growing turpentine trees have a life span of about 100 years.
With a spreading canopy of 60 feet, they can cast the perfect shadow over a hidden cache.
10. Dead Man’s Chest
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!
Stevenson acknowledged Charles Kingsley, who sailed through the British Virgin Islands in the late 1860s, for the name ‘Dead Man’s Chest’.
The following account is the exact passage in Kingsley’s novel, At Last: A Christmas in the West Indies, that inspired him.
“We were crawling slowly along, in thick haze and heavy rain, having passed Sombrero unseen; and were away in a gray shoreless world of waters, looking out for Virgin Gorda; the first of those numberless isles which Columbus, so goes the tale, discovered on St. Ursula’s Day, and named them after the Saint and her eleven thousand mythical virgins.”
“Unfortunately, English buccaneers have since then, given to most of them, less poetic names.”
“The Dutchman’s Cap, Broken Jerusalem, The Dead Man’s Chest, Rum Island, and so forth, mark a time and a race more prosaic, but still more terrible, though not one whit more wicked and brutal, than the Spanish Conquistadores.”
“Their descendants, in the seventeenth century, smote hip and thigh with great destruction.”
☞ Kingsley’s story was the seed for Stevenson’s invention, but including the phrase, ‘Fifteen-Men’, was wholly original with Stevenson.
The Department of Land Registry recorded the island as Dead Chest Island, but in the early days, the inhabitants called it ‘Duchess’.
Some have remarked that the island appears to look like that of a ‘dead man’ lying on his back with a protruding outline of his face and flat chest. Others believed that the island resembled a coffin, hence the name Dead Chest.
11. The Breakers
“There was no sound but that of the distant breakers, mounting from all around, and the chirp of countless insects in the brush. Not a man, not a sail, upon the sea; the very largeness of the view increased the sense of solitude.”
☞ Standing on the plateau, under the lee of Spyglass Hill, one can often hear the roaring surf on the southern side of the island, breaking against the rocks.
12. The Map
“The doctor opened the seals with care, and there fell out the map of an island, with latitude and longitude, soundings, names of hills and bays and inlets, and every particular that would be needed to bring a ship to a safe anchorage upon its shores.”
☞ August 1750 was the date on Stevenson’s treasure map. That was the same month and year that Captain Bonilla’s flotilla departed Havana, Cuba, for Spain.
This further supports the connection to the story of the Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe and the piratical events that followed: for instance, the derelict ship, laden with treasure, the mutiny, her cargo stolen by pirates, (one of whom had a wooden leg), and marooning the men on a deserted island in the West Indies!
13. The Two-Pointed Hill
“Ben, in his long, lonely wanderings about the island, had found the skeleton—it was he that had rifled it; he had found the treasure; he had dug it up (it was the haft of his pick-axe that lay broken in the excavation.) He had carried it on his back, in many weary journeys, from the foot of the tall pine to a cave he had on the two-pointed hill at the north-east angle of the island, and there it had lain stored in safety, since two months before the arrival of the HISPANIOLA.”
“As we passed the two-pointed hill, we could see the black mouth of Ben Gunn’s cave and a figure standing by it, leaning on a musket. A gentle slope ran up from the beach to the entrance of the cave. At the top, the squire met us.”
“The next morning, we fell early to work, for the transportation of this great mass of gold near a mile by land to the beach, and thence three miles by boat to the Hispaniola, was a considerable task for so small a number of workmen.”
☞ Norman Island has a ‘two-pointed hill’ on its southern shore.
My husband, Dave, and I thought we spotted a cave there and set out to prove, once and for all, if it existed.
When we tried to hike to the entrance from Bluff Bay, a low-lying type of cactus that lay in wait for our vulnerable ankles to pass assaulted us, scratching and pulling at our skin.
From the sea, there appeared to be a dark precipice where a cave might be located, but once we hiked up for a closer look, it was an imaginary illusion. There was no cave on this two-pointed hill.
The unfriendly terrain may be one of the reasons why my husband no longer accompanied me on my treasure hunting adventures! Norman Island can be quite inhospitable sometimes.
14. The Location of the Bulk of the Treasure
“In the captain’s tottery characters these words were written, “Bulk of treasure here”. Over on the back, in the same hand, was written this further information:
1. Tall tree, Spy-glass shoulder, bearing a point to the N. of N.N.E.
Skeleton Island E.S.E. and by E. Ten Feet
2. The bar silver is in the north cache; you can find it by the trend of the east hummock, ten fathoms south of the back crag with the face on it.
3. The arms are easy found in the sand-hill N. Point of North Inlet Cape, bearing E. and a quarter N.
Signed: J.F. “That was all; but brief as it was, to me incomprehensible, it filled the squire and Dr. Livesey with delight.”
☞ The location of the bulk of the treasure on Spyglass’s shoulder mirrors an exact spot that can be found on Norman Island today.
The plateau is clearly visible from the anchorage, but you won’t find “a tall tree that rises nearly two hundred feet into the air above a clump of underwood, a giant of a vegetable, with a red column as big as a cottage.”
The height of the trees on the island fall short of 200 feet.
Furthermore, Stevenson’s compass readings differ due to the orientation of his imaginary island. Despite this, that a location can be aligned on Spyglass Hill with Pelican Island in the distance remains another undeniable similarity.
A Reputation Rightfully Earned
There are many islands in the Caribbean that share similar characteristics to Stevenson’s Treasure Island, but very few, if any, share all fourteen resemblances. The similarities are quite remarkable.
Remember, not every passage in Treasure Island translates equally to a feature on Norman Island, so an exact comparison cannot be made.
The following paragraph for instance, describes an encounter with rattle snakes.
“Here and there I saw snakes, and one raised his head from a ledge of rock and hissed at me with a noise not unlike the spinning of a top.”
“Little did I suppose that he was a deadly enemy, and that the noise was the famous rattle.”
You won’t find rattle snakes, great banks of fog, or oysters around Norman Island, because Treasure Island was a work of fiction.
However, the uncanny number of similarities that do ring true has rightfully earned Norman Island the reputation it has for being akin to Stevenson’s imaginary island, more so than any other island in the West Indies. 🏴☠️
Order a copy today of Vintage Norman Island: True Treasure Tales to learn more about the history of Norman Island!
☞ The memoir was written by the great-great granddaughter of Henry Osmond Creque who first purchased the island in 1896, and into whose family it remained for 103 years.