The 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.

Dead 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 .

British Virgin Islands Map

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