Black Spot (Treasure Island)

The Black Spot is a literary device invented by Robert Louis Stevenson for his novel Treasure Island (serialized 1881–82, published as a book in 1883). In the book, pirates are presented with a "black spot" to officially pronounce a verdict of guilt or judgement. It consists of a circular piece of paper or card, with one side blackened while the other side bears a message and placed in the hand of the accused.[1] It was a source of much fear because it meant the pirate was to be deposed as leader, by force if necessary—or else killed outright. In Treasure Island, Billy Bones is much frightened by it but remains determined to outwit his enemies; however, he suffers a stroke caused by the overconsumption of liquor and is killed by the blind beggar (Pew).[2] Later Long John Silver receives the spot, but is calm enough to notice that the paper bearing the spot has been torn out from a Bible, and warns his associates of the bad luck this will bring upon them.[3]

The words on the back of that black spot were spookily from Revelation, like an allusion to the beast's mark and judgement day i.e. Chapter 29:

It was around about the size of a crown piece. One side was blank, for it had been the last leaf; the other contained a verse or two of Revelation—these words among the rest, which struck sharply home upon my mind: "Without are dogs and murderers." The printed side had been blackened with wood ash, which already began to come off and soil my fingers; on the blank side had been written with the same material the one word "Depposed".[4][5]


The origin of Stevenson's Black Spot might be in the historical tradition of Caribbean pirates of showing an Ace of Spades to a person condemned as traitor or informer. The card was putting the person dangerously "on the spot", as the ace bears a single pip.[6][7][8]

Appearances in other works

The Black Spot has since been used in other works of popular culture:

Listed chronologically:

  • 1930: In the novel Swallows and Amazons the pirate captain called Uncle Jim (James Turner, also known as Captain Flint) receives the Black Spot from Nancy, a member of his crew.
  • 1938: In the film Algiers Regis draws the ace of spades when forced to cut the deck. Carlos calls this drawing of the black spot "very bad luck".
  • 1946: In the novel Joy in the Morning by P. G. Wodehouse, Boko Fittleworth commiserates with Bertie Wooster on learning that Bertie, rather than Stilton Cheesewright, has become engaged to Florence Craye by saying, "I did think that the black spot had finally passed into Stilton's possession."
  • 1948: Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery" describes use of the black spot to select the annual victim of ritual human sacrifice.
  • 1969: In A Pirate Utopia the pirate lord, Olaf, is given the black spot by Leonard as he had tortured some people without permission.
  • 1986: In Stephen King's novel It, the doomed "Negro nightclub" is named "The Black Spot".
  • 1990: "The Black Spot" is mentioned by a convict at the end of an episode of "The Bill" (series 6, episode 71, "Where There's a Will".[9])
  • 1996: In the movie Muppet Treasure Island, a retelling of Treasure Island, the black spot is drawn on a piece of paper and given to Billy Bones; when he explains that the black spot is "a pirate's death sentence" the Great Gonzo utters "Fabulous". It is also given to Long John Silver on a leaf from a Bible, but he escapes execution by claiming they have defiled the holy book.
  • 2000: The 2000 video-game Skies of Arcadia presented players with a black spot, a message from a bounty hunter that they would soon be hunted down and killed.
  • 2002: Puzzle Pirates, an MMORPG created by Three Rings Design, uses the term "Black Spot" to refer to a temporary way to silence rude and disruptive players.
  • 2006: In the Disney feature film Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Captain Jack Sparrow is presented with a "Black Spot" by Davy Jones as a marker that the Kraken can track; in the film, the black spot appears as a large black boil-like swelling on the palm of his hand.
  • 2007: In the CBS reality television show Pirate Master, the black spot is given by the captain to the three contestants that he nominates to be voted off.
  • 2008: On the indie-Americana band Murder By Death's fourth album Red of Tooth and Claw, there is a song titled "The Black Spot" in which the singer laments, "The black spot, I never thought I'd be the one givin' it to you."
  • 2009: The pirate-themed power/folk metal band Alestorm featured the Black Spot in their song "Chronicles of Vengeance" on their second album Black Sails at Midnight.
  • 2011: The third episode of Series 6 (Season 32) of Doctor Who, "The Curse of the Black Spot", takes place on a pirate ship, and the black spot appears on the palm of anyone who is sick or injured, causing a supernatural seductress known as The Siren to hunt them down.
  • 2006–2011: Kate Beaton's Hark! A Vagrant:, on page 265, has a pirate receive a black spot from another pirate before he is shot for pointing out that the practice was invented by Stevenson. On page 281, in the strip "Davey Jones, I mean, In the drink", a man receives a black spot from gangsters but tells them "You've mixed up genres".
  • 2012: In the TV series 30 Rock, in Season 6 Episode 3, "Idiots Are People Three", Jack Donaghy hands Criss (Liz Lemon's new boyfriend) a black spot while telling Liz he is Officially Disapproving of Criss (with no "H" and two "S"). He later presents Criss with a gold star following his marriage to Liz Lemon.
  • 2016: In the TV series Black Sails, Season 3 Episode 10, "Chapter XXVIII", Billy Bones uses a black spot to intimidate traitors in Nassau.
  • 2017: In the WIB Optimist Project Akshay Mathur the Black Spot is given to his team to indicate work to be done.
  • 2018: The JT Music channel of Rooster Teeth released the Sea of Thieves themed rap Booty Bound that refers to a black spot being given to any pirate who fails to find the treasure being searched for.[10]


  1. The fullest description is in chapter 29 of the book where the narrator describes still having Silver's Black Spot in his possession.
  2. Robert Louis Stevenson. "3-4". Treasure Island. Billy Bones receives the spot - chapter 3
  3. Robert Louis Stevenson. Treasure Island. Long John Silver receives the spot from Morgan - chapter 29
  4. SparkNotes. SparkNotes: Treasure Island.SparkNotes on Treasure Island -
  5. Robert Louis Stevenson. Treasure Island. Words on the black spot - chapter 29
  6. Doug Lennox (2003). Now You Know: The Book of Answers. Hounslow Press. p. 87.
  7. "Brian H. Scoott, "All kinds of Trivia"". Archived from the original on 2011-05-30. Retrieved 2011-06-02.
  8. "Origins of Ace of Spades being the "death card" allotted to pirates". Archived from the original on 2014-07-15. Retrieved 2011-06-02.
  9. The Bill (series 6)
  10. JT Music (2018). Booty Bound. Rooster Teeth.
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