Where The Secret of Monkey Island is a pretty straightforward pirate game, LeChuck's Revenge dives deep into fantasy territory. That does not mean, however, that there isn't a rich historical background to be discovered in the second Monkey Island game. It just means that that historical background is a bit different, and at times a bit darker than the pirate history from the first game. Let's explore.
- William Congreve
The entire story of the game is built around Guybrush going on a treasure hunt, to seek out the legendary pirate treasure of Big Whoop. Now, the existence of a real-life Big Whoop is unlikely at best, but what about hunting legendary pirate treasure in general? There is definitely a fascination with treasure in real life as well, and that's not just a recent development.
For instance, in the period between 1780 and 1830, there was a surge in treasure-seekers in Northeast America. People believed that there were many treasures to be found in that area, all guarded by pirate ghosts of course, and they sought them out using supernatural methods. Among these divining treasure hunters were Joseph Smith, Sr. and his son Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of Mormonism.
Now, before you go out with your shovel to see if there aren't any treasure chests buried in your backyard, one word of advice. While it is true that many pirates were filthy rich with all the plundering they did, those guys in Northeast America didn't actually find all that much. It seems that haunted pirate treasures are the stuff of folklore, and of video games.
- William Congreve
Maps play a very important role in LeChuck's Revenge. As in the first game, treasure maps feature prominently, and with the addition of Wally the map maker, maps are getting the recognition they deserve. And when you say maps, you say Mercator.
Mercator (a pseudonym for Flemish scholar Gerhard Kremer) is one of the fathers of modern map-making. In 1569, he made a map on which longitude and latitude are represented by straight lines. The orientation of these lines on Mercator's map made it much easier for sailors to plot a straight course without constantly recalculating their position. Mercator's map projection turned out to be so useful that it is still used in navigational maps today.
But map-making started much earlier. The most primitive of people have made navigational maps for ages, even though those can't be compared to the detailed navigational maps of recent centuries. Navigation was, however, not the primary purpose of those mapping the New World. When the Americas were colonized by Europeans, they used maps as an important source of power – a map is perfect to, well, map ambitions and spheres of influence. And even before the era of colonization, the map was known to be a powerful symbol through which one could force its world view upon others – by placing Jerusalem at the centre of a map, for instance.
A map, then, is no mere navigational instrument. It evokes a sense of wonder, being almost magical. It is no wonder that maps are so prominently feature in the Monkey Island games, because maps have, for many centuries up until today, fascinated people.
None but ourselves can free our minds.
- Bob Marley
If Captain Dread, the man with the natty dreads, is a religious man and I were a betting man, I'd bet he's a Rastafarian. He's probably read the book on Rastafarian philosophy in the library on Phatt Island multiple times, and unlike Guybrush, he would 'get it'. Unfortunately though, I would lose that bet to the Anachronism Police. Rastafarianism didn't exist until the 20th century.
At the core of this young faith is Haile Selassie, formerly known as Ras Tafari, who ruled Ethiopia from 1935. Shortly after that year, the Italians invaded Ethiopia, but they were eventually driven back by Ethiopian resistance and British forces in 1941, when Haile Selassie was returned to power, making Ethiopia the first free country in Africa.
This fact, as well as several books and organizations that were introduced to Jamaica in the first half of the twentieth century, helped solidify the Jamaican tie to Africa, and Ethiopia in particular. Rastafarianism offered hope to the Jamaican blacks who suffered from white oppression. In this faith, Ethiopia plays a pivotal role as 'Zion' with Haile Selassie as a saviour and leader, as opposed to the corrupt Western world known as 'Babylon'. Rastafarianism borrows some symbolism from the Bible, but it is as much a political as a religious movement, and could not have developed under the circumstances of the golden age of pirates. Captain Dread was born just a few centuries too early – he would have felt right at home in modern-day Jamaica.
Death and burial
What happens to a body after death plays a large role in LeChuck's Revenge, and one doesn't even have to think of LeChuck's rotting zombie corpse there. From the Scabb Island cemetery with its cosy crypts, to Stan's coffin emporium on Booty Island, death is everywhere in this game. It is therefore interesting to explore how death and burial took place in real-life history.
Originally, the dead were buried outside the city limits, quite simply because living people were scared of dead people. With the advent of the worship of saints however, it became popular to be buried near the grave of a saint, which saw the birth of the church graveyard, inside the city limits. The cemetery was, in early modern times, a popular meeting place within the city. Anyone from merchants to prostitutes gathered there. This changed around the sixteenth century though, when church leaders started suppressing these activities in their backyards, and cemeteries started getting fenced in. This probably happened to the Scabb Island cemetery as well, although the actual church is oddly absent – perhaps torn down by pirates and sold piece by piece.
- P. J. O'Rourke
Ah, Booty Island, the isle of Mardi Gras festivities. But wait, isn't Mardi Gras a New Orleans thing? We might associate it with that city, but Mardi Gras is a much more encompassing holiday, and it has Caribbean influences as well, so it's not so out of place on Booty Island.
One of the Mardi Gras locations with lots of Caribbean influences is Lafayette, Louisiana. It is actually closer to the carnival street parades of the Caribbean than it is to traditional Mardi Gras celebrations, which stem from French culture. Part of the reason why this Creole Mardi Gras is so Caribbean in nature, is because large numbers of Haitians went to Louisiana in the 19th century, taking with them their Afro-Caribbean culture. One example of this influence is the use of feathers, which were thought to be a medium to attract heaven in Yoruba culture. Perhaps LeChuck's voodoo priest is Yoruba as well, judging by his feathers.
The bone song
- Guybrush Threepwood
One of the more bizarre sequences in the second Monkey Island games occurs when Guybrush trips and loses consciousness. In the dream that follows, two dancing skeletons feature prominently, singing a song that sounds strangely familiar. What is this song, we've heard it before, right?
Right. It is actually a spiritual song, based on a part in the Bible where the prophet Ezekiel receives a vision in the valley of dry bones. Reportedly, the song became so ingrained in American culture that at least one preacher had it mixed up with the actual Bible text while giving a sermon. That 'Dem Bones' (one of the names the song is known as) is featured in a game about pirates, is illustrative of its widespread success in popular culture. That it has lost its original meaning, just goes to show that cultural phenomena evolve at a rapid pace. Gee, when you think about it this way, Monkey Island can be extremely educative.
- Adams, Cyrus C., 'Maps and Map-Making', Bulletin of the American Geographical Society 44/3 (1912) 194-201.
- Evans, David, 'Black Religious Music', The Journal of American Folklore 84/334 (1971) 472-480.
- Gaudet, Marcia, 'Mardi Gras, Chic-a-la-Pie: Reasserting Creole Identity Through Festive Play', The Journal of American Folklore 114/452 (2001) 154-174.
- Haywood, John, with Brian Catchpole, Simon Hall, Edward Barratt, Cassell's Atlas of World History (London 2001).
- Rosenberg, Bruce A., 'The Message of the American Folk Sermon', Oral Tradition 1/3 (1986) 695-727.
- Schmidt, Benjamin, 'Mapping an Empire: Cartographic and Colonial Rivalry in Seventeenth-Century Dutch and English North America', The William and Mary Quarterly 54/3 (1997) 549-578.
- Shorto, Russell, The Island at the Center of the World, The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America (Amsterdam 2004 – Dutch edition).
- Simpson, George Eaton, 'Religion and Justice: Some Reflections on the Rastafari Movement', Phylon 46/4 (1985) 286-291.
- Spierenburg, Pieter, The Broken Spell: A Cultural and Anthropological History of Preindustrial Europe (Hilversum 1998 – Dutch edition).
- Taylor, Alan, 'The Early Republic's Supernatural Economy: Treasure Seeking in the American Northeast, 1780-1830', American Quarterly 38/1 (1986) 6-34.