LucasArts' Secret History: The Secret of Monkey Island: The Real History of Monkey Island

30 Jun, 2008

One day, Guybrush Threepwood decided that he wanted to be a pirate. The Secret of Monkey Island records what happened after that, painting a picture of a youth who discovers the miraculous world of the Caribbean. That grand world is filled with not that much piracy, but it's a sprawling society nonetheless, full of great, odd, likeable characters. One has to wonder though, how real is this world? While some of it is obviously made up by the game designers, some of it is surprisingly real. Join me for a voyage back in time, where we'll discover the rich history behind Guybrush' environment.

The Caribbean

Indeed, history is nothing more than a tableau of crimes and misfortunes.
– Voltaire

We all know the images of pearly white beaches, clear blue seas, and breathtaking skyscapes of the Caribbean, even if we've never been there. But something that is often forgotten is that these beautiful islands are also tainted with blood. Of course we all love Guybrush and company, but they would never have lived in the Caribbean if their forefathers didn't conquer this area. The Spanish conquistadores opened the way for other Europeans to settle in the Americas, killing many natives in the process.

But let's not get too involved in doom and gloom here. After all, cruel as it may be, that bloody conquest opened the way for the romantic images we have today of Caribbean history, complete with swashbucklers, adventure, and mystery. And actually, most of the bloodshed took place on the American mainland, where the Spanish killed many Indians, both with the bullet and with the microbe. The Caribbean islands meanwhile, were mostly used as bases by the Spanish. When other European nations arrived though, those did use the islands to gain profit, for instance through agriculture. Especially sugarcane was a popular crop, and the cultivation thereof netted the Europeans a lot of money. It is strange then, that not much is mentioned about sugar in The Secret of Monkey Island, while it is very likely that some of the characters are descendants of sugar magnates. Perhaps Elaine Marley herself is from a family of sugar traders.

The absence of plantations in the game is glaring in any case, sugar or not. Mêlée Island is presented as a cosy pirate nest, Elaine Marley as a peaceful governor. The truth is that in the real world, Mêlée would probably have been full of plantations, complete with slaves. Of course, it's understandable that the game paints this world a bit differently, because otherwise it would be called Plantation Tycoon. Perhaps a nice idea for a strategy game, but not for an adventure.

Pirates

It's better to be a pirate than to join the Navy.
– Steve Jobs

Most people will associate Monkey Island with pirates, so of course I wouldn't want to skip over a part of history that was such a huge influence on this game. While the Caribbean islands didn't actually consist entirely of pirates, as The Secret of Monkey Island would have you believe, piracy did indeed thrive there.

A reason for the concentration of pirates in the Caribbean was the way in which the landscape provided good hiding places. The lush vegetation and the many inlets offered ideal hideouts for runaway slaves and other 'crooks'. Some of these other crooks did not actually start out as such – these are the famed buccaneers. Buccaneers (who derived their name from the boucan, a wooden grill on which they prepared meat to eat and sell), were hunters, left behind on Santo Domingo by the Spanish. When the Spanish turned against them, they turned to prowling the seas, becoming pirating buccaneers, or buccaneering pirates, whichever you prefer.

These pirates employed even more pirates, getting slaves and indigenous people to fight alongside them. When the Europeans hit back hard, they just removed their activities, expanding to other places such as Madagascar, where they founded a genuine Pirate Republic of Libertalia. Meanwhile, in the Caribbean, pirates weren't just the cool swashbucklers we know them as – they were also heavily involved in slave trade, up until the seventeenth century. Guybrush' decision to become a pirate then, while sounding adventurous and awesome, has a shadow side as well, and one has to wonder which of the pirates at the Scumm Bar on Mêlée Island got rich by trading slaves, and which were 'honest' robbers.

Grog

Alcohol is a very necessary article… It makes life bearable to millions of people who could not endure their existence if they were quite sober. It enables Parliament to do things at eleven at night that no sane person would do at eleven in the morning.
– George Bernard Shaw

Ah, grog, that wonderful drink that eats through locks and melts mugs. Of course, real-life grog doesn't hold these properties (unfortunately?), but it does have other interesting features. For instance, it holds alcohol, by virtue of its ingredients – and this is something that has been known for quite some time, as we shall see.

With the advent of the Europeans in the West Indies, and their discovery of the useful sugarcane, a new drink was born: rum. From its conception in the early 17th century, it spread across the world, becoming crazily popular. Soon however, people found out that drinking straight rum was rather bland, not to say rather heavy on the liver. Several mixes were invented, including 'rattle-skull' (brandy, rum, wine, porter, lime peel, and nutmeg), 'stone-wall' (hard cider and rum), 'black-strap' (rum and molasses), and 'bogus' (rum and beer). Punch was also popular. A particularly nasty Jamaican version was known as 'kill-devil': two parts rum, one part water; add cinnamon, lemon juice, nutmeg, an egg yolk, a toasted crust of bread, and pray that you'll live to see the next day.

You could argue that grog was just another one of those popular mix drinks, but pirates probably preferred a proper cocktail, or even straight rum, over grog. What was the reason to drink grog at all then? Well, it's simpler than you might think: cost. It's much cheaper to water down rum than to serve it straight, so that is exactly what the British army did. Wait, the British army? Yes, alcohol (ab)use was rampant in the armed forces (it probably still is), and officers were always concerned about this. Watering down the rum to grog offered a partial solution to this, but as it turned out, grog actually fostered addiction, so one has to wonder how much of a solution to the drinking problem this really was. Not just the army was affected by this drinking problem, however. For example, a traveller in 1755 describes that the Sunday prayers could not commence until the afternoon, on account of the parson being indisposed. He had had too much grog the night before.

Rubber

Humor is a rubber sword – it allows you to make a point without drawing blood.
– Mary Hirsch

Guybrush using his famous rubber chicken to get to Meathook's house may seem like the most normal thing. However, was it really that normal in the Caribbean? Apart from the fact that Guybrush even had a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle, was rubber at all commonplace in the Caribbean?

Well, what you may not know is that the Dutch moved the Brazilian rubber tree to Indonesia in 1883, where they started lucrative rubber plantations, and until 1900, Brazil was actually the only producer of rubber. There you go, you will say, rubber was native to the Americas. Well, yes and no. Rubber actually came from the South American mainland, and even then, mass production of rubber products did not start until the 19th century, at the other side of the globe. In fact, before the discovery of vulcanization in 1839, rubber was not a prime industrial material. After that though, it was used in raincoats, shoes, bicycle tires, and other stuff. Yes, rubber chickens too.

So while technically it is possible for Guybrush to have had rubber in his possession, it is not entirely logical. Of course, it might be that the Voodoo Lady procured a rubber chicken from some friends in the future, which would explain why Guybrush found this odd product in her home.

Female Pirates

If women are expected to do the same work as men, we must teach them the same things.
– Plato

Quick, think of a pirate! What do you see? Apart from the parrot, eye patch, wooden leg, and/or other accessories, chances are that you think of a man. A very manly man. The Secret of Monkey Island at least partly challenges that notion, having no less than two female pirates: Carla the Swordmaster, and Elaine Marley (although the latter is a governor, she has chosen to side with the pirates, effectively being a pirate herself). How realistic is this though?

Well, not very. You might have heard of famous female pirates such as Mary Read and Ann Bonny. Some researchers even go so far as to say that Bartholomew Roberts was a girl. Wait, what? In order to be accepted into the male-dominated world of pirates, women had to disguise themselves as men. The aforementioned Read and Bonny were men, as far as the outside world was concerned. So while it's not impossible for women to feature in a game about pirates, one has to wonder whether Carla really did battle in Port Royal among the pirates, and whether Elaine really would be able to be accepted by the pirates of Mêlée Island. Of course, it's always nice to dream, but reality is often much harsher than the dream world.

Port Royal

Pick battles big enough to matter, small enough to win.
– Jonathan Kozol

At one point in the game, both Carla, the swordmaster, and Captain Smirk, the swordsmanship trainer, divulge an interesting bit of information, that both dates the game and tells us something about their history. They were both, by their own words, present at a battle in Port Royal.

Port Royal was a large trading centre and notorious pirate nest during much of the 17th century. Chances are that Smirk and Carla together battled the Spaniards, who weren't the best of friends with the local population in the Jamaican town. Understandable, when you consider that this local population included such notorious pirates as Henry Morgan. All that came to an end though in 1692, when a terrible earthquake destroyed most of Port Royal. This dates the game at least a little bit, since Carla and Captain Smirk would have to have escaped from the town by then, settling on Mêlée Island, where they used their expertise in battle to establish a swordfighting emporium.

Cinnamon

I love cinnamon.
– Guybrush Threepwood

The cinnamon trade was part of a trade in spices that goes back to classical times. Muslim merchants had been trading Ceylonese cinnamon from Malacca for centuries when the Portuguese got a piece of the action in the 16th century. In the 17th century, the Dutch set up their East India Company, profiting from the trade in spices from the East Indies, among which was cinnamon from Ceylon. Hey wait, Ceylon… that's not in the Caribbean! So cinnamon was certainly not a native product to the Caribbean isles, although it's therefore not entirely impossible that Guybrush had gotten used to the taste of it. Perhaps he had enjoyed many a dish enriched with cinnamon during his time in Europe, or he was from a well-off Caribbean family that had cinnamon imported from the East Indies. The fact that cinnamon was found aboard the Sea Monkey offers another interesting avenue of speculation – the ship might have been used in a past life, for cinnamon trade to and from the East Indies.

Cannibals

If you were to destroy in mankind the belief in immortality, not only love but every living force maintaining the life of the world would at once be dried up. Moreover, nothing then would be immoral, everything would be permissible, even cannibalism.
– Brothers Karamazov

Among the loveable characters that are introduced to us in The Secret of Monkey Island, are the cannibals on Monkey Island. Although regarded as barbaric by Herman Toothrot, they see themselves as civilized, even though the eating of man flesh forms a part of their culture. But how realistic is that view? Were there really cannibals in the Caribbean?

Well, the truth is that we can't be all that sure. There were stories about cannibals in the Americas, but then, the Europeans were accused of being cannibals by the Chinese, the Portuguese told the Africans that the English were cannibals, and the Portuguese themselves were accused of cannibalism by the Chinese. Even in this climate of finger pointing, there are clues that at least the Aztecs (not inhabitants of the Caribbean, but close enough) weren't very nice. One story goes that a guy called Tlacaelel, wanting to further the worship of the bloodthirsty god Huitzilopochtli, instituted some nasty practices. This involved killing thousands of people, ripping out their still-beating hearts, spattering their blood on idols, rolling their dead bodies down the stairs, and preparing them to be eaten by the Aztec aristocracy. I hope you managed to hold down your lunch.

That the cannibals on Monkey Island were Aztecs is extremely unlikely though. When Columbus stumbled upon the Caribbean islands on his 1492 trip, they were inhabited by simple farming societies, while the Aztecs were just starting to have their fun in Mexico. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that it is not even sure whether cannibals actually exist at all. While this is an extreme view, it does emphasize that most of the anthropological reports of cannibalism are second-hand, and therefore not completely reliable. Chances are that the Monkey Island cannibals just had a reputation of eating man flesh, and they welcomed and further established that reputation, while never actually committing acts of cannibalism.

Bananas

Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.
– Groucho Marx

If you have ever wondered where all those bananas on Monkey Island came from, wonder no more. Much like the cinnamon discussed above, bananas are not native to the Caribbean. In fact, the banana plant was introduced to the Americas by Spaniards from the Canary Islands, coming to conquer the New World. The fruit turned out to be pretty popular among the population (not to mention the monkeys), and it spread quickly. However, it was not until the late 19th century that bananas were cultivated in the Americas on a large scale, especially by the United Fruit Company, having plantations in Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras, Colombia, and Ecuador.

Futher Reading:

  • Eriksen, Thomas Hylland, Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology (London 2001).
  • Haywood, John, with Brian Catchpole, Simon Hall, Edward Barratt, Cassell's Atlas of World History (London 2001).
  • Kimball, Marie, 'Some Genial Old Drinking Customs' in The William and Mary Quarterly 2/4 (1945) 349-358.
  • Kopperman, Paul E., '"The Cheapest Pay": Alcohol Abuse in the Eighteenth-Century British Army' in The Journal of Military History 60/3 (1996) 445-470.
  • Landes, David S., The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. Why some are so rich and some so poor (Utrecht 1998 - Dutch Edition).
  • Teorey, Matthew, 'Pirates and State-Sponsored Terrorism in Eighteenth-Century England' in Perspectives on Evil and Human Wickedness 1/2 (2003) 53-63.
  • Wolf, Eric R., Europe and the People Without History (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1997).
  • Zahedieh, Nuala, 'The Merchants of Port Royal, Jamaica, and the Spanish Contraband Trade, 1655-1692' in The William and Mary Quarterly 43/4 (1986) 570-593.

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