Written at the height of the war, whilst Belgium was under German occupation, The Secret of the Unicorn& Red Rackham’s Treasure are two of Herge’s most escapist books.
Starting the Treasure Hunt
Herge’s vagueness about where Tintin & Captain Haddock live is evident at the start of Red Rackham’s Treasure. It suggests that Tintin and friends live in a port city but Brussels is landlocked. However it could be construed that the scenes around the docks could be some distance from Tintin’s home. Or that Tintin and the Captain have taken temporary accommodation in the port.
The Sirius, Captain’s Haddock’s boat in the hunt for Red Rackham’s Treasure, must sail from a port. The ship is specifically described as a fishing traveller and Belgium has three fishing ports: Zeebrugge, Ostend and Nieuwpoort. For the Tintin Map project, I’ve picked Ostend as their home port because of its direct link to Brussels.
As way of providing exposition for those who had not read The Secret of the Unicorn, Herge has two sailors talking in a bar to explain a plot. Shortly afterwards the character of Cuthbert Calculus is introduced. After Haddock has been abused by various of Cuthbert’s contraptions, the Captain loses his temper and describes him as Bashi-bazouk, demonstrating Haddok’s amazing vocabulary once again. The Bashi-bazouk is type of Turkish militia whose name derives from the Turkish word for “damaged head” and generally means “leaderless” or “disorderly”. He later uses the word to describe Thompson & Thomson.
Where is Red Rackham’s Treasure
After setting out, the heros discover a stowaway – Professor Calculus. He had smuggled his underwater craft aboard in place of Captain Haddock’s much loved whisky. Herge love of detail normally meant that the machines in his adventures were copied from real craft. However with Calculus’ shark submersible, this worked in reverse.
Fabien Cousteau, grandson of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, is world expert on sharks. In order to study the great white shark he developed a shark shaped submersible inspired by his childhood reading of Red Rackham’s Treasure. Using the “trojan shark”, he could film the Great White’s natural behavior at close range without running the risk of becoming lunch. The footage he shot became a CBS special Shark: Mind of a Demon. Check out the web site for lots of photos and clips but my favourite was the one below because of its resemblance to a scene drawn fifty years before.
During the hunt for Red Rackham’s Treasure, Tintin is unable to find the island, despite having the coordinates. They search in vain until Tintin realises that the coordinations could of been based on the Paris Meridian and not the more normal Greenwich Meridian. This source of confusion dates back to 1600s when the issue of longitude was becoming a problem. This was because the discovery and opening up of the Americas required shipping to sail far into open waters where as previously most vessels had stayed near the shore. Being able to work out how far east or west a ship had traveled was vital for accurate mapping and avoiding shipwreck.
North / south measurements (latitude) are based on the equator, which is fixed by the shape of the planet. However the starting point of any east / west travel (longitude) is arbitrary. All the major seafaring nations chose their own place for 0′ Latitude. However by 1884, Greenwich was the dominant meridian and an international conference confirmed it as the prime meridian to be used on all maps around the world. It says something about the French that they abstained from the vote and continued to use the Paris meridian (2° 20′ 14.025″ east of the Greenwich Meridian) for several decades. Herge’s reference to this in Red Rackham’s Treasure is a nice touch of detail.
Back Home Again
After a fruitless search for Red Rackham’s Treasure lasting several weeks, Tintin and his friends return home. With Calculus’ help, Captain Haddock discovers that Marlinspike is his ancestral home and is able to buy it. Yet another coincidence in this tale. The house that the Bird Brothers lived in and had kept Tintin imprisoned in, just happens to have once been owned by Haddock’s ancestor. Knowing this vital fact, Tintin is able to find the real treasure when he spots the statue of St John.
The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure are the books most likely to become the first Tintin film based on the casting list. Unlike many of the other books, these two are very focused in their story telling. Tintin’s other adventures often involve him being side-tracked or going wherever fate takes hims. This makes them a lot more unsuitable for a 90 minute movie. I suspect that Herge’s reliance of coincidences will be smoothed out in the film. The introduction of an Editor and other supporting cast will provide other ways of pulling Tintin into the story.