Taboo: Everything you need to know about Nootka Sound

Yep, the key location in the Tom Hardy drama is actually a real place

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BBC period drama Taboo revolves around the ownership of a crucial parcel of land referred to as Nootka Sound – but if you assumed Tom Hardy’s land was something made up for the programme, you might be surprised to learn that it’s actually a real place, and really did host a major historical clash or two over the years.

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Read on to find the truth about the tiny, seemingly insignificant location that ended up becoming the centre of world events for 20 years.


Where is Nootka Sound?

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Nootka Sound is an inlet or “sound” (basically a narrow ocean channel between two bodies of land) on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, which is now located in the Canadian province of British Columbia.

It is part of the traditional territory of the indigenous Nuu-chah-nulth Native American tribe, depicted in Taboo as being the tribe of James Delaney’s (Tom Hardy) mother.

It was “discovered” by the Spanish in 1774, with the Nootka name coined by British explorer James Cook to refer to the natives of the area 4 years later (after misunderstanding a native description to itchme nutka, or “go around” something).


The 1790 Nootka crisis

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Nootka Sound in 1798

Taboo depicts a conflict over the sovereignty of the Nootka Sound in 1814, but the first such conflict actually took place much earlier, in 1790. Around this time Spain were trying to assert their historical claim to the Pacific Northwest region of America, and by this point Nootka Sound was the most important anchorage on the northwestern coast due to its accessibility from China.

Therefore, in 1789 they sent Sub-Lieutenant Esteban José Martinez with two ships to enforce their rights to Nootka Sound, where he spent months preventing other nations’ ships from trading, sending them away or capturing their crews (while also shooting the son of the Nuu-chah-nulth chief Maquinna, possibly by accident, causing a rift between the Spanish and the indigenous people of the area.)

On orders from Spain, Martinez evacuated Nootka Sound by the end of October 1789, but it was reoccupied by a larger Spanish fleet in early 1790. The British people responded with outcry, and both the British and Spanish governments sent fleets of warships in a show of force, though they never met in battle.

As the year went on Spain’s ally France decided it couldn’t aid them in the conflict, and when the Dutch Republic provided naval support to the British, Spain decided to negotiate instead of engage in a risky war.

Subsequently, the first Nootka Convention was signed in October 1790, eventually letting both nations trade there. In 1794, the two nations allied in a war against France, and both agreed to abandon Nootka Sound while the British maintained a presence only on the small bit of land indisputably owned by them. Both nations agreed to prevent other nations from establishing sovereignty there.


Nootka Sound in Taboo, and later history

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Taboo depicts Nootka Sound as a key disputed location in the 1812-1815 war between America and Great Britain (sparked by various trade, land expansion and political disputes), which happens to be privately owned by the fictional Delaney family after patriarch Horace Delaney bought “a strip of coastline” next to it in around 1784. In the series, it’s also desired by the powerful East India Company due to its geographical function as the gateway to trade in China.

Of course, the Delaney family and their interest in Nootka Sound never actually existed (and may not have counted for much even if it had, as the land was “discovered” by two different navies years before Delaney fictionally bought it).

Still, there were genuine disputes over the area that continued long after the series’ setting. The war between America and Britain ended at the close of 1814 (technically continuing into early 1815 thanks to poor communication), and no boundary changes took place at the time.

However, America later acquired Spain’s right to the Pacific Northwest (including Nootka Sound) via the 1819 Adams–Onís Treaty, claiming that this gave them exclusive sovereignty over the area. In response the British cited the shared sovereignty created by the Nootka Convention, and the dispute wasn’t resolved until the Oregon Treaty of 1846, which divided the disputed territory and created the international boundary between Canada and the United States.

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Since then, the sound has not been the stage of any major international incidents.