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Nootka Sound from Taboo: Is it real and was it really important?

Tom Hardy as James Delaney in Taboo, which centers around the real-life Nootka Sound
Tom Hardy as James Delaney in Taboo, which centers around the real-life Nootka Sound

The storyline of FX’s hit new Tom Hardy series Taboo centers around an area of land known as Nootka Sound — but is it really as significant as the show portrays?

In Taboo, Hardy’s character James Keziah Delaney is left the piece of land by his late father, but faces difficulties when he refuses to sell it to the all-powerful East India Company.

In the series, the sound — a complex network of inlets on the west coast of Vancouver Island in Canada — is depicted as being at the center of a conflict between the British and the Americans over its sovereignty.

But while that conflict is not actually historically accurate, Nootka Sound really was disputed over the years due to its importance as part of a trade route with China.

Because of its various inlets, and the fact it is a sound — a narrow stretch of water between two pieces of land — it  provides shelter from the wild Pacific Ocean and acts as a natural harbor.

An image showing the location of Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island
An image showing the location of Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island

That meant it was the perfect place for navies and trading ships to anchor before and after their journeys.

The sound was called Mowichat by the local tribe the Nuu-chah-luuth, and it’s believed to have got its Nootka Sound name due to some confusion when Captain James Cook for the British Navy landed there in 1778.

It’s believed he either misunderstood a conversation about the tribe’s name or got confused when they were describing the island as, itchme nutka, literally a place you can travel around.

That was four years after it was initally “discovered” by the Spanish in 1774. While Taboo’s conflict takes place in 1814, the main real-life dispute over Nootka Sound’s sovereignty took place in 1790.

An image of Nootka Sound in or around 1791
An artist’s impression of Nootka Sound showing how it looked in or around 1791

It came as Spain were trying to assert its long-held claim over the Pacific Northwest. However, the British were also keen on having control over the area.

And when Spanish settlers started defending its claim, and seized several British ships involved in the fur trade, the resulting conflict ended in a stand-off known as the Nootka Crisis.

Britain asserted themselves with their more powerful Navy force, while Spain was unable to get help from its long-time ally France due to the country being caught up in the start of the French Revolution.

Rather than get involved in a war, Spain opted for a diplomatic resolution which led to the first of three Nootka Conventions, which eventually allowed both Spain and Britain to use Nootka Sound as a trading base.

Taboo airs Tuesdays at 10/9c on FX.

Julian is the editor of Monsters & Critics. He has worked as a journalist for more than ten years, previously as an editor at the... read more
Julian Cheatle

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