The Real History of Nootka Sound From Tom Hardy's 'Taboo'

nootka sound, fx, taboo

Tom Hardy has tough jobs on Taboo. For the FX series' first four episodes, his character, James Delaney, has fought tooth and claw to set a Guinness World Record for most audible grunts in historyand to assert his ownership of something called Nootka Sound.

That last part refers to a small strip of coastline in North America that Delaney's father, Horace, had purchased with "gunpowder and lies." The show builds around James' determined attempts to hold on to the land after he's bequeathed the property in his father's will -- no easy task, since Nootka's coveted by the powerful East India Company, the gluttonous Prince Regent of England, James' half-sister and her sour-faced husband, and the furtive Americans, all of whom are willing to do terrible things to wrest ownership from the rightful heir.

If you were as lost as we were the first time one of Taboo's many power-grabbers uttered the words Nootka Sound, read on. Our handy guide to the real location will light the way.

nootka sound on google maps
Google Maps

Where is it?

In Taboo, as the Delaney family's lawyer so eloquently explains, "If America were a pig facing England, [Nootka] is right at the pig's ass." What he means is that the sound is right above the West Coast of what is now the Continental U.S., separating British Columbia's Nootka Island from Vancouver Island in Canada.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, as in Taboo, the inlet's location was vital for a couple reasons: 1) As a sound, the landing area served as protected anchorage for European vessels, and 2) The sound could essentially be used as a gateway to China and other hard-to-reach countries east of Europe. The problem? Like a brand-new pair of Jordans, the strategic boon drew a fuckload of people.

jonathan pryce on fx taboo

What's its historical significance?

Nootka Sound was first populated by the Nuu-chah-nulth, a name you should recognize from Taboo as the tribe of Delaney's late mother. (Today, the term refers to all the aboriginal tribes of western Vancouver Island, including the Mowachaht, who traded with the sound's first European visitors.) As noted in the intro to John Jewitt's White Slaves of Maquinnathe Nuu-chah-nulth were likely people "who had crossed the Bering Strait about 12,000 years ago."

It's believed that Spanish ships first discovered Nootka Sound as early as 1774, but it wasn't until 1778 that the first documented interaction with the area and its inhabitants took place, when British explorer Captain James Cook bartered for fur with the Mowachaht. "A great many canoes filled with the Natives were about the ships all day, and a trade commenced betwixt us and them, which was carried on the strictest honisty on boath sides," he wrote in his Voyages made in the years 1778 and 1789, from China to the North West Coast of America. "Their articles were the skins of various animals, such as bears, wolfs, foxes, dear, rackoons, polecats, martins and in particular the sea beaver."

The sea otter pelts mentioned reportedly went for $10,000 in Macao -- an insane con, as Cook noted the Mowachaht would trade "anything" for his metals. (Fun fact: The name Nootka was a result of Cook misinterpreting the indigenous people's directions to the sound -- "Nootka, Itchme Nootka, Itchme" -- as its proper name.) Much like in Taboo, several countries sought control of Nootka Sound as a trade post following Cook's success. The sound represented direct access to China and, more specifically, cash money. The main difference between the show and the real history of the area is that it wasn't the Americans and Brits who warred over Nootka; it was (almost) the English and the Spanish. 

In 1789, the Spanish sent Esteban Martínez to officially settle the Nootka Sound, seizing ships financed by England's John Meares upon his arrival. The bold move, dubbed the Nootka Controversy, nearly sent the two countries to war, since England claimed Meares had rightfully purchased the land. After three attempts, both countries agreed (in the Nootka Convention) that neither could claim exclusive sovereignty of the area and that Nootka Sound would become a free port.

Though the Delaney Nootka Trading Company drama from Taboo never happened, Nootka Sound remained a popular ("the finest harbor in the world," according to former U.S. Senator Edward A. Hannegan) and contentious asset long after the War of 1812. The Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819, for example, gave Spanish portions of the Pacific Northwest to the U.S. and led to repeat confusion over ownership of Nootka. It wouldn't be until 1846, with the Oregon Treaty, that clear borders were established, ones that ultimately gave Britain (and later, Canada) total control of Vancouver Island. 

tom hardy on fx taboo

What's it like today?

Nootka Sound is still largely defined by its aboriginal culture and seaside highlights. Canada has designated Yuquot, the homeland of the Mowachaht people, a historic site, making the village and many of its surrounding areas popular destinations for tourists. At the Nootka Sound Resort, for example, guests can fish big-ass salmon and rent boats. (With the help of guides named "Cooter" and "Tank," to boot.) You can also keep your eyes peeled for sea otter aboard the Get West Adventure Cruises; do even more fishing at the Nootka Island Lodge, where the kitchen will cook your catch; or, if you're feeling particularly brave, do as Hardy does: walk around dressed like a steampunk magician and break some grunting records.

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Sean Fitz-Gerald is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. Find him on Twitter: @srkfitzgerald.