The Brutal History Behind Jennifer Kent’s ‘The Nightingale’
The Nightingale is a graphic, brutal film full of 19th century colonial rage. The follow up to director Jennifer Kent’s debut horror tale The Babadook, The Nightingale delves into a very different kind of horror, that of the British colonization of Tasmania.
The Nightingale is a horror film not about a supernatural evil, like Kent’s The Babadook, but the horror and brutality people can enact on each other. Both for the indigenous Tasmanian Aboriginals and the convicts that were forcibly taken to the island, life was brutal and unforgiving.
The most horrifying aspect of The Nightingale is the truths it’s based on—the genocide of Aboriginals, and the brutality of convict colonies, all played out in the harsh beauty of the Tasmanian landscape. With The Nightingale’s recent release on the horror streaming platform Shudder, now is a timely moment to explore the history behind this haunting film.
The Historical Accuracy of The Nightingale
Set in 1825 Van Diemen’s Land (modern-day Tasmania), the film follows the 21-year-old Irish convict, Clare (Aisling Franciosi), as she and an Aboriginal tracker named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) seek their revenge against Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) and his retinue of abusive, drunken soldiers.
In a statement to the ABC, Kent said, “The Nightingale contains historically accurate depictions of colonial violence and racism towards our [Australian] Indigenous people.”
The “historical accuracy” of the film is key. Kent’s characters are based upon the real people who lived out their lives in 19th century Tasmania. Kent, who’s Australian, did extensive research before writing, working with an Aboriginal adviser to ensure that the violence portrayed in the film was true to history. “Nothing that happens in this film is fictional,” Kent told Vox in an interview. “The story itself is fictional, but the events are all factual, and worse.”
Setting the Scene
At the time the film takes place, Van Diemen’s Land was a frontier. The indigenous Tasmanian Aboriginals had settled the island 35,000 years ago. The Nightingale, by comparison, is set in 1825, at which point the British had only been living on the island for several decades.
Europe only became aware of the island’s existence in 1642 when the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman spotted the landmass. By 1798, more than 150 years later, European sealers and whalers began to base themselves on the island. It wasn’t until 1803 when the British created the first formal settlement, a military outpost under Lieutenant John Bowen.
With Bowen came 49 settlers—three female and 21 male convicts, British soldiers, and free settlers.
The Genocide of Tasmanian Aboriginal People during the Black War
Violence between these early settlers and Tasmanian Aboriginal people began almost immediately. As more settlers and convicts were transported to Tasmania throughout the early 1800s, tensions escalated into a conflict known as the Black War. Bloodshed would last from the mid-1820s until 1832. That said, many historians – such as James Boyce, Robert Hughes, Tom Lawson, and Lyndall Ryan – all agree that it was more genocide than war.
Convicts who escaped into the bush, known as bushrangers, committed “many atrocious cruelties” against Tasmanian Aboriginal people. These cruelties were documented in an 1810 report by Surveyor John Oxley. According to an 1808 letter written by another Surveyor, George Prideaux Harris, several bushrangers murdered a group of male Aboriginals then abducted and raped the Aboriginal women of the group. The British settlers and militia were often just as cruel.
On May 3rd, 1804, only a few months after the British colony was established, a confrontation between a large group of Mairremmener people and settlers at Bowen’s Risdon colony occurred. The confrontation left “a great many natives slaughtered and wounded” as convict Edward White later testified. Historian Henry Reynolds suggests the May 3rd confrontation ended any hope of peace between the islanders and settlers.
By 1825, when The Nightingale takes place, the Black War was just beginning. Attacks between Aboriginal people and European settlers began to double every year. Scholar Ryan Lyndall has collected a “List of the Multiple Killings of Aborigines in Tasmania: 1804-1835” here, which echoes the indiscriminate violence towards Aboriginal people portrayed in the film.
By 1826, the notorious Lieutenant-Governor of Tasmania, George Arthur, declared settlers could lawfully kill Aboriginals when they attacked settlers or stole their property. A local newspaper, The Colonial Times, saw this as a declaration of war. In 1830, Arthur even paid out bounties for the successful capture of Aboriginals—£5 for adults and £2 for children. These bounties were later extended to dead Aboriginals as well.
Before Europeans arrived, the Tasmanian Aboriginal population is estimated to have been around 6,000 people. There were nine different indigenous nations divided into more than 60 different clans according to scholar Lyndall Ryan. Though the numbers vary, one source estimates that there were fewer than 100 Tasmanian Aboriginals left by 1835. Those who survived were forced into exile onto surrounding islands without provisions and had to dress and live like Europeans.
Given the decades of brutality, it’s no wonder that Billy seeks revenge in The Nightingale. His people are gone—his family, his community—and only he is left. It’s a brutal and accurate retelling of the reality Tasmanian Aboriginals faced. Even his name, “Billy,” is filled with historical context, specifically the life of William Lanne, or “King Billy.” William Lanne’s death in 1869 was thought at the time to mark the “extinction” of all Tasmanian Aboriginal people.
Land of Convicts
From 1803 until 1853, the number of convicts transported to Van Diemen’s Land would grow from Bowen’s initial 21 to over 75,000 people. Of that number, 12,500 were women, most of whom were convicted of petty theft.
During the time The Nightingale is set, most of those women had yet to arrive. Two-thirds of the female convicts transported to Tasmaiana arrived between 1842 and 1853. Clare’s world would have been overwhelmingly male.
When a convict arrived, they were interviewed before a prison board to determine any useful skills, like farming or shoemaking. Then, they were stripped naked and a detailed description of any markings was written down (in case an escaped convict ever needed to be identified). After a brief stint in the prison barracks, most convicts would be assigned as servants to free landholders. Those with the skills would work as blacksmiths, clerks, carpenters, or in other necessary trades.
Convicts that stepped out of line could be assigned to serve in chain gangs or, for repeat offenders, sent to Port Arthur prison.
Well-behaved convicts were rewarded through tickets-of-leave (which allowed them to earn a wage), permission to marry, and even pardons. In The Nightingale, Lieutenant Hawkins allows Clare to marry her husband, Aidan (Michael Sheasby)—something he holds over Clare when he refuses to release her. The film also alludes to the “papers” (tickets-of-leave or pardons) that free convicts had to keep with them at all times.
Female Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land
In 1825, when Clare and Billy’s story begins, there were less than 4,000 female convicts in Van Diemen’s Land. According to historian Dianne Snowden’s research, for every 10 men on the island, there were three women. Among convicts, the numbers were even more skewed with one woman to every nine men.
Most female convicts were assigned as domestic workers to free settlers or, as Clare does, for the British military. If, however, a woman committed further crimes—like drunkenness, lateness, or insolence—they’d be sent to a Female Factory. As the name suggests, the Female Factories were factories designed to keep incarcerated women working, often as laundresses.
Through good conduct and hard work, some of the women sent to Van Diemen’s Land became an integral part of society as wives and servants. While there are some records of female sex workers, by and large, the female convicts sent to Van Diemen’s Land lived many different kinds of lives beyond the stereotype of “damned whores.” Some married and went on as free women after receiving their papers. Others were sent to Female Factories. The Female Convicts Research Centre has archived many of their stories here.
The Female Arsonists Who Sought Out Transportation
There was even a small subset of women, 79 in total, who were known to have deliberately set fires to be sent to Van Diemen’s Land. Like Clare, these women were taking control of their lives by escaping starvation, poverty, and abuse. Many were joining loved ones that were sent ahead of them to the convict colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land.
For instance, the female convict Catherine Smith persuaded her son and daughter-in-law to help set fire to her house so she could join her husband in Van Diemen’s Land.
When Kent first visited Tasmania, she felt the dark history behind the island’s beauty. Years later, that history would prompt her to make The Nightingale. In Australia today, there remains a reluctance to discuss the legacy of British colonialism. Just like here in the States, where we remain reluctant to talk about our own history of slavery.
Perhaps films like The Nightingale can create an opening for us to face the darker truths of our histories—histories that continue to perpetuate inequality today.