Futile but not Meaningless: Resistance in ‘The Nightingale’

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The Nightingale was written, directed and co-produced by Jennifer Kent (Source: Cinematerial).

Thanks to Hull Independent Cinema I recently got to see The Nightingale, the controversial Australian film written, directed, and co-produced by Jennifer Kent. Whilst it is definitely not right to say I enjoyed the experience, it is a very well-made and thought-provoking film that has led me to reflect on the nature of resistance against a much more powerful force. Against something as dominant at the British Empire, acts of resistance can often seem futile, but The Nightingale explores how these acts are still meaningful.

Set in 1825 in the British penal colony of van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), the film is driven by the story of Clare Carroll, played by Aisling Franciosi, an Irish convict who sets out for revenge after suffering horrific physical and sexual violence at the hands of British Army Lieutenant Hawkins (played by Sam Claflin) and his men. She recruits an Aboriginal man named “Billy” Mangana (Baykali Ganambarr) to help her track the British soldiers as they travel through the bush. At first Clare is suspicious of Mangana and is aggressive and racist towards him, but as the story progresses they come to realise that they have both suffered at the hands of the British, both in terms of themselves as individuals and the societies and cultures which they come from. A mutual respect and affection develops from this shared trauma.

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Baykali Ganambarr plays “Billy” Mangana, an Aboriginal man who has suffered at the hands of the British but makes a living acting as a guide for settlers and soldiers who do not know how to survive or navigate in the bush (Source: The Nightingale, 2018).

The Nightingale has been criticised for its graphic depictions of physical and sexual violence. The defense for this is it is an accurate depiction of how indigenous Australians and convicts were treated, and the film was made in collaboration with Tasmanian Aboriginal elders. The violence is shocking, and very difficult to watch, but I have no doubt that this kind of thing went on and I think it is important that the full horrors of British colonial rule in Australia and around the world are acknowledged. The acts of violence which the film depicts powerfully conveys a sense of how cheap indigenous and convict life was to the British army and most white settlers. Clare and Mangana do receive one or two acts of kindness, but even this is difficult for Mangana as he is forced to accept charity from settlers on land that by rights belongs to his people.

In the film, language is a form of resistance. Clare is known to the British soldiers as the Nightingale because of her beautiful singing voice, and on their journey both Clare and Mangana sing in their respective native languages, gaelic and palawa kani. The Irish and Aborigines both suffered systematic brutality that could arguably be classified as genocide at the hands of the English; both cultures and societies have been pushed to the very edge of existence. In these circumstances celebrating native culture becomes a powerful act of defiance. Even today, it is quite unusual to see native languages like this included in films, so it can arguably be classed as an act of resistance by the filmmakers as well as the characters.

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Clare and Mangana have had traumatic lives, and they also go through some awful things during the course of the film, but they seem to find some comfort in their respective native languages (Photo: The Nightingale, 2018).

The thing that struck me most about Clare and Mangana’s acts of resistance during The Nightingale is their futility. I left the theatre feeling desperately sad that there was no way either character would be able to achieve happiness, or even have a ‘normal’ life after the events of the film. Both characters had put up with a significant amount of injustice and abuse because to do anything about it would only make their lives worse. As the film progressed, both were subjected to experiences that made them abandon that attempt at self preservation. Another aboriginal man known as Charlie, the guide employed by Hawkins and his men, also reaches a similar breaking point and stands up to his oppressors. On one level, these acts of resistance are futile as well as self-destructive; they mean little in the face of the British imperial system. On another level, however, their actions are incredibly meaningful; Clare and Mangana both seem to find some kind of peace by the very end of the film. Clare, Mangana, and Charlie’s resistance may have been futile in the grand scheme of things, but it was absolutely necessary to them. They were under no illusions that their actions would overthrow British rule, and they did not seem to expect to survive their revenge mission, but they did it anyway. Resistance is about rejecting the way things are, but it isn’t always about trying to change them; it is often futile, but it is never meaningless.

The Nightingale is not a pleasant watch, and I wouldn’t recommend you sit down to watch it with a bowl of popcorn on a Saturday night. But it is a well-made and powerful story that I think needed to be told, and you should see it if you get the chance.

 

Turbulent Londoners: William Cuffay, 1788-1870

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. The next Turbulent Londoner is William Cuffay, a prominent Chartist leader and activist, despite significant disadvantages.


The prominent London Chartist leader William Cuffay.

The prominent London Chartist leader William Cuffay (Source: Wikipedia).

William Cuffay was the son of an ex-slave from St. Kitts and a woman from Kent. Born in 1788 in Medway Towns (now Gillingham), he trained as a tailor and moved to London in about 1819. He married 3 times, and had 1 daughter. Despite being mixed race, less than 5 feet tall and disabled (he had a deformed spine and shinbones), Cuffay became a well-known, daring, respected and committed activist and Chartist leader, to the extent that The Times described the London Chartists as “the black man and his party.”

Cuffay came to activism relatively late in life. In 1834, when he was 36, he was fired and blacklisted after taking part in a tailors’ strike for shorter hours and better pay. This experience convinced him that workers needed representation in Parliament, so got involved in the Chartist movement.

He rose quickly through the ranks of local and national Chartism. He helped form the Metropolitan Tailors’ Charter Association in 1839, was elected to the Chartist Metropolitan Delegate Council in 1841, and the following year he was elected President of the London Chartists, and to the Chartist national executive.

The Chartist demonstration on Kennington Common, which is largely credited as being the death knell of the movement.

The Chartist demonstration on Kennington Common, which is largely credited as being the death knell of the movement (Source: Wikipedia).

Cuffay was a Physical Force Chartist. They advocated the use of violence for their cause, whilst the Moral Force Chartists believed they could achieve their goals with only the weight of their arguments. Cuffay helped to organise the fateful Chartist demonstration on Kennington Common on the 10th of April 1848, and was dismayed by what he saw as the cowardly behaviour of his fellow Chartist leaders. The Kennington demonstration was supposed to be the crowning glory of the Chartist movement, but instead the leaders decided to back down because of the huge numbers of police.

Now utterly convinced that peaceful protest would not get the People’s Charter into law, Cuffay became involved in plans for a violent uprising. He was betrayed by a government spy and convicted of preparing acts of arson- the fires were to meant to signal the start of the rebellion. The affair became known as The Orange Tree Plot, after the pub in Red Lion Square where the leaders of the uprising would meet to plan.

A copy of 'The Poetical Works of Lord Byron' given to Cuffay by his friends in the Westminster Chartist Association when he was transported to Tasmania. He still had the book when he died, 20 years later (Source: William Cuffay, 1778-1870).

A copy of ‘The Poetical Works of Lord Byron’ given to Cuffay by his friends in the Westminster Chartist Association when he was transported to Tasmania. He still had the book when he died, 20 years later (Source: William Cuffay, 1778-1870).

Cuffay was convicted and sentenced to 21 years penal transportation. He arrived in Tasmania in November 1849, after what must have been a truly awful sea journey for a 61-year-old with Cuffay’s health problems. He was pardoned after 3 years, but chose to stay in Tasmania. His wife saved enough money to join him in 1853, and he carried on pretty much as he left off in London, working as a tailor and playing a prominent role in local radical politics. He sadly died in poverty in July 1870, aged 82.

William Cuffay was a man who would not be defined by his colour or physical attributes. Despite being only 4 ft 11, he was known as a charismatic and engaging public speaker, and he quickly became one of the best-known Chartist leaders. He was admired by his fellow Chartists, and fought with conviction for what he believed was right. As far as I know, there are no memorials for Cuffay, in London or Tasmania, but I think he was a man we could all learn a few lessons from.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. ‘Chartism,’ Wikipedia. Last modified 24 April, 2015, accessed 10 May 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chartism

Anon. ‘Chartists,’ National Archives. No date, accessed 10 May 2015.http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/blackhistory/rights/chartists.htm 

Anon. ‘William Cuffay,’ Wikipedia. Last modified 1 May 2015, accessed 10 May 2015.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Cuffay

Anon. ‘William Cuffay (1788-1870),’ BBC History. No date, accessed 10 May 2015. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/cuffay_william.shtml

Gregory, Mark. ‘ Cuffay’s book circumnavigates the World: 1849-2013,’ William Cuffay, 1788-1870. No date, accessed 10 May 2015. http://cuffay.blogspot.co.uk/

Rosenberg, David. Rebel Footprints: A Guide to Uncovering London’s Radical History. London: Pluto Press, 2014.

Simkin, John. ‘William Cuffay,’ Spartacus Educational. Last modified April 2014, accessed 10 May 2015. http://spartacus-educational.com/CHcuffay.htm