A common theme in Dutch literature is its colonial past in Indonesia.  There are 3  books in my Dutch TBR dealing with it.  In additional to The Tea Lords, I have Couperus’s The Hidden Force and Multatuli’s seminal Max Havelaar (recently reviewed by Iris On Books).  I decided that it would be interesting to read these in reverse publication date sequence.

The Tea Lords is set in Java and spans 45 years, from the day Rudolf Kerkhoven sets foot onto a neglected plantation, Gamboeng, to the day he leaves it.  That he is intoxicated with the land is apparent from the first paragraphs:

“Here!” he cried out loud.  His voice sounded thin in the vastness.

He was standing on the edge of a ravine.  The nearby peaks were wreathed in afternoon mist.  These were the foothills of the Goenoeng  Tiloe: deep folds in the earth’s crust, a drapery of dense, vivid green covering a gigantic recumbent body.  Between the rugged flanks lay a bowl-shaped valley.

It was there , in the embrace of the jungle, that he would make his home.  He had reached the place where the entire, as yet unlived reality of his life awaited him.

Rudolf’s intoxication never leaves him and we follow his travails as he seeks to turn Gamboeng into the most successful plantation on the island but not at the expense of the inhabitants.

The young Rudolf is not motivated by money.  Rather a love of the challenge and of the land.  As his life progresses, however, an element of competition creeps in between him and his younger brother and an air of resentment at the favours accorded said brother.  Further discord with his investors when he realises the risks of leaving his wife and 5 children penniless. 

The psychological development of Rudolf is fascinating particularly as for most of the novel we see the world only from his eyes.  Everything he does seems logical and entirely sympathetic.  Only in the final third do we see the viewpoints of other characters:  the investors who did not support Rudolf exactly as he wished and the stresses imposed on his wife and children by the resulting familial rift; the stresses placed on his wife by isolation in the Preanger Highlands, multiple childbirths and the sacrifice of material comforts.  Insights into how a man who viewed himself as a dutiful older son and a benevolent patriarch is judged a busybody and a tyrant, nicknamed The King of the Preanger,  by his peers and the younger generation.

Haasse’s historical novel gives insight into the lives of the tea, coffee and quinine plantation owners in general, and detailed insight into that of Rudolf Kerkhoven in particular.  The events are not invented but based on Haasse’s interpretation of  personal correspondence and other documents in The Indies Tea and Family Archive.  This is, therefore, not a sensational novel but a considered view of a bygone lifestyle written some 70 plus years after the events it describes.

The political reformist agenda of Multatuli is lacking – although interestingly described in disparaging terms in a conversation between Rudolf and his father set in 1873.

“Well, those Liberals have a radical edge. They don’t know what they’re talking about. They take all their ideas from that man, Douwes Dekker, a cousin of ours by marriage, the one who writes books and calls himself Multatuli nowadays. And his notions are anything but liberal, I’d have you know.”
“But he writes with such passion! I have read his novel, Max Havelaar.”
“Pardon me, but Douwes Dekker stole that story, characters and plot and all, from Pastor Van Hoevell, who drew attention to the whole sorry affair twenty years ago. Now that was a true martyr for the cause – they banished him from the Indies – but he didn’t make the kind of fuss over here Douwes Dekker made.”

I’ll have to do a little research on this before I read Max Havelaar.  There’s also a cryptic reference to Couperus.  Rudolf Kerkhoven, King of the Preanger considered them decadent!   I remember being completely enthralled by The Hidden Force when I read it in a previous life.  Who knows how I will feel 30 years later … (To be continued.)

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Hella S Haasse, born in 1918, is considered The Grand Old Lady of Dutch Literature.  She has won several prestigious literary awards including the Dutch Literature Prize in 2004.  The Tea Lords (1992) was translated into English by Ina Rilke and published by Portobello Books in 2010.

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