I chose this book for a ‘readalong’ as part of Dutch Literature Month at Iris on Books because as a former teacher of Indonesian language, I’ve been to Indonesia and know a bit about their history and culture. The Tea Lords is about a Dutch colonist who in 1870 follows his father’s footsteps and develops a tea estate in Bandung, but it was written in 1992 (well after the Declaration of Indonesian Independence in 1945), so I thought it would offer an interesting post-colonial Dutch perspective. But it was a disappointment, from that point of view.
Haasse is one of the Netherland’s most notable writers, described on Wikipedia as ‘the Grand Old Lady’ of Dutch literature whose oeuvre includes historical novels, documentary-historical novels and contemporary works. The daughter of a Dutch civil servant in colonial administration, she was born in 1918 in Batavia in what was then the Dutch East Indies, now Jakarta in Indonesia. After secondary school she went to study in the Netherlands, (narrowly avoiding the Japanese Occupation of Java, only to experience the German Occupation instead). Her debut novel Oeroeg was set in the Dutch East Indies and published in 1948, amid the bitter military and diplomatic conflict which was eventually to culminate in the Dutch conceding to Indonesia’s independence in 1949. (Alongside postwar decolonisation of all the old empires, most of which took place without bloodshed). I haven’t read Oeroeg but reviews by Indonesians on GoodReads show that it contrasts a childhood friendship between a Dutch and an Indonesian boy, a friendship tested in adulthood when Oeroeg becomes a nationalist.
But what is said to be Haasse’s ’magnum opus’ The Tea Lords, written more than 40 years later, sidesteps anything to do with Indonesian nationalism or any critique of Dutch colonialism because the story finishes in 1918. (That was the period when the Dutch were repressing emerging Indonesian nationalist movements.) The novel is a work of nostalgia set in a lost world, celebrating the achievement of the colonist Rudolf Kerkhoven who through hard work and thrift establishes a successful tea, coffee and quinine plantation and becomes rich. Along the way he marries a wife called Jenny, raises a family, and has unresolved conflicts with his parents and siblings. And in his old age he realises that money and status isn’t everything.
However, although this family-saga plot sounds old-fashioned (and it is) the book is not a typical historical novel. It’s fictionalised non-fiction a.k.a. documentary-historical fiction, based on letters and journals of the actual Kerkhoven family. This allows the book to present an authentic portrayal of colonial life and attitudes, free from any inconvenient post-colonial angst. The author, translator and publisher have even chosen to use the old Dutch colonial spelling of Indonesian words, rather than contemporary Indonesian spelling which was first reformed in 1947 and again in 1972.
What’s more, The Tea Lords references the novel which denounced colonialism, Max Havelaar, which made me wonder even more about these authorial choices. According to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Max Havelaar (1860), was a powerful critique of Dutch colonialism. Multatuli (the nom de plume of the author, Eduard Douwes Dekker) means ‘I have suffered greatly’ and the book exposed the poverty and mass malnutrition caused by the forced-agriculture policy in Java. Multatuli’s novel was so influential that by the 1870s critical public opinion in the Netherlands had forced the end of mandatory quotas of commercially tradable crops produced at the expense of staple foodstuffs in Indonesia. Nevertheless under Dutch rule the use of arable land for cash crops instead of growing rice continued through the period of Haasse’s novel and well into the 20th century, causing great hardship. As late as the 1990s in Yogyakarta I could still see the effects of childhood malnutrition: some of the elderly Javanese were the tiniest people I have ever seen. But The Tea Lords has no ‘black armband’ about this or any other aspect of colonialism; it is the story of a successful colonist, no more. The Javanese plantation staff are bit players, mostly off stage, occasionally a bit uppity but mostly happy to work for Kerkhoven, who is, by his own lights, a fair and reasonable employer. In contrast to Oeroeg, there are no childhood friendships across the colour bar in The Tea Lords. Kerkhoven’s children have an idyllic childhood but they seem not to play with any of the plantation’s other children. Was Kerkhoven representative? More representative than the depiction of colonists in Max Havelaar? Whether it was intended to or not, this novel raises many questions if one reads between the lines …
I hesitate to be critical of a pre-eminent Dutch author, but I can’t help wondering what Haasse was thinking when she wrote this book. The absence of Javanese from her canvas made me wonder about her sources. Did Kerkhoven live amongst the Javanese for a lifetime and never mention them in the letters and journals that the author accessed? If so, what should a contemporary author do about this? With whatever authentic sources she had at her disposal, what choices did she make in her representation of him as an employer? Do these sources show the real Kerkhoven or an idealised version of him?
Readers who form the impression from The Tea Lords that the Dutch were ‘better colonialists’ than others in the game, (see comments here) might well check out the very brief rule of the British, who took Indonesia from the Dutch during the 1814-1815 Napoleonic Wars. The British have plenty to answer for in their own imperial history but their regime is regarded by Indonesians as comparatively benign. Lieutenant Governor General Stamford Raffles stopped the slave trade, introduced partial self-government, abolished the forced-agricultural system and placed limitations on the opium trade. He also discovered Borobodur under its mantle of volcanic lava and began the process of restoring it. Unlike the British in India who built railways from one end of it to the other, the Dutch built no major infrastructure or development projects in Indonesia: on the contrary, they used the profits from their colony to build the infrastructure that supported their industrial economy back in the Netherlands. As anyone who’s ever visited Indonesia knows, they still don’t have any decent roads or railways…
As I said in discussion about this book at GoodReads, this book made me start thinking about how an author of historical novels might tackle writing about a colonial period today. For characters to be authentic, they can’t have a post-colonial consciousness, but one can assume that today’s readers do, and that so does the author. The Tea Lords is a late 20th century work, when the Dutch were long gone from Indonesia and the Indonesians were able to start telling their own stories. The Dutch did at different times in the colonial period undertake some reforms to improve the situation for Indonesians, and today they are world leaders in the field of human rights. Shouldn’t that awareness of human rights inform a pre-eminent Dutch author’s work? How can a reader reconcile this nostalgic story celebrating colonialism with the reality?
I couldn’t help contrasting Haasse’s view of the colonial world (as depicted in this book) with a near contemporary book, Penelope Lively’s 1994 memoir Oleander, Jacaranda. Reflecting on her British childhood in colonial Egypt, Lively openly acknowledges that she ‘did not see’ things that were right in front of her, such as the poverty of the Egyptian people. Of course an historical novel is not a memoir, but Haasse made choices to write her book the way she has. These choices prompted rebellious thoughts as I read The Tea Lords. I wanted authorial intervention that drew attention to what’s missing in her characters’ observations; I wanted some kind of acknowledgement of Javanese dispossession. This could have been a far more interesting work if Haasse used an Austenesque wry commentary that shows up her characters’ flaws as they relate to the people whose land they’ve taken.
Marilyn at MD Brady in discussing historical fiction in general, has encapsulated my feelings of dissatisfaction about the simplistic portrayal of colonialism in The Tea Lords:
Even within an historical context, actions like massacring your neighbors because you want their land are wrong. Just because the settlers of the American west believed it was their God-given destiny to conquer its inhabitants doesn’t mean that an author has to simplistically support their actions or condemn them without bothering to understand them. An author can indicate distance from the mainstream views of a period through techniques like voice, point-of view or language without putting anachronistic words in characters’ mouths. As suggested, having a character marginal to the dominant culture is often an excellent device in historical fiction, one which more and more writers are trying. For example, women may not be able to be feminists, but they would be able to observe and be critical of the mainstream perspectives if only silently.
In the course of following discussion about this book, I came across a comment from Helen at a blog called Tales from the Reading Room. It encapsulates exactly what makes me feel uneasy about The Tea Lords:
I don’t think that any historical fiction can authentically recreate the past, it can only give us flavours. So I would expect a modern novel with an historical setting to do something different to a novel written at that time – perhaps to show the world from an unusual perspective, from the standpoint of someone who’s been ‘written out’ of history, in a certain sort of style, and yes, maybe to comment on it too.
Hella Haase was not some hack writer of historical fiction aiming at an uncritical mass market. She was a major author of some distinction and she knew exactly what she was doing with this novel. She was choosing not to engage with the issue of colonialism, choosing not to include the voices of the Javanese, choosing not to show us what their lives were like, choosing not to depict the emergence of nationalism, and choosing not to write about reforms that were undertaken and reforms that were desperately needed. In the late 20th century, those were authorial choices that imply a lack of respect and empathy for the colonised people.
Was Haasse was influenced perhaps by some kind of political revisionism of colonialism? Wikipedia says that there are some Dutch who are nostalgic about the lost power and prestige of their empire, and maybe an uncritical novel about the courage and enterprise of the tea lords had popular appeal?
Would I care about any of this political correctness if The Tea Lords were a page-turning historical novel? Probably not. But The Tea Lords is far from a page-turner. It is too bound to its historical sources for that and some of it (especially Kerkhoven’s interminable rivalry with his siblings) is downright boring.
I’ve been hard on this book because it didn’t live up to my expectations. The Guardian reviewed it more generously here.
Author: Hella S. Haasse
Title: The Tea Lords (first published as Heren van de thee in 1992)
Translated by Ina Rilke
Publisher: Portobello 2010
Source: Personal library, purchased from the Book Depository. (Mine is the paperback edition that has the (quite nice) cover at the top of this post and the link to buy it below; this much more gorgeous cover is the hardback edition. If you can’t resist it, click the image to buy).
Availability: Book Depository