The Tea Lords
by Hella Haasse
Reviewed by Annis
Inspired by historical records from the Indies Tea and Family Archive, The Tea Lords is an absorbing and evocative family saga of Dutch colonial life, set in the East Indies between 1869 and 1918. "The Tea Lords is a novel, but it is not 'fiction'," says author Haasse. "The interpretation of personalities and events is based on private correspondence and other documents".
The moment young Rudolf Kerkhoven sees his wild, neglected Javan estate, he falls irrevocably in love with it. "'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".
Rudolf belongs to a wealthy and influential Dutch family whose powerful network stretches between Holland and Java. Having finally completed his education in Delft, he is free to follow his dreams and establish his own tea plantation. Gamboeng, in the Preanger Highlands of West Java will become his lifelong passion and obsession, the demanding but rewarding life of a tea planter a life he thrives on. When he marries and has a family, his happiness is complete. For his highly-strung wife, though, remote Gamboeng represents a life sentence.
Like a seemingly placid river, the shimmering surface of The Tea Lords shifts to reveal hidden depths: fraught family dynamics; the paternalistic, inequitable treatment of native workers; an insular, hierarchical colonial society riddled with nepotism and out of touch with European cultural changes. Above all it's a masterful psychological study of Rudolf himself, an inherently good but obtuse man, driven to succeed by a longing for approval and affection, but unable, until too late, to see his alienating dogmatism and miserliness as anything but virtues. (1992 in the original Dutch, English translation 2010; 341 pages, including maps, a glossary of Malay vernacular, and a list of tea estates in the Preanger Highlands)
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Other novels set in the Dutch East Indies:
Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch (2010), about a young boy's magical trip from Victorian England to the Dutch East Indies. More info
Scent of Cloves by Norah Lofts (1957), about a young woman in the seventeenth-century who is sent to the Dutch East Indies to become the wife of a man she has never met. More info
Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company by Multatuli, a pen name of Eduard Douwes Dekker (1860), a contemporary nineteeth-century exposé of the abuses of the Dutch in colonial Java. More info
Nonfiction about tea and the Dutch East Indies:
The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide by Mary Lou Heiss (2007). More info
Colonial Spectacles: The Netherlands and the Dutch East Indies at the World Exhibitions, 1880-1931 by Marieke Bloembergen and Beverley Jackson (2006). More info
The European Colonial Empires: 1815-1919 by H.L.Wesseling (2004). More info
Riung Gunung Tea Plantations, Pangalengan, West Java, Indonesia, scenes of highland tea plantations in present-day Java, accompanied by Indonesian music, at YouTube
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