The Tea Lords
Haasse’s books have achieved classic status in her native Netherlands, and this is the first to be translated for 15 years. The Tea Lords is a novel, she writes, “but it is not fiction”. Instead, the material “has been chosen and arranged to meet the demands of a novel”.
The Kerkhoven family were one of many Dutch families to emigrate to Java in the 19th century where, in the 1860s, they leased a tea plantation in the Preanger Highlands. The book focuses on Rudolf, whom we meet as a new graduate in Delft before he rejoins his parents and leases his own plantation on which he settles with his wife, Jenny. What follows is an extraordinary account of their life based on actual letters and diaries: we learn of Jenny’s pregnancies and frequent miscarriages, and her deteriorating mental health; and of Rudolf’s entrepreneurial attempts to expand the tea and quinine plantations, and the rivalry with his younger brother that fuels family quarrels.
Apart from occasional lighthearted moments, the overall impression is that, as in other outposts, these families struggled to come to terms with a foreign culture and to make a livelihood from the alien jungle, especially since trade was frequently disrupted by international politics. With scant luxuries to make life more bearable – the telephone finally arrives in 1896 – the ruthless dominance of nature is epitomised by the eruption of Krakatau in 1883 and the resulting tsunami. An interesting book written with firsthand knowledge.