Reading The Tea Lords in close proximity to Lawrence Hill’s novel The Book of Negroes raises the question of what stories one prefers to hear told.
The Tea Lords chronicles life on an Dutch colonial tea plantation in Java in the 1870s, from the plantation owner’s perspective.
The Book of Negroes considers life on an indigo plantation (among other settings) from the perspective of Aminata Diallo, stolen from her homeland and enslaved.
Of course, we can read the works, literary and otherwise, produced by plantation owners, even those documents created and preserved in the first person voice, but what Hella Haasse offers in The Tea Lords is something slightly different.
Although readers don’t realize this until the story is over, the acknowledgements state that The Tea Lords is a novel, but it is not fiction.
It’s based on private correspondence and documents provided by The Indies Tea and Family Archive, a foundation established by the descendants of the characters in this work.
Hella Haasse has obviously worked hard to portray the life of Rudolf Kerkhoven, while not overlooking the essential role played by the countless people who are not named in this novel.
She herself was born in the Dutch East Indies (the Netherlands formally recognized Indonesian sovereignty in 1949) and other works of hers have also explored the relationship between the ‘colonizer’ and the ‘colonized’.
This has frequently brought her work into contention: what kind of relationship is possible in the context of this inherently dysfunctional system? is there hope for an authentic life within it? what must be modified for the situation to alter for the betterment of all?
Readers meet Rudolf as a young man, desperate to gain his parents’ recognition and to make a life for himself.
He has decided that, for instance, he doesn’t want the kind of life that some young men his age seek.
“In him Rudolf saw the personification of what he had no desire to be: a ‘burgher’, someone who represented just the kind of bourgeois attitudes that his overseas relatives had shaken off as being too narrow and restrictive.”
And, yet, he does not understand the relationship that exists between the workers on the plantation (who are recognized as essential for the plantation to flourish, though their “value” is not necessarily reflected in their treatment) and the overseas men in his family who have chosen this ‘broader and permissive’ life.
Furthermore, it’s clear that the men in the family and in the community are of different minds on this matter.
One man says: “Of course, it is a wonderful thing when people work freely for a wage. But what is often overlooked is that the Javanese peasant has a totally different attitude to money than the European.”
And when another says he has too many family matters to deal with and he “can’t afford philanthropy just yet”, another man says that “[i]t is not a question of philanthropy, but of honour and duty”.
Rudolf is surprised by the way in which even his sisters, whose traditional code of femininity dictated demure behaviour, interacted with the workers, in the home and on the plantation.
“…he was struck by the commanding tone used by Europeans to address the natives. He was certain there was no gardener or washerwoman at Hunderen, not even a journeyman at his father’s peat-cutting works in Dedemsvaart – people accustomed to deferring to their masters – who would tolerate being ordered about like that.”
Rudolf is taken aback by this and choses another path, although he is not entirely successful (of which I shall say no more). Nonetheless, it is interesting that he is critical of this approach.
“He had been shocked by the way some people had barked out instructions to the luggage coolies on the quay, and had immediately cast them as ‘new-style colonials’, men of little education and uncouth manners who would never have amounted to anything in Holland.”
There are instances in which he feels that he wants to behave in one way but that his role requires him to behave in another.
“Rudolf was, in principle prepared to pay more. He had calculated at 10 guilders per bouw he would be getting a very good deal – it even smacked of exploitation – but just as in his early days at Gamboeng, he thought it better not to give in too easily. The end of the affair was that he went back to paying individual wages per day.”
There is a sense of Rudolf always striving, whether to learn Soendanese or to prove his abilities to his parents, who are quick to recognize his sibling’s achievements but seem hesitant to acknowledge Rudolf’s.
He is overwhelmingly concerned with gaining his parents’ recognition and respect, and the constant struggle to oversee the plantation appropriately echoes that desire, so that at times it seems as though he is always performing, never actually living.
“Moreover, as their djoeragan and djoeragan istri, it was paramount they should observe a certain measure of decorum, and he knew he would incur their derision and contempt by indulging in what was undoubtedly considered to be loose Western behavior. So he restrained himself from doing as he wished. [His wife] and he were not free. They never would be.”
Of course, readers today are well aware of the kind of disparity between Rudolf’s lack of freedom and the enslavement of plantation workers.
And, of course Rudolf’s perspective is limited by his privileged existence; he has internalized more of the power dynamic than he seems to recognize. So, for instance, when he finally meets a woman who interests him, he observes:
“For the past twenty-four hours he had known he would set out to conquer her, just as he had conquered Gamboeng.”
As a lifetime reader, I feel as though I have read a lot of novels that either embodied or examined the colonial perspective from a position of privilege.
Novels that considered the perspective of the conqueror rather than the conquered have taken precedence in my school reading and in much of my pleasure reading, too, whereas the reading that I have done to broaden that perspective is, relatively, limited.
Nonetheless, I have never read a novel set in this part of the world and nor have I read any of Hella Haasse’s work (apparently very little has been translated into English, so it’s really thanks to Ina Rilke that I’ve read even this).
So maybe I would rather hear Aminata’s story told than Rudolf’s, but I don’t regret having taken time for The Tea Lords.