However crazy the distinction is considering that we all share only one planet and however politically incorrect the terms are today, in our minds Earth keeps being divided into a first (rich), a second (well-to-do) and a third (poor) world because Gross National Products and European culture remain the established standards of comparison. In an effort to show some appreciation at least in language, already many years ago we adopted the term “developing countries” for former colonies released into independence after centuries of mainly taking and little giving. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that the arrogance in relations with them has been eliminated. Much of it has been passed on to us through generations. The usual mind-set of colonists becomes evident in The Tea Lords by Helle S. Haasse which I’m reviewing today. The story is about a young man who in the late nineteenth century joins his parents in the Dutch East Indies to make his fortune growing tea.
Helle S. Haasse was born Hélène Serafia Haasse in Batavia, Dutch East Indies (now: Jakarta, Indonesia), in February 1918. She grew up in different places on Java and in 1938 moved to the Netherlands where she studied Scandinavian languages and Literature. After World War II, in 1948, she made her literary debut with the highly successful, though controversial novel The Black Lake (Oeroeg) and continued to write prolifically for the rest of her life. Many of her novels are set in the Dutch Indies of her childhood and before. The most notable works of the Dutch author who is little known outside her country are In a Dark Wood Wandering (Het woud der verwachting: 1949), The Scarlet City (De scharlaken stad: 1952), Threshold of Fire (Een nieuwer testament: 1966), and The Tea Lords (Heren van de thee: 1992). Helle S. Haasse died in Amsterdam, Netherlands, in September 2011.
The plot of The Tea Lords revolves around Rudolf Eduard Kerkhoven and starts in 1869, when the twenty-one-year-old is still in Delft, Netherlands, to complete his Civil Engineering studies in preparation for work on his father’s recently leased tea plantation Ardjasari on the island of Java. The family generally considers him as insensitive, harsh and meddlesome – according to his younger brother Julius he is even thought “an opinionated prig”– and prefers to keep him at a distance. To Rudolf’s great and constant chagrin nobody seems to appreciate his achievements and efforts bordering on self-denial, not even his parents. Only some months after graduation, in March 1871, he boards the Telanak for Java to join his parents and siblings there 107½ days later. He lands in an environment where family ties and hierarchies are even more important and social conventions more strictly observed than in the Netherlands. Right after his arrival Rudolf is thus obliged to visit his different relatives on their estates even before travelling to his father’s Ardjasari. There at last, he realises that he isn’t needed, even less in a responsible position. He is sent off to Sinagar, the tea plantation of his uncle Eduard Kerkhoven, to replace him while he takes his children to the Netherlands for schooling. More than a year later Rudolf returns to Ardjasari and there’s still no vacancy for him, so he decides to take his own lease and to prove his qualities. Rudolf’s choice is Gamboeng, an overgrown coffee plantation which he turns into a thriving tea and quinine plantation through the hard work and sacrifice of many years. In 1876 Rudolf takes a wife – Jenny Roosegaarde from a respected family in Batavia – who is ready, though not really prepared to raise a family in the wilderness and to share the hardships as well as pleasures of life on such a remote tea plantation. Many years later the profits of four plantations allow the Kerkhovens at last to enjoy the fruits of all the efforts and privations, but for Jenny it’s almost too late.
In the Acknowledgements at the end of The Tea Lords the author emphasises that her book is not fiction, but based on the lives of real people. I’m sure that to a certain degree also her own experience as a girl in Java will have flown into the account although the plot finishes in the year of her birth, in 1918. Moreover, the young Helle S. Haasse must have heard many tales about those enterprising Europeans who went into the jungle to turn it into profitable tea, coffee or quinine plantations and in the process of writing they will have been in the back of her mind, if she was aware of it or not. Despite all it’s a documentary-historical novel told by a third-person narrator whose knowledge is limited to what personal correspondence of the characters, other documents and general historical research provide. Some of the material, above all letters, are even referred to or woven into the story itself. The point of view is that of Rudolf Kerkhoven who all his life strived for his family’s, above all his parents’ loving recognition and pride. Like many people, back then just as much as today, he believed that financial success would win them over, but love and respect can’t be bought neither with money, nor with power, nor with glory. Colonial life in the Dutch East Indies serves mainly as the background for the biographical character study and therefore isn’t dealt with critically. If at all, Javanese people appear as workers and servants whose presence or even existence is little more than part of the scenery. In a way this probably mirrors the actual attitude of many European colonists towards the native population at the time: they were surrounded by human life that they didn’t really see because they didn’t bother to look. The plot is easy to follow thanks to its simplicity and to the author’s clear language which by and by introduces some Indonesian words into the flow, but with so great skill that the annotations at the end are hardly needed.
For me The Tea Lords by Helle S. Haasse was the first novel of Java that I ever read. I know next to nothing about life on the islands of Indonesia and little about their past, so it allowed me a welcome first glimpse at this part of the world. Of course, it would have been interesting to catch a more complete picture of life in the Dutch East Indies, but the author’s purpose was to portray a model colonist and his family… and there she succeeded. I recommend the novel.