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Hella Haasse: Heren van de thee (The Tea Lords)

Haasse’s best-known novel tells of a Dutch family who grew tea, coffee and quinine bark in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century in what was then known as the Dutch East Indies and is now called Indonesia. The focus of the story is Rudolf Kerkhoven. He is the eldest child of Rudolf Kerkhoven, who is a planter in the East Indies. (Rudolf Junior will call his first-born Rudolf, as well.) He has two younger brothers, August and Julius, and two younger sisters, Sophie and Cateau. At the start of the novel, Rudolf and his brothers are studying in the Netherlands, while the two sisters are in the East Indies with their parents. Rudolf is studying civil engineering, with a view to helping build roads and bridges around his parents’ estate. On completion of his studies, he hopes to go out to the Indies and be his parents’ manager, so he is somewhat upset when they appoint someone else before he gets there. When he does go there, he goes to work as the assistant to his uncle.

While on his Uncle Eduard’s estate, he soon learns about not only the problems of tea growing but the problems of dealing with the natives. When his uncle goes on holiday to the Netherlands, leaving Rudolf in charge, he wants to be a good employer but has to deal with local customs as well the local language. But it is Rudolf’s aim to manage his own estate and, eventually, he manages to get a lease on a now abandoned former government coffee estate. He cannot afford to buy the lease with his own money so he has to have two investors, his father and his brother-in-law. This will cause considerable trouble later on. We follow the story of his management of the estate of Gamboeng, till he first starts till he eventually leaves it, an old man, handing it over to his son.

It is not plain sailing. He wants to grow tea and does manage to do so but he also grows coffee and then grows cinchona trees, for their quinine. He develops an effective way of producing high quality quinine but others copy him and eventually there is a glut on the market. Conditions are hard and money short, given the fact that he does not own the entire property. Through his sister, he meets and marries Jenny and they have several children (and she has a miscarriage and a premature birth). While the agricultural developments are interesting, there is something of a soap opera with inter-family squabbles, partially over the share of his property, partially because his parents seem to favour the youngest son, August. There is an estrangement within the family which is never really healed. We only get glimpses of the opposition to Dutch rule, though there are a few rebellions and uprisings, though they do not seem to affect the Kerkhovens. The Aceh opposition is only mentioned in passing. (Annoyingly, the translator uses the Dutch spelling for various Indonesian words, such as Atjeh instead of the normal English Aceh, Soendanese instead of Sundanese and Krakatau instead of Krakatoa.) And, of course, there are family tragedies as well.

In the Acknowledgements, Haasse states that the story is based on fact, much of it taken from letters in the Indies Tea and Family Archive. Her novel is the story of the lives of the family, the rest being factual. We do see more famous real characters, in particularly one of the relatives of the Kerkhoven family, Douwes Dekker, better known as the author Multatuli whose book Max Havelaar exposed some of the abuses of the Dutch colonial system. But it is Haasse’s creation of the family and the way she brings them to life that makes this an interesting and worthwhile novel of colonialism.

Publishing history

First published in 1992 by Querido
First published in English in 2010 by Portobello