White women were a rare commodity in Europe’s Asian colonies, a considerable problem if one wanted to build a long-term colonial society while avoiding miscegenation. It was a matter that particularly exercised the first leaders of the Dutch East Indies. In Batavia’s Graveyard, Mike Dash writes that
as early as 1610 the [Dutch East India] Company’s first attempts to procure wives for its lonely merchants had ended in humiliation the Governor-General Pieter Both was dispatched to Java with 36 ‘spinsters’ who turned out to be prostitutes.
His successor Jan Pieterszoon Coen didn’t mince words when he wrote back to Amsterdam demanding something be done about it:
Everyone knows that the male sex cannot survive without women. And yet it seems that Your Excellencies have planted a colony without wishing to. To make up for this lack we have looked for funds and have had to buy many women at high prices. Just as you, Sirs, would only send us the scum of the land, so people here will sell us none but scum either… Should we expect to get good [citizens] from rejects, as you apparently expect? Shall we have to die out to the last man? We therefore request Your Excellencies, that if you cannot get honest married folk, then send us young girls, and we shall that things go better than our experience with older women to date.quoted in The Social World of Batavia: Europeans and Eurasians in Colonial Indonesia by Jean Gelman Taylor
The first six young women in the resulting “Company Daughters” programme (which only lasted about a decadeDutch Colonialism, Migration and Cultural Heritage: Past and Present, edited by Geert Oostindie, pg 104) arrived in 1622, an incident which provides the background for Samantha Rajaram’s eponymous historical novel.
Before Rajaram studied international law and sex trafficking in law school, she earned a Master’s in English, focusing on African-American literature and slave narratives, lines of study which have informed her debut novel set in early 1600s Amsterdam and the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia).
Colonialism may have benefited the Dutch, but not all Dutch. Women and girls started traveling to Batavia, or what is now Jakarta, early in the 17th century but it wasn’t always by choice. Some were sold to the Dutch East India Company while others chose the ten month sea voyage because their options in the Netherlands—such as prostitution and indentured servitude—seemed worse. Prospects in Batavia were far from ideal, but as Company Daughters married Dutch settlers, these girls and women felt they had a chance of normalcy. Or did they?
Jana Beil ran away from home after her sister died and her father hit her one too many times. After a stint in a brothel, she finds work as a house cleaner for a wealthy widower and his teenage daughter, Sontje. Jana and Sontje are about the same age, but couldn’t be more different. Sontje is tall and blond and elegant whereas Jana feels plain and lowbrow. After Sontje’s father loses his fortune, Sontje’s prospects spiral downward. She sees no hope left in Amsterdam and signs up to be a Company Daughter.
Jana, tired of predatory men, starts to develop feelings for Sontje and joins her on the Leyden, the ship that will take them and a handful of other women and girls to Batavia, the youngest of which is still a year or two away from becoming a teenager. Life onboard is rough and one of the young women dies from scurvy. Once they arrive, a reverend explains to the new arrivals their duties.
“These men have been away from civilization for months, even a year or two. They have forgotten our…” Reverend Falks pauses here, searching for the proper words. “Softer ways. It is your duty to remind them. Cleanliness in your homes and in your hearts. Chastity at all times. You will be protectors of home and hearth. You are as much a part of this endeavor as the settlers to whom you will be married.”
They have no choice when it comes to finding a husband and there is no tolerance for Jana and Sontje’s budding relationship. Sontje is married off to a nasty man who keeps her imprisoned in their home on the outskirts of the settlement. Jana is paired off with a man three times her age, the sixty-year old Mattheus who turns out to be one of more decent settlers.
When Sontje gives birth to a son, she wants to raise him with Jana, despite their marriages. They speak (possibly anachronistically) of this idealistic future they both know will never happen.
“I wish we could raise him together,” I say, then regret my words. Why wish for impossible things? Even confessing it causes an ache in my chest—best not to imagine such a life, or I’ll just want it more.
“I know,” Sontje says. “I spend hours at night imaging us escaping from all this together with Ebel. Living out in the forest.”
“Being mauled by tigers or spared by the natives, whose land we’ve stolen.”
“Yes. Exactly that.” We laugh a bitter laugh, which we learned on the Leyden.
Not that the children of perhaps more natural liaisons between Dutch settlers and local women are better off: they are not accepted by either the Dutch or by the locals.
They live in an orphanage at the edge of the compound—a sad thatched roof and box of a building, not yet painted, that receives little breeze. A few older, pious townswomen sometimes take them in for short periods, but if they are anything like the older, pious women of Amsterdam, those children will grow unloved and become little more than servants or prostitutes, turned out at the age of fifteen.
Perhaps ironically given its focus on social justice—as well as raising LGBTQ issues in the relationship between Jana and Sontje, Rajaram also makes a point of addressing slavery in the Dutch colonies—The Company Daughters doesn’t include many Javanese, so the larger question of colonial expropriation of land doesn’t figure much into the story. But it nevertheless contains within it a compelling story a reminder of how colonialism perpetrated injustices on large parts of the colonizing population as well as the colonized.
Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↩||quoted in The Social World of Batavia: Europeans and Eurasians in Colonial Indonesia by Jean Gelman Taylor|
|2.||↩||Dutch Colonialism, Migration and Cultural Heritage: Past and Present, edited by Geert Oostindie, pg 104|