Tag Archives: #colonial

Rajaram’s Book On the Reality of the Dutch East India Company

Samantha Rajaram’s debut novel The Company Daughters transports readers to the Dutch Renaissance with the rise in its national power as a seafaring nation, the growth of a new urban bourgeoisie with its patronage for visual arts like portraiture, new styles of urban architecture, gardening, flower arrangement, and cuisine, but beneath this façade of beauty and refinement lurks the seamier underbelly of mercantile capitalism: colonization, slave trade and overt and covert forms of human trafficking. Rajaram, a California Bay Area native, a former lawyer, and an English professor plumbs this rich material for her accomplished fictional debut.

The novel is narrated from the first-person perspective of the protagonist Jana Beil. It follows a tripartite structure with the first part opening in Amsterdam where a hungry and desperate Jana is seeking work as a servant in the prosperous sections of Amsterdam as a house servant after, we will be told later, having escaped a childhood of parental neglect and violence and a horrific period of sexual slavery in Amsterdam’s newly emerging brothels. A wealthy young woman Sontje Reynst hires her, and this marks the beginning of a life-long relationship between these two women from very disparate social strata.

For Jana, employment in the Reynst household provides a modicum of stability and comfort, which is quickly lost when Master Reynst’s fortune is lost in a shipwreck. Jana is quite resilient and secures employment in another rich household, the De Graf family. Sontje’s life is more dramatically overturned by her father’s financial losses and her coveted engagement is called off by her suitor Hans. She cannot find a way out of her mounting debts to creditors and the potential loss of her home. It is at this juncture that she comes across the Dutch East India Company’s advertisement for single women to make the voyage to Batavia, present-day Indonesia, to become wives of Dutch settlers there. She signs up for her arduous year-long voyage and Jana decides to accompany her.

Amsterdam Dutch East India Company Trader

The second part of the novel is set on the ship, Leyden, and captures the hardships and dangers of this arduous voyage. Jana and Sontje, along with the other Company daughters face diseases like scurvy which affects many sailors and eventually kills one of the daughters. As the voyage reaches its final stages there is a shortage of food and drinking water. Sontje is also subjected to sexual violence in this journey, and it is Jana’s loving care that brings her back from the brink of death. It is in the Leyden that the girls establish a romantic intimacy, proclaiming their hearts and bodies as autonomous of the cogs of the capitalist patriarchal Company that is trading them as wives to settlers.

When they reach Batavia, Sontje is married off to Willhelm, a settler of ill repute, who is abusive towards her. Jana is married to Mattheus, an older, though kinder man. Jana feels no attraction for her husband and spends her days waiting for some sporadic contact with Sontje. After the hiatus of their marriages and Sontje giving birth to a son, the two girls renew their intimacy. Both are acutely uncomfortable with the operations of the settler society which relies on various kinds of slave labor. Jana’s tenuous autonomy and marital harmony are again disrupted by Mattheus’s death in an accident. Somehow, when all seems lost until two of her native slaves come to her rescue by offering to sell their native dyed fabrics. The novel closes with the prospect of renewal.

Samantha Rajaram deserves kudos for her historical research in uncovering this material: the Dutch East India Company procuring wives for settlers. She presents a very accurate picture of Renaissance Amsterdam with its class and religious disparities. The depiction of the long sea voyage is powerful in its harrowing detail. The lesbian love story is also presented with great tenderness and serves as a space of feminist defiance against multiple gendered oppressions.

However, the presentation of feminist solidarity between Jana, the Dutch protagonist, and her native Indonesian slaves, Aini and Candra, does not seem to be historically accurate. It is perhaps more of a utopian aspiration of the author. But it feels like Dues Ex Machina in a novel, which is otherwise unsentimental in its representation of colonial history and seductive in its ability to capture and preserve the reader’s interest in this violent and inhumane era.


Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She grew up in Calcutta and currently lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

The Company Daughters by Samantha Rajaram. Bookouture, October 2000

Reflections of the Raj in the Spirit of Multiculturalism

As we enter the season of “Devi Paksha”, the spirit of Feminine Divine in the Fall, regaling at the cotton ball clouds in the clear blue sky, gentle morning breeze smelling of fresh dew, rustic reconnaissance in our agile senses, the vision of a city emerges very vividly in many minds connected to India: Calcutta (now called Kolkata), the city that took exquisiteness of the decadent to a whole different level! Everything is about the bygone out there.

Perhaps, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, Calcutta is a mix of many things, all at once. While the mangrove forests been submerging in the Bay, the foothills of the Himalayas merging with the rising mists for thousands of years, footprints of many people, their ethnicities, spirituality, aspirations, and accolades adorned the soil of the land. One such seeker was Job Charnock who settled the harness of British East India Company in the city some 365 years back. The community found a home away from home, absorbing it foot by foot, building the city brick by brick. In the words of contemporary historians, Calcutta was inspirational to London, ushering a century of opulence, immersion, and multiplexity in the United Kingdom. Needless to say, people from Calcutta always relish Europe in their ethos. 

It was the most coveted gift of the season when the publisher of India Currents, Vandana, handed me this rustic book to review: Old Picture Postcards from the British Raj. Chronicle of real postcards collected and curated by Madan Gopal Mukhopadhyay, compiled over generations, capturing people and places from Calcutta and the rest of India during the Colonial era. My heart danced to the tune of sepia-tinted images from the city of my birth.  The book depicts nooks and alleys of the city in photographic representation, documenting urban and rural edifices and lifestyles seamlessly. There’s a surprise element in the end. 

A page from Old Postcard Pictures from the British Raj.

“At the end is a special set of postcards, more than a century old, featuring photographs of Indian royalty by the renowned photographer, Carl Vandyke.” 

The author was born in Calcutta before the Partition, graduated from the prestigious Calcutta Medical College after which he came to the US to study and pursue his career as a physician. An alumnus of Howard University and Yale University, Madan Gopal has had many distinguished achievements as a doctor, author, social luminary, and patron of arts and culture. This book is dedicated to his progenies, “Perhaps the images of this book will remind them of their roots in the future”. 


Soma Chatterjee is the Diversity Ambassador for India Currents and a Board Member for Silicon Valley Interreligious Council representing Hinduism on behalf of HAF