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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

Indian American Writer Learns From a 17th Century Dutch Woman

I recently celebrated the cover reveal for my debut novel The Company Daughters: A Heart-Wrenching Colonial Love Story. For me, it was the culmination of a long, difficult journey to publication.

I started writing this book nearly ten years ago. I was in the middle of a stressful divorce, raising three kids under the age of five, and I had returned to grad school for a career change from lawyer to English professor. By the Indian standards and expectations I’d grown up with, I felt like an utter failure. 

Every morning I forced myself out of bed before my children woke up and wrote at my kitchen table, accompanied by a hot cup of coffee and the familiar scent of the temple incense my father brought back from India. I wanted to write a story that addressed colonialism and other systems of power, and when I found a footnote mentioning a 17th-century picture bride policy of the Dutch East India Company, I couldn’t resist the pull of exploration. I shelved my fear of failure and the persistent feelings of inadequacy that often plague the immigrant offspring navigating community expectations. I plowed on. 

I read hundreds of articles. Studied maps. Perused books about 17th-century Dutch furniture, glass bead factories, shipping routes, forest glass blowers, and illnesses of the time. I traveled to Amsterdam, spending hours at the Rijksmuseum examining the furniture collection and still life paintings. I took a boat trip through Amsterdam’s canals and pretended to be my main character, impoverished, hungry Jana, trudging down the city’s narrow, meandering streets hundreds of years ago. 

At times, I thought, “How can I, an Indian-American woman in the 21st century, know anything about a 17th-century Dutch woman?” 

And then I remembered the books of my childhood, written by white authors who occasionally populated their books with Indian characters, mere props for white narratives. I wanted to know about these peripheral characters, to hear about their lives, their stories.

In writing The Company Daughters, I hoped to give my main character the complexity and humanity I often saw lacking in representations of Indian characters in books and on TV during my childhood. I wanted to avoid the pitfalls of white savior narratives while providing a glimpse into the colonial world and its hierarchies—structures of power that persist today.

And in connecting with people from other time periods, other cultures, other languages, I found shared humanity uniting us across centuries. Common desires for justice, love, freedom, and understanding that persist now. In my efforts to render a 17th-century Dutch woman sent across the world to marry a stranger, I began to recognize my own desire for agency, freedom, and a new life. 

I wish I could say that from that point on all went smoothly, but that is the fantasy of every writer, and the reality is much, much messier. Many people told me to give up on this dream. I don’t have an MFA. I didn’t know anything about writing a book or getting an agent. But I loved reading, an act which provided comfort whenever I felt lonely or alienated. And the characters kept “talking” to me. And I kept listening. 

Writing saved me. The steadiness of my characters’ voices in my mind alleviated the crushing loneliness of single parenthood. When I could not share my daughter’s newest milestones with anyone, I recorded them in scenes of my book (later excised). And when I was without my children, the insistence of my characters’ stories gave me purpose even as my heart ached with each separation.

Change can be incremental, and other times change comes on like a monsoon—heavy and relentless. In my author’s journey, I had a mix of both. I had the encouragement of my Creative Writing instructor at Stanford, and I had friends and family, worried by the potential for disappointment, who advised me not to get my hopes up, to consign writing to a weekend hobby. 

As an Indian-American writer, I was often conflicted with the requirements of my culture and the desires of my hidden self. Shouldn’t I use my time more productively? Shouldn’t I focus on activities with an assured financial return? Was I being a responsible mother?

But that’s not what writers do. We pursue the impractical, the impossible, the incredible, in spite of—perhaps because of—our ongoing dance with self-doubt, inadequacy, and fear. We ferret away moments for writing like squirrels stuffing acorns into knotholes. Waking before the sunrise to write, writing in our cars, committing lines to memory while waiting in checkout queues, eking out moments for creativity from the myriad of mindless routines that comprise a life. Describe the smile on that woman’s face. Observe the shape of that shadow.

In the end, the “monsoon” of my writing career was being selected as a Pitch Wars mentee. I landed my agent soon after and was offered my book deal another year after that. 

A book deal sounds so easy when the journey is reduced to a few hundred words. It was anything but. My debut novel is about a young woman hungry for life, love, justice, freedom, and reprieve, as I was. But it was a long journey, with starts and fits, highs and lows–as it should be. Writing is an act of transposition. When we are writing, we are writing our lives onto the page in some way or another. Every paragraph and chapter deleted, expanded, revised, and revised again promises a transformation in our characters. But those same moments open us up to the possibility of transformation in our own lives as well. That process is what made me a writer, and brought me to myself. 


Samantha Rajaram is a former attorney, solo mother of three, and English professor in the Bay Area. Her debut novel, The Company Daughters will be published in the US and UK this October.