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.
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