Book review: Bitters Bride, a colonial wedding drama set in
Leonard Blussé wrote the book Bitters Bride as a sinologist / historian, affiliated with the RU Leiden. This biography of Joan Bitter gives a vivid picture of the situation in Batavia during the Golden Age.
As a historian and sinologist at Leiden University, he already has many publications to his name. He is not a novelist, but he claims to be a true storyteller himself. Bitter’s Bride is therefore a biography and a historical description of a marriage that took place during the Golden Age. Some of his other works are Tribute to China. 400 years of Dutch-Chinese relations (1988) and ?? Retour Amoy, Anny Tan ?? A woman’s life in Indonesia, the Netherlands and China ?? (2000).
When you start reading the book, you are immediately surprised at how deep one can dig into the personal life of one specific person. Of course, Blussé did not choose just anybody, but in his search he found people who left an exceptional amount of information about their lives.
Joan Bitter was not very successful as a lawyer in his home country. Right from the start we get to know him as someone with a difficult, short tempered character. Nevertheless, he was appointed as a member of the Council of Justice in Batavia. That is why he moved with his family to the far East Indies.
Traveling by ship was completely different then from what people experience now. During this trip he lost his wife, Bartha Eygels. Once he arrived, he immediately looked for a woman. The rationale is clear. His parents had a very large family, so his legacy, after being divided among all the children, was not much more. As a lawyer, Bitter had never been successful, and he was struggling financially. Worse, he was in debt.
During his search he eventually met Cornelia van Nijenroode.
Cornelia Van Nijenroode
Again you are immediately surprised by the depth of the information that has been found. Blussé has deliberately written more about her to clarify the situation in Japan and the Indies and to give us more insight into the status of women in this period.
First we get to know the mother of Cornelia, who married the chief merchant Van Nijenroode. As a member of the VOC it was officially prohibited to engage in private trade, but the earnings were often so low that many people were forced to do so. Moreover, it was so lucrative that it was possible to amass fortunes. Van Nijenroode died, however, and a large part of his fortune was confiscated, because everything had been properly noted and inventoried. The situation in Japan changed, the rights and privileges of the Dutch were revoked, and many had to leave the country, including the daughters of Van Nijenroode, Cornelia and Hester. However, the widow was able to stay because she had already remarried to a Japanese man.
The two daughters were shipped to Batavia. There Cornelia married Pieter Cnoll, accountant and a wealthy man. Together they eventually had 10 children, but Cornelia survived them all. Child mortality was therefore very high at this time. Cornelis is the only one who has reached adulthood. Pieter Cnoll, her husband, fell ill and died in 1672. The estate was assigned to Cornelia.
Cornelia and Joan
Then we’ve come to the point where Joan Cornelia gets to know each other. At first glance, he seemed to be a very good match for her. She may have had a fortune, but her status was out of proportion to her wealth. Her status as a single woman was very low during this time. Marriage to a prominent man would allow her to return to higher circles. Initially this also happened.
Already in the marriage contract it can be seen that their marriage was a real marriage of convenience. Romance was hardly involved. It soon became clear how much Joan Bitter was after the fortune of Cornelia. However, she quickly figured it out.
The legal battle
In this Golden Age women had little or no rights. It is often claimed that the Netherlands are a slight exception to the rule because the rules were somewhat looser, in favor of women. When you read through the description of a 15-year legal battle, you find that in the case of Cornelia, this is clearly a form of “wishful thinking”. is. Were it not for the fact that she had a lot of personal connections, and that Joan Bitter herself has committed a number of blunders, it would probably have ended worse for her than it is described in this book.
It is clear that the gender-related studies have an influence on the sciences. This book is proof of the importance of these studies. By starting from the point of view of women and examining her position in history and in culture, one immediately arrives at a completely different picture. Of course it remains just a performance, we cannot literally evoke history, but the image is nevertheless refined.
The book is beautifully written, because despite the in itself boring information about the judicial process and legal problems, everything is framed by background information that makes it fascinating. Moreover, it is written in such a form that it is possible to empathize with the situation. In various passages it is almost uncomfortably recognizable with the situation of today.
Title: Bitters Bride: A colonial wedding drama in the Golden Age
Author: Leonard Blussé
ISBN: 90 5018 353 0