Nelleke Noordervliet

Pelican Bay

History is dangerous ground

After her father’s death writer Ada van de Wetering is left burdened with feelings of guilt. Did she really make her adopted brother Antonio’s life so miserable that he returned to the Carribean when he was eighteen? Had Ada threatened him with a knife during a vacation in France? She can’t remember. Ada gets on an airplane to find out the truth. A second reason for her trip is that one of her ancestors, Jacob Rivers owned a plantation on the island. She doesn’t know much about him except that his pregnant wife was murdered – a crime for which an innocent slave was hanged.

Ada is also interested in this colonial question because in the 1960s her parents had brought Antonio to Holland as a kind of modern slave, partially out of guilt for their own prosperity, but also to save their marriage. During her research, as Ada comes to know more about her family’s colonial past and meets Antonio several times, both questions become interwoven. In beautiful, alternating chapters Noordervliet describes the situation on the Rivers plantation two centuries ago. The question there is whether Jacob himself possibly murdered his wife, Fanny Fenwick. Fanny had had an affair with the slave Plato, so the child she was expecting could be black – an unbearable humiliation for Jacob.

With a probing style, Noordervliet evokes a dark and therefore often repressed page of Dutch colonial history. Precisely by connecting it to new forms of colonialism she shows how the past affects the present, as is shown by the story of Antonio. After all, he too was abused; seen as a sort of carnival attraction who at school was only allowed to give talks about slavery. Perhaps that is why he takes revenge by hiding cocaine in Ada’s luggage. She is subsequently caught but she doesn’t betray him – out of guilt, but also out of love. In Pelican Bay Noordervliet shows all the ambivalences that adhere to the colonial past. However painful the past may be, Ada manages to become reconciled with history.

Pelican Bay is a complex, intelligent novel, not only due to the two skillfully interwoven story lines, but also because rooting in history is dangerous ground, full of pitfalls. Noordervliet demonstrates the significance of the historical novel, in which she excels.


The magistrate on his horse is sweating. He has stomach ache. He might have to dismount on the way to relieve himself among the sugar cane. He wished he’d stayed at home, not just because of the diarrhoea. He’s not exactly relishing the task ahead. He felt so tired and sick when he got up that morning that he barely had the strength to tuck his shirt into his trousers, and he doesn’t feel much like leading a manhunt for a murderer. Not to mention the sickening sight of blood and death. The mess and the fuss. The revolting stench. The grief of Jacob Rivers, owner of Pelican Bay, and the slaves, quickly looking away. The trouble something like this stirs up in the whole community, as if life isn’t hard enough already. The report to the governor. He shudders at the thought.


Nelleke Noordervliet

Nelleke Noordervliet (b. 1945) made her debut with Tine of De dalen waar het leven woont (Tine or The Valleys Where Life Lives, 1987), a fictionalised biography of the wife of nineteenth-century Dutch writer Multatuli. Her other publications include the novels De naam van de vader (The Name…

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Pelican Bay (2002). Fiction, 409 pages.

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