De mannen van Maria
How a girl from humble beginnings worked her way up and became an extremely wealthy woman
The protagonist of this novel, Maria van Aelst, really existed. We don’t know much about her, other than that she was married to Antonio van Diemen, Governor-General of the former Dutch East Indies between 1637 and 1645, that their marriage remained childless and that she died an extremely rich woman. Timmerije has largely filled in the details of Maria’s life herself and made her into a smart, headstrong woman.
In 1625, Maria van Aelst leaves for Batavia (present-day Jakarta) on a Dutch East India Company ship. She and six other girls are being sent to give birth to Dutch progeny: ‘We went to bear children, shipped at the request of the gentlemen over there, seven girls, most of whom had never even been kissed.’ After a hazardous, nine-month journey, Batavia turns out to be in the middle of a dangerous, swampy plain. Maria is cho- sen by an older, upper-class gentleman, who soon afterwards dies. Her second husband, too, passes away within a year – at just 22 years old, she has already been widowed twice.
Because Maria marries increasingly powerful men, she ends up privy to a lot of information – for example about the decisions made by the Seventeen Gentlemen, the Dutch East India Company’s board of directors. She climbs the social ladder, can’t seem to get pregnant and is bored out of her mind. As much as was possible for a woman in those days, she takes risks and breaks with convention. She helps her third husband maintain the clove monopoly and rules the roost in Batavia’s social circles.
Flouting all the rules, she starts trading in diamonds. Over time, she grows to be the ‘queen of Batavia.’ When she finally moves back to Amsterdam in 1646, she is among the one hundred richest people in the Republic.
In her fifth work of fiction, Timmerije – a journalist who herself has Indonesian roots – vividly describes the 17th century world of scurvy, swamp fever, slavery and pirates, and takes us inside the colonial, patriarchal mindset that existed back then. Maria’s Men is a gripping story about a self-made woman who seizes life by the horns.