Bitter Bonds: A Colonial Divorce Drama of the Seventeenth Century

Book of the Year – Times Literary Supplement

In seventeenth-century Batavia, Cornelia van Nijenroode, the daughter of a geisha and a Dutch merchant in Japan, was known as “otemba” (meaning “untamable”), which made her a heroine to modern Japanese feminists. A wealthy widow and enterprising businesswoman who had married an unsuccessful Dutch lawyer for social reasons, she discovered that just after her wedding, she and her husband were at each other’s throats. Cornelia insisted on maintaining independent power of disposal over her assets, but legally her husband had control over her possessions and refused to grant her permission to engage in commerce. He soon began using blackmail, smuggling, and secret accounts to channel her wealth back to the Dutch Republic.

Cornelia fought back and tried to get a divorce. The struggle – complete with legal subterfuge, mutual recriminations, and even public brawls – would drag on for fifteen years and culminate in only a partial victory for Cornelia.


Leonard Blussé (University of Leiden) is a former Davis Fellow at Princeton University and the author of several books on East Asia. Bitter Bonds received the leading Dutch literary award and has been translated into various languages.