- Bitter Bonds: A Colonial Divorce Drama of the Seventeenth Century
Six months after Cornelia van Nijenroode married Johan Bitter in 1676, the couple took the first step in what was to become an acrimonious dispute and separation that lasted for fifteen years. Their marital troubles, exacerbated by folly, greed, and deceit, took Cornelia from Batavia in what is now Indonesia to the Netherlands. Her story becomes the lens through which to view the history of the Dutch East India Company, the evolution of the legal and administrative system for the colony and Dutch relations with China and Japan, the role of the church, and the systematic gender inequality that characterized European law in the seventeenth century.
Born to a Japanese mother and a Dutch father on the island of Hirado around 1630, Cornelia was carried off to Batavia to be educated following her father's death in 1633. When the Japanese shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu severely restricted trade and contact with Europeans in 1639, Cornelia's sole access to her mother was through the mail. In [End Page 391] 1652 she married the wealthy Pieter Cnoll and bore him nine children, all of whom died before her. His death in 1672 left her a wealthy widow, prime prey for the fortune-hunting Bitter who was eight years her junior. The tenth child of his 74-year-old father, Johan trained as a lawyer and through personal connections managed to acquire a position with the Court of Justice in Batavia. His first wife died on the voyage. His official salary being insufficient to support his lifestyle, Johan quickly proved that his reason for marrying was to divest Cornelia of her fortune and send it to the Netherlands to pay off debts and guarantee him a comfortable early retirement. In the end, the colonial authorities exiled both Cornelia and Johan to the Netherlands where they took their case to the High Court. Although as a man and a husband, Johan had a better claim to her fortune than Cornelia herself, she achieved a posthumous victory because her grandchildren, not her husband, inherited her estate.
Divorce records provide excellent sources on family relations and the position of women in earlier times. The files mined by Leonard Blussé are rich in accusation and counter-accusation. They reveal a woman quite capable of managing her own affairs who needed a man for reasons of social status. As a lawyer, Bitter proved adroit at manipulating a legal and ecclesiastical system based on the assumptions that marriage lasted until death and men owned their wives and their wives' property. As an educated woman literate in Japanese, Dutch, and probably Portuguese, Cornelia had to rely on friends and her wits to try to hold onto her wealth. Such contests between a legal system that favored men and a woman's efforts to manipulate social networks have also provided materials for CorneliaH. Dayton'sWomenBefore the Bar: Gender, Law, and Society in Connecticut, 1539-1789 (1995).Village records from the other side of the world enabled Herman Ooms to analyze how one woman tried to gain restitution for her brother's murder in a chapter of TokugawaVillage Practice: Class, Status, Power, Law (1996). What distinguishes Blussé's study is its focus on a colonial setting that encompasses three regions of the world.
The is one avenue not taken in developing a cross-cultural context that bridges Japan, island Southeast Asia, and the Netherlands. Blussé indicates that Cornelia's mother, like other Japanese women who consorted with foreign men in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, used the money she thereby acquired as a dowry when she later married a Japanese man. What she more probably had was more closely akin to a trousseau for her support so that she need not burden her husband's resources. Trousseaus in Japan could not be appropriated by husbands the way Cornelia's husband tried to swindle her. The different claims Cornelia's and her mother's husbands had on their...