[Multatuli - from Wikimedia Commons]
But before we can talk about Multatuli's life or the Max Havelaar, we first have to understand the situation in the colony of the Dutch Indies, present-day Indonesia. The first Dutch expedition came in 1595 to the East Indies, with the motive to get access to the spice trade and kick out the Portuguese. As a huge profit was made, soon the United East India Company (V.O.C.) was founded. Within a short time, the Dutch set up a large network of trading posts and fortresses in the Indonesian archipelago. Besides the original spice trade, also non-indigenous cash crops like coffee, tea, cacao, tobacco, rubber and sugar were introduced. This has been called the "period of the Dutch East India company," and it lasted from 1602 to 1800. The capital was Batavia, present-day Jakarta. Initially, the Dutch had come to trade, not to conquer, and they built up a good working relationship with Java's powerful local lords.
The East India Company was dissolved in 1800, after which the Dutch state nationalized the company's possessions, starting the next "period of the Netherlands East Indies," which lasted from 1800 to 1942 and - after the occupation by Japan - again briefly from 1945 to 1950. In this period, the East Indies were a colony governed directly by the Dutch - the local lords had been brought under the authority of the Netherlands. Finally, in 1950, Indonesia became independent after fighting a liberation war with the Dutch, who only very reluctantly gave up the islands.
In 1830 the Dutch colonial government introduced the so-called "cultivation system," primarily on Java - this was the system in force in the years in which the Max Havelaar is situated. As a kind of tax, 20% of village land had to be devoted to government crops for export or, alternatively, peasants had to work in government-owned plantations for 60 days of the year. The Indonesians called it "enforced planting" and that is what it was: government controlled enforced cultivation - as a form of tax, so without payment. Java was in fact turned into an agricultural sweatshop. Peasants were also forbidden by law to move away from their villages.
This system was very profitable for the Dutch. It lasted until around 1870 when it was replaced by a system more based on private enterprise. Between 1830 and 1870, one billion guilders were taken from Indonesia, amounting to one fourth of the total annual Dutch government budget. It helped reverse a Dutch economic decline which had become severe in the 1830s. But the Cultivation System also brought much economic hardship to Javanese peasants, who suffered famine and epidemics in the 1840s.
[House of the Resident in Surabaya - from Wikipedia]
But this double system also had its problems: the Indonesian regents were obliged to keep up a high status in the eyes of their own people, and so needed a large income. They often forced their subjects to work for free on their lands or donate buffaloes, this all on top of the tax of enforced planting on behalf of the Dutch government that was already resting on the population. A too high burden could lead to famine, banditism and chaos.
[Dutch Fortress in Batavia - from Wikipedia]
Dekker returned to Holland and Europe and started a period of wandering, often in poor circumstances and without his family. In 1859 he wrote the Max Havelaar in only seven weeks time, while staying in a shabby hotel in Brussels. In this book he shaped the events that led to his departure from the civil service into a complex literary work of art.
[The submission of Prince Diponegoro to General De Kock at the end of the Java War in 1830 - Photo Wikipedia]
Max Havelaar is a multi-layered book, like a Russian doll. We start with a frame narrative, bringing on stage the hypocritical Amsterdam coffee broker, Batavus Droogstoppel ("Drystubble"), who of course stands for the average dime-counting, bigoted Protestant Dutchman of the age. Droogstoppel tells how he accidentally met an old acquaintance from school, whom he calls "Scarfman," as he only wears a scarf and has no coat, and received a pack of manuscripts to help get these published ("Scarfman" is of course Max Havelaar). Droogstoppel almost throws them away as he hates literature as a pack of lies, but as it also contains a report on the coffee trade (his trade!) and the fact that this might be endangered when there would be an uprising of the Javanese people, he asks Ernest Stern, the idealistic son a German business partner - who is staying with him as a trainee -, to bring some order in these varied papers.
The story that thus unfolds tells about the trials and tribulations of a Dutch colonial administrator, Max Havelaar, who tries to stamp out corruption in a poverty-stricken district where he has just been sent as Assistant-Resident. To make the Russian doll even more intricate, Max in his turn tells stories - for example, Javanese folk tales - to his wife Tine and to his colleagues. The narrative oscillates between several modes of presentation, also official reports and correspondence are included. There are many diversions and the book seems to jump from one thing to another, but everything is there with a careful purpose and the various elements cleverly echo each other. A beautiful story at the heart of the book is the tragic tale of Saïdjah and Adinda, two Javanese children whose lives are crushed by the double heaviness of indigenous and Dutch rule. The story of Max Havelaar ends with the protagonist's defeat, for he resigns from the civil service without having achieved anything.
And then, suddenly, Multatuli steps forward as the true author. He dismisses his two narrators, Stern and Drystubble, as fictitious characters, and directly addresses the King of the Netherlands, asking him to take action and right the wrongs in his colonies.
The publication of Max Havelaar in 1859 was earth-shaking. The novel became the weapon for a growing liberal movement in the Netherlands, which strove to bring about reform in Indonesia. Although these reforms initially were modest and gradual, they led for example to better education for Indonesians, which in its turn helped form an elite who after 1945 fought successfully for emancipation and freedom from colonial rule. (It may be clear that Multatuli did not fight against colonialism in itself - for that he was too much a child of his time).
Multatuli spend the last decades of his life in a sort of exile in Germany. He died in 1887 in Ingelheim am Rhein. But Max Havelaar is a book that will not shut up, even today.
English translation by Roy Edwards in Penguin Classics. Original text at Gutenberg.
Filmed on an epic scale in 1976 by Fons Rademakers with Peter Faber as Max Havelaar.
Incorporates data etc. from relevant Wikipedia articles on Multatuli and the Dutch East Indies.