"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

March 6, 2014

"Max Havelaar: or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company" by Multatuli

Max Havelaar has been called the best Dutch novel ever written, and the author has along the same lines been deemed the best Dutch writer of all time. The author, Eduard Douwes Dekker or Multatuli as he called him self (somewhat grandly, as this Latin name means "I have suffered much") was a whistle-blower about problems in the Dutch colony of the East-Indies. His whistle of epic proportions was the present novel and it did indeed shake up Dutch society, which in the mid-19th century was sunk in a deep sleep, comfortably pillowed on the income from the colonies. Like all whistle-blowers, Dekker led a difficult and financially insecure life, struggling on behalf of his cause.

[Multatuli - from Wikipedia]

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 East 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 many feudal 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 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 Dutch payed a rather low price for these crops and then sold them with huge profit at world markets. 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 gradually replaced by a system based on private enterprise (which was not necessarily better for the local population, as they were always in the weakest position). A new, more ethical policy towards the colony was also introduced (among others, thanks to the Max Havelaar). 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 brought much economic hardship to Javanese peasants, who suffered famine and epidemics in the 1840s.

[House of the Resident in Surabaya - from Wikipedia]

The way the Dutch East Indies were governed was rather ingenious - and typically Dutch in the sense that much was achieved by very little means. The Dutch ruled in an indirect way, by using the local aristocracy as an indigenous civil service. Indonesia consisted of many small states and after these were conquered by the Dutch, their rulers were allowed to stay on as "Regents" under a hierarchy of Dutch officials: the Residents, the Assistant-Residents, and the Controllers. This indirect rule did not disturb the peasantry and was cost-effective for the Dutch. For example, in 1900, 35 million colonial subjects were ruled by just 250 European and 1,500 indigenous civil servants (plus an army of 16,000 Dutch and 26,000 native troops)! This serves to show that colonialism was mostly based on bluff - the Netherlands itself only had 5.6 million inhabitants in 1900.

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 had many obligations towards their extended families, and so needed a larger income than they received from the Dutch. They also still had a feudal mentality and forced their subjects to do corvée work or donate buffaloes (and sometimes even their daughters), this all on top of the tax of enforced planting on behalf of the Dutch government. When these combined burdens became too heavy, famine, banditism and chaos could be the result.

[Dutch Fortress in Batavia - from Wikipedia]

Eduard Douwes Dekker (Multatuli) was born in Amsterdam in 1820 and already in 1838 left his native Holland to enter into government service in the Dutch East Indies. Although he often disagreed with his superiors due to his high sense of justice, he gradually climbed the bureaucratic ladder to Assistant-Resident at Ambon, before in 1852 taking a long vacation in the Netherlands for health reasons. He was back in the colonies at the beginning of 1856 as Assistant-Resident of Lebak (now part of Banten province). Dekker tried to address the ill-treatment of the population by the Javanese regent and his family, but refused to follow the slow, formal procedure and bypassed his Dutch superior, the Resident. This led to a conflict between Dekker and his boss - who because of this bureaucratic blunder refused to accept Dekker's accusation against the Regent - with as a result that Dekker decided to leave the civil service. The ill-treatment discovered by Dekker consisted of corvée labor. It has been pointed out that Dekker was rather dogmatic here, as normally a certain extent of such practices were condoned by the Dutch administration as a necessary evil due to the social demands made on the local Regents. Also, the case criticized by Dekker does not seem to have been a particularly severe one.

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, turning the in fact rather modest case of ill-treatment he had witnessed in Lebak into a general plea on behalf of the local population.

[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 Dutch tradesman 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.

Although published in 1860 with modifications and in a small, expensive edition, Max Havelaar did create something of a stir. The novel became an instrument for a growing liberal movement in the Netherlands, which strove to bring about reform in Indonesia. Although these reforms initially were modest and gradual, from 1870 on the "cultivation system" which rested so heavily on the population, was abolished. The reforms also led 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).

The rest of his life, Multatuli struggled for his cause, wavering between becoming a full-time author and being a political activist - his greatest wish was to be vindicated and reinstated in the civil service so that he could show what good government was, but that of course never happened. The other works Multatuli wrote were mostly polemical essays, in a sharp and modern style. He called these "Ideas" and among the thousands he produced, another novel, Woutertje Pieterse, is hidden.

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. 
The Dutch author Willem Frederik Hermans has written an interesting biography of Multatuli, available online at the DBNL, called De raadselachtige Multatuli (only available in Dutch). 
Multatuli Society and Multatuli House. 
Incorporates data etc. from relevant Wikipedia articles on Multatuli and the Dutch East Indies.