Max Havelaar – the book that killed colonialism?

Unless you were born in The Netherlands or Indonesia the name Multatuli probably means nothing to you, yet in 2002 the Society for Dutch Literature declared him to be the most important Dutch writer of all time


His statue, dramatically hewn in bronze, which stares statesmanlike from Torensluis Square across the Singel canal, offers a useful metaphor for this undoubtedly courageous, yet flawed and contradictory man, for it bears scant resemblance to the figure we see depicted in contemporary photographs which reveal a slightly manic looking man with bulging eyes, gazing into the middle distance with a mixture of self importance and suffering.


It seems that people have always made what they want to of Multatuli and taken what they want from his work. For some he is the courageous defender of the abused Javanese whose novel offers avant la lettre postcolonial theories about colonial psychology and imperialist ideologies, for others he is a hot headed, rash, and possibly corrupt civil servant whose writings are nothing more than a self serving swipe at a government who refused to give him what he saw as his just rewards


Born Eduard Douwes Dekker in Amsterdam in 1820, he took the pen name Multatuli, Latin for, ‘I have suffered much,’ when he published the semi-autobiographical novel Max Havelaar on which his fame, and infamy, are based. The novel highlights the abuses of the Dutch Colonial system and was an instant best-seller in The Netherlands, translated and read all over Europe. It has been compared to Uncle Tom’s Cabin for opening the eyes of its readers to the systematic abuse of an entire people.


The lasting appeal of the novel rests partly on the, at times, astonishingly modern prose and innovative structure of the book as well as an enduring fascination with the truth, or otherwise, of a case at the heart of the novel and the true nature of Dekker as a man.


Dekker’s story began when he set sails for Indonesia with his sea captain father and brother Yann and to understand the series of events which unfolded after his arrival one first needs to understand the system which he was to become a part of.


In the early Nineteenth century the Dutch economy was in severe trouble and Willem I sought to ease the budget deficit by squeezing income out of his newly acquired colonies. To this end he commissioned Johannes van den Bosch, who had a lengthy record of service in the region, to devise an efficient money making scheme. Den Bosch came up with the Culture System, Culture here being in the sense of Cultivation. From 1830 East Indies peasants had to devote 20% of their cultivated lands into growing crops that the Dutch could ship to the European Market. The system depended on the devout fealty the peasants felt to the nobility, a loyalty the Dutch exploited by paying off the nobles who then enforced it. It was coercive, corrupt and brutal. Peasants were forbidden from leaving their home districts which meant that in times of famine or war they were simply trapped. Thousands died of starvation. But, as a money making scheme it was astoundingly successful. Within three years the system turned a profit and eventually millions of guilders worth of goods were flooding into the Netherlands. Amsterdam sea captains, like Dekker’s own father, got work shipping sugar, indigo and tea.


Dekker arrived in 1838 and became a part of that culture. Beginning as a clerk in Jakarta he was evidently an efficient worker as he swiftly rose to become the District Officer at Natal on the West Coast of Sumatra where he moved in 1842. His time there was anything but pleasant however. His numerous functions included head of police, judge, registrar of birth, deaths and marriages, postmaster, collector of taxes and auctioneer, amongst many others. Unsurprisingly the book keeping was extraordinarily complicated and when, in 1843, irregularities were discovered he found himself being accused of embezzling 2000 guilders and suspended without pay. In the year that it took to reach a verdict he was reduced to absolute poverty. When it came, it was decided that he had made a mistake but had not in fact been dishonest.


This incident is depicted in the novel. Here Dekker has Havelaar insinuate that he found himself on the wrong side of his superior, The Governor, due to frequent interjections on behalf of the natives, and that the accusation and suspension without pay were punishment for this. Havelaar quite matter of factly states that inconsistencies in book-keeping were expected due to their complexity. An official may occasionally be asked to make right any short fall but no further action would generally be taken. He clearly feels the case should never have been brought.


His sense of injustice must have tarnished his views of authority but it does not appear to have lessened his desire to succeed .Following the verdict he was rehabilitated and given a temporary post in Java for which he received a magnificent testimonial. Further succour came from his marriage to Everdine, Baroness van Wijnbergen, known affectionately as Tina. He went on to hold a further series of posts, ending up in Amboina. Although little is known of this period in his life reports describe him as a very capable, industrious and intelligent civil servant, if a little too independent and eccentric.


After Amboina he was entitled to two years European leave and in 1852 sailed for Holland. Here he managed to lose a fortune gambling, despite what he thought was an infallible method of playing roulette. Not wanting to return to Indonesia until he had cleared his debts, whether by bringing off a massive coup at roulette or discovering the secret behind his wife’s missing millions, he applied for, and was granted, an extension of leave. Unfortunately he didn’t succeed in either endeavour and was forced to return. And here begins the events at the heart of Max Havelaar.


He was made Assistant Resident in Lebak in West Java, an unusual appointment as it was made over the heads of the Council of Indies who always drew up recommendations themselves. Dekker was appointed by the Governor General, Mr Duyamer van Twist, personally, as he had been impressed by Dekker’s interest in the welfare of the Indonesians. It was well known that the population was oppressed by one of the native princes, although it had never been officially proved. Dekker’s predecessor Mr Carolus (Slottering in the novel) knew it and had been collecting evidence in order to lodge an official complaint. He died before he could finish his investigations but had already mentioned his suspicions to the Resident, Mr Brest van Kempen (Slymering in the novel) and received no support.


Dekker was under the impression that the Governor General had appointed him especially to put things right and remove oppression. This romantic idea of being the protector of the poor must have appealed to Dekker greatly. Much, one could easily argue too much, is made of his alter ego’s affinity with the oppressed in the novel; in one lengthy self descriptive passage he manages to compare himself to both Christ and Socrates. He clearly felt action was required of him and was determined not to let the Governor General down.


Carrying on where his predecessor had left off, Dekker had already gathered some evidence when Mrs Carolus came to visit him and dropped the bombshell that she believed her husband had been poisoned at the behest of the Regent in order to prevent him continuing with his investigations. Fearing that he may be next on the list Dekker decided to bring forward his charge against the Regent, scarcely one month after arriving.


Perhaps unsurprisingly the Resident felt the charge was hasty and ill considered and asked him to withdraw it. When Dekker refused it was clear that he was going to get no support from his direct superior so he went over his head straight to the Governor General. As Dekker was under the impression that he was van Twist’s personal protégée he clearly felt that this unconventional approach was perfectly acceptable. Unfortunately van Twist had very different views on the matter and he was sharply rebuked. The Council of Indies wanted him dismissed for his impudence and impetuousness but van Twist sought to soften the blow by instead having him removed from Lebak and transferred to another district.


Dekker, however, chose to resign. For Multatulians this is a sign of his integrity, for those who are anti, a sign of his impetuous hot-headedness. As is so often the case with Dekker the truth is somewhat muddied. It seems from surviving letters that he was considering accepting the transfer until a second, harsher letter arrived from the Governor General chastising him for his, ‘undue haste and lack of cautiousness.’ It was this letter which appears to have provoked his resignation, but even then he did not seem to think that this decision was final. However the Governor General, who was preparing to return to Holland, accepted it and all Dekker’s attempts to discuss the matter further were rebuked, often with insultingly ridiculous excuses. Dekker mocks this in the novel by having him refuse to see Havelaar on the grounds that he has a whitlow. On the eve of his departure Dekker tried one final time to gain an audience. He sent a letter, bitter with rage and indignation, stating amongst other things, that there would be blood on the savings that van Twist was taking with him. If he thought this dramatic approach would work he was very much mistaken for van Twist set sail the next morning.

Eduard Douwes Dekker
Eduard Douwes Dekker

Dekker remained in Lebak for another year, hatching one plan after another, but eventually decided to return to Europe. Once again there are many colourful anecdotes which accompany him not least that of Eugenié, a prostitute whose freedom he bought from a brothel and gave money to begin a new life. It’s a poetic tale, only slightly marred by the fact that he had to ask for the money back when he fell badly into debt at a Casino in Hamberg. In later years he fondly remembered how generously and proudly she had paid his debts.


A version of this tale appears in the novel, although there is no mention of the prostitute being asked to return the money. Perhaps wishfully his wife is portrayed looking on in admiration as her husband unjudgingly rescues the prostitute from a life of, ‘sin,’ (Dekker’s emphasis). In actual fact, Tina was in Holland with relatives for financial reasons. A useful turn of events for literary historians for it was Dekker’s correspondence with her when he arrived in Brussels which reveal his state of mind as he began to compose his novel.


It appears that he wrote the novel in a mere four weeks, a frenzied flurry of activity during which time he was fighting off starvation, cold and lice. Although he had occasional bouts of doubt about its merit, he was confident enough to tell his wife of his belief that it would help them out of their misery and that the king would give him justice.

The book that killed colonialism?
The book that killed colonialism?

The circumstances under which it was written make the innovative nature of the novel even more remarkable. It begins with the coffee trader Droogstoppel, the epitome of what Dekker felt to be the merchant mentality, in other words a heartless, hypocritical, narrow minded philistine. He speaks directly to the reader, at one point even offering him his business card. We are led to believe that he will be the main character until the impoverished trader Sjaalman is introduced. In many ways he is indeed the main character, but his story unfolds in a most unconventional way.


He leaves a package of papers with Droogstoppel who feels the need to do something with them and thus passes them on to his assistant Stern and son Fritz to turn into some form of literary work. They in turn piece together a biography of Sjaalman who turns out to be the titular Max Havelaar. This biography, startlingly different in style to the Droogstoppel chapters, which are almost Dickensian in tone, recounts the events of Dekker’s time in Lebak. It is clear that Droogstoppel does not approve of the direction the novel takes as he interrupts from time to time, sometimes even mid sentence – to critique it and offer his own views on the situation.


This constant switching between narrators and the resulting fluctuations in tone have caused some to criticise the novel as an inconsistent mish mash but Dekker had very specific reasons for writing it this way which he explained in the notes to the 1875 edition. ‘The abrupt alternation of the parts by Droogstoppel and Stern has that touch of piquancy about it which keeps the reader from going to sleep, or… wakes him up.’ To complicate things further, he even has Multatuli himself interject at the end of the novel, in part to pre-empt any criticism by imagining the view of the reading public –

‘The book is chaotic…disjointed…striving for effect… the style is bad… the writer lacks skill….no talent…no method…’ – before appealing directly to Willem I for redress for the abused Javanese.


On 13th October 1859 it was finished. Through a friend he sent it to Jakob van Lennep, a celebrated novelist and influential man of letters. Van Lennep like it very much and promised to use his influence to get it published.


However, despite seeking the services of van Lennep, Dekker was simultaneously hoping that the novel wouldn’t be published. His true desire was to be offered a position in the Colonial Administration which would rehabilitate him, ‘crown a principle,’ and negate the need for publication. The book was written for a double purpose; an improvement in the position of the Javanese and rehabilitation for himself. He therefore asked van Lennep to send the book to the Minister for the Colonies, evidently hoping that he would be so horrified that he would want to do anything he could to prevent publication and scandal. Dekker came up with four conditions which would have to be met in order for him to not publish: ’ 1. Residency in Java. Particularly Passaroeng, in order to pay my debts. 2. Recognition of years of service, for my superannuation. 3. A liberal advance. 4. Knighthood (Nederlandse Leeeuw).’


Some might see this as blackmail. Darren C. Zook from the University of Berkeley in California , who is firmly in the anti-Multatuli camp, sees them as, ‘self-serving and pompous demands,’ which were rightly scoffed at but R.P. Meijer, a former Professor of Dutch Language and Literature at the University of London, takes a more balanced point of view. He sees Dekker as a complex and conflicted individual who must have realised that his demands would be turned down and was therefore only half serious in making them. In any case, nothing came of it as the Minister of Colonies refused to return him to Indonesia. Although fear of publication obviously rattled him enough to offer Dekker an, ‘Honourable, independent and lucrative,’positon in the West Indies. The fact that Dekker refused when he was in such dire financial straits must suggest that the welfare of the Javanese was a primary concern.


So the book was published. And here the story takes yet another turn. For although van Lennep had found a publisher, he was in a dilemma. He had a political as well as a literary life and feared repercussions. He wanted it published but also wanted to dilute the impact. He thus persuaded Dekker to sign over copyright to him, actually not so unusual a practice at the time, and then set about making alterations to the book. Names were left out and dates changed. Several passages were also completely rewritten or toned down. To further lessen the impact van Lennep had it published in an expensive, limited edition rather than the cheap, large edition than Dekker had wanted.

Multatuli book

A furious Dekker took van Lennep to court but lost, appealed, and lost again. It took many years before the copyright was finally restored.


If van Lennep had hoped to bury the book he was to be sorely disappointed. Its success was enormous. An instant best seller in the Netherlands, it was translated and read across Europe. British reviewers delighted in using the novel to highlight the inhumanity of the Dutch Colonial System when it was released there in 1868. It was the introduction to this edition which compared the book to Uncle Tom’s Cabin – a comparison the Multatuli Museum proudly quotes to this day. It is certainly true that for the first time Europeans were made aware that their comfortable existences were dependant on the abused toil of people in distant lands.


The novels success was undoubtedly fuelled by the fact that its release coincided with a period in European history when both Monarchy and Church were losing their influence and liberal ideas were developing across the continent.


With the Industrial Revolution gathering momentum Economic Liberals were pushing to end trade barriers and keep government out of business. At the same time Social Liberals thought Government had a duty to protect individuals form modern industrial practices which were eating up and spitting out workers.


Somehow Max Havelaar became the rallying point for both groups. Multatuli too sought to capitalize on the fame of his book by promoting issues which he was passionate about. Although the confused and contradictory way he sometimes went about this has proved honey for his detractors.


He advocated universal suffrage for all men, and later women, and championed workers rights, comparing their plight to colonialism and calling the workers, ‘Europe’s Javanese.’ As a confirmed atheist religion was another target with faith being referred to as, ‘a plague,’ and, ‘a forced substitute for knowledge.’ But as socialist activists began championing him, Dekker took out a newspaper ad to declare that he was not a socialist. Likewise, although his views focused on individual rights he also advocated strengthening the monarchy and weakening democracy, despite his support for universal suffrage. In effect he was saying he didn’t like the system but if you had to have it you might as well include everyone.


Most controversial of all however is his attitude to Colonialism. He may have been largely responsible for starting the anti-colonialist movement but many people have suggested that he was not in fact anti-colonialist and Dekker himself distanced himself from the movement. Bouda Etemad from the universities of Geneva and Lausanne has pointed out that although he criticised the abuses of the system he never actual contested the validity of the principle of colonial surplus. Zook goes even further saying that, ‘Multatuli and Max Havelaar represent not an anti-colonial voice at all but rather an exhortation for a reformed and strengthened empire.’


If this was indeed the case it was buried under the tidal wave of publicity when the book came out and has remained largely ignored today as it would ruin the narrative of Dutch socialists who hold him up as their forefather. In effect society took from his writing what it wanted. For Economic Liberals it justified their views that oversees colonies should be opened up to private companies, for the social liberals it was a stirring argument for an ethical reworking of the entire colonial system. The arguments of both sides helped to create the new, ‘ethical policy,’ approach which allowed companies in but with guidelines and obligations, for example, to build new roads and schools. Of course this was still colonial exploitation even if it did envisage independence at some distant point in the future.


That distant point was to be 1949 and would have been a fitting legacy for the novel had it not been so short lived, for a military coup followed some six years later and Indoneisa was not to have a free election again until 1999. However, writing that year in The New York Times, the celebrated Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananata Toer suggested that Max Havelaar had had an even greater legacy. For him it had certainly been instrumental in encouraging the Indonesians to push for independence; future leaders of the revolutionary movement had been heavily influenced by the novel when they read it as children in their Westernized schools. He goes further, however, and suggests that it also ‘sparked the call for revolution in Africa, which in turn awakened even more of the world’s colonized people and signalled the end of colonial domination.’ Perhaps Dekker would have been horrified to know it but for Ananata Toer, Max Havelaar was nothing less than, ‘the book that killed colonialism.’






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