The Dutch Official Whose Wild Novel Started an Anti-colonialist Revolution

Idealistic and greedy, enlightened and a racist, a lover of humanity and an egoist – Eduard Douwes Dekker, aka Multatuli, produced one of the most audacious pieces of anti-colonialist writing ever written

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Eduard Douwes Dekker, aka Multatuli. In his official capacity, and later in his writing, he fought the exploitation and oppression of the Dutch East India Company.
Eduard Douwes Dekker, aka Multatuli. In his official capacity, and later in his writing, he fought the exploitation and oppression of the Dutch East India Company. Credit: Csar Mitkiewicz

At the end of the last century, and millennium, The New York Times asked a number of writers and thinkers around the world what they considered to be the greatest story of the past thousand years. The Indonesian writer and political dissident Pramoedya Ananta Toer offered a particularly piquant response. For hundreds of years during the second millennium, he noted, spices were more highly valued than precious metals. They were used in religious ceremonies, as medication and to improve the taste of food, the latter of which was crucial during periods in which the variety of foodstuffs was limited to a degree that’s hard to imagine today. The Europeans’ craving for spices led to journeys to new realms aboard warships and spawned unprecedented wealth for the conquerors.

The most abundant source of spices, as well as for tobacco, sugar and coffee, was the archipelago of thousands of islands and hundreds of cultures that is known today as Indonesia. Not long after the Dutch fleet’s arrival, in the late 16th century, the capital of the archipelago, Batavia (today Jakarta), became the world’s largest trading hub. For more than a century the Amsterdam-based Dutch East India Company was the largest commercial enterprise in the world.

To augment their profits, the Dutch balked at nothing. Thus, among other actions, they massacred almost the entire population of the Banda Islands, a group of 10 Indonesian islands that were the world’s only source of nutmeg, and also transported slaves and prisoners of war there to cultivate the spice, which yielded a profit estimated to be 60,000 percent.

Other Dutch East Indies locales were also transformed into sweat farms. Local farmers were forced to grow the crops ordered by the government in Holland; thousands died of starvation. Moreover, the islanders were required to pay high taxes to the government in Amsterdam, as well as to the local rulers who implemented the policies of the oppressive regime – a smart trick that enabled Holland to rule a country of 13 million with just 175 officials of its own in residence.

Highly profitable Indonesia became a model for similar occupations across Asia and beyond. However, in the early 20th century, one of the world’s first liberation movements sprang up there, presaging the end of humanity’s centuries-long colonial story, spiced with greed, blood and plunder. According to Pramoedya’s piece in The Times, the seeds of this prodigious global revolution were planted in 1860, in a wild novel written by a feisty representative of the Dutch administration. The “world owes a great debt” to Eduard Douwes Dekker, he concluded.

Tapestry of contradictions

Eduard Douwes Dekker was born in Amsterdam in 1820, the fourth of five children of a Dutch sea captain. In 1838 he sailed with his father for the East, where he embarked on a career of almost two decades as a government official. His name is linked to many stories describing his hot temper and extreme intolerance of any form of injustice. He was jailed after defending a local subject in a fight, used his savings to buy slaves and then free them, and was suspended from his job for a year after he denounced fiercely the corrupt behavior of a senior officer to whom he was subordinate. With no livelihood, Dekker almost starved to death. Desperate, he turned to gambling, which did little to alleviate his economic situation.

Despite his unrestrained and independent behavior, Dekker was esteemed for both his dedication to his job and his sharp intelligence. In January 1856, he was appointed the official in charge of the Lebak region, in the western part of the island of Java. He arrived there with his wife, Everdine Hubertina, and their eldest child, Eduard (subsequently the couple also had a daughter, Everdine, known as Nonni).

In Lebak Dekker discovered an extensive system of disgraceful exploitation and oppression of farmers by a local ruler, under the auspices and encouragement of the Dutch administration. His efforts to fight that system ended up with his resignation from the service of the state, even though he knew that the move would plunge his family into a life of abject poverty.

Returning to Holland with hundreds of documents providing evidence of the injustices he had witnessed, he tried, in vain, to obtain justice for both himself and the people of Java. His debts piled up and he was finally compelled to leave the country. He lived in shabby hotels in Germany and embarked on frenzied efforts to develop a system to beat the house of a casino in Wiesbaden. That didn’t help much, either.

The Batavia Castle, the administrative center of Dutch East India Company in Asia.
The Batavia Castle, the administrative center of Dutch East India Company in Asia.Credit: Rijksmuseum

After a few years of life as an indigent vagabond, Dekker spent six weeks – “partly… at a grimy, rickety table in a Brussels tavern,” as he describes it – writing the semi-autobiographical novel “Max Havelaar: Or, the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company,” which recounts his life in Indonesia. He published the book in 1860, under the pen name Multatuli (Latin for “I have suffered much”).

Unexpectedly, the novel was a tremendous success upon its publication, that April. Rife with clear didactic intentions, the book at times reads like a propaganda tract: The efforts to justify the author and vilify his rivals are entirely transparent, almost embarrassing in their lack of self-consciousness.

In addition to being one of the most influential novels in history, “Max Halevaar” is undoubtedly also one of the oddest. It’s a chaotic concatenation of styles, incorporated into a seemingly impossible literary structure. As D.H. Lawrence wrote in the introduction to its second English-language edition, published in 1927, the book is “the greatest mess possible.” It is in fact a jumble of voices and languages, which in addition to standard dialogues contains letters, parables, contracts, one marvelous folktale (the tear-jerking story of Adinda and Saidjah), official memoranda, poems, speeches, religious sermons, a host of footnotes, philosophical reflections and no few archaic descriptions of Dutch policy in the islands.

There’s a plot here, too. Early on in the book a bourgeois Dutch stockbroker named Drystubble meets a mysterious figure from his past, who gives him a package containing papers documenting his life in Indonesia. Drystubble realizes that the documents have high public and financial value. He decides to turn them over to his assistant, Ernest Stern, a German who speaks basic Dutch, and Stern’s son, Fritz. From the documents they create a fictional biography of a mysterious figure, whom they call Max Havelaar. Sections inserted between the autobiographical chapters soften the rather subversive narrative set forth by Drystubble’s assistant and his son, to make it more palatable to the sensibilities of the general public. The result is a combination of the true story of Dekker, the fictional story of Havelaar, the narrative commentary presented by Drystubble and finally the narrative of Multatuli, who at the conclusion of the novel deconstructs the fictional structure he created and appeals directly to the conscience of the reader.

Despite – and also, due to some sort of alchemy, because of – the great “mess,” the book works. Even after 160 years, “Max Havelaar” turns out to be a masterpiece: disturbing, sad, appallingly relevant and also gut-splittingly funny. As the translator of the Hebrew edition, Ran HaCohen, explained, in 1998, “I translated the book because it made me laugh, just as it made my grandfather’s father laugh a hundred years ago. He was the shamash [synagogue beadle] in a small town in northern Holland, of whom it was said that his two great loves were Multatuli and the Bible.” (Incidentally, a few weeks ago HaCohen was awarded the translation prize of the Dutch Foundation for Literature, in large measure thanks to his splendid translation of “Max Havelaar.”)

‘Max Havelaar’ is a jumble of voices and languages, containing letters, parables, one marvelous folktale, memoranda, poems, speeches, sermons, footnotes, philosophical reflections and archaic descriptions of Dutch policy in the islands.

The book’s charm derives in part from its sharply etched characterizations: the good characters are wonderful, the bad characters are awful. Multatuli likens his fictional personification, the smart and courageous Havelaar, to Socrates and Jesus, without batting an eyelid. Drystubble, in contrast, is one of the most loathsome characters in the annals of literature. But Drystubble’s evil is of the “banal” type, to borrow Hannah Arendt’s terminology. His wickedness is of the legal, mundane, socially accepted type.

What perhaps touches the reader’s heart is the closeness revealed between these two conflicting characters – the deceptive connection every person feels within himself between the pure, the spiritual, the honest and the moral, and the petty, the self-righteous, the hypocritical, the greedy. The more intense the vitriol and contempt Multatuli harbors for Drystubble, the more apparent it becomes to the reader that he is actually his alter ego.

Indeed, at one point Dekker/Multatuli, who is purer than pure and juster than just – the man who wrote what Israeli author Batya Gur called one of “the boldest and most impressive works of protest of all time against the authority and exploitation that empires foist upon their occupied colonies” – offered to hold off on the book’s publication if he were given a sufficiently rewarding position in the colonies. He was, indeed, both one and the other at the same time: Idealistic and greedy, indifferent to wealth and a miser, enlightened and a racist, a lover of humanity and an egoist.

Like all of us, apparently. In one of the loveliest passages in the book, Multatuli writes, “Believe me, there’s no point in berating a fellow for being very bad, since the good ones among us are hardly any better! If we take perfection to be equal to zero degrees and badness to a hundred, who are we – vacillating between 98 and 99 as we are – to condemn someone scoring a hundred and one! Even so, I believe lots of people fall short of the hundred degrees only because of their lack of good qualities, such as the courage to be their own man.”

A successor to Multatuli in analyzing the profound contradictions of the human heart – Sigmund Freud – said that the Dutchman was one of his favorite authors. Freud placed the latter’s collected writings first on a list he drew up in 1907 of the “10 best books.”

A 17th-century plaque honoring the Dutch East India Company, in the port city of Hoorn, the Netherlands. For a time, it was the world’s largest commercial enterprise, but a murderous one.
A 17th-century plaque honoring the Dutch East India Company, in the port city of Hoorn, the Netherlands. For a time, it was the world’s largest commercial enterprise, but a murderous one. Credit: Stephencdick

Horror strikes the land

Mid-19th century Holland was one of the least likely venues for publication of a subversive, anti-imperialistic book. The country was in a state of deep stagnation, its population known for its narrow-mindedness, cautiousness and apathy. As a social critic of the period wrote, “One can hear a leaf fall: Everything there is as dead as possible.”

The book’s publication had a tremendous effect. As a member of the Dutch parliament remarked immediately after its publication, “it struck the whole country with horror.” Ultra-bourgeois, ultra-religious Dutch society was bowled over by this exposé of its hypocrisy.

Overnight Multatuli became a famous author, but his hope that justice would be done on his behalf and on that of the Javanese remained unrealized. The vested interests arrayed against him were too powerful. In the year the book was published, the profits of the East India Trading Company, which then controlled the East Indies, accounted for 34 percent of the Dutch state’s income.

Even after becoming a literary sensation, Multatuli remained a social outcast. His family fell apart. He barely eked out a living from literary and journalistic writing, continuing to uphold his vow to do battle against everything in the moral, social and political realm that is small, wretched, constrained or stifled. Among other social ills, he struggled against antisemitism, which was very widespread in Holland of his day (in his book “Love Letters,” he describes jumping into an Amsterdam canal to fish out the yarmulke of a Jewish child that someone had thrown into it), and against discrimination targeting women. In 1920, the centenary of his birth, a Dutch historian wrote that “in large measure, the women of the Netherlands owe their liberation to Multatuli’s trenchant critique.”

Dekker died in 1887 from an asthma attack, in exile in German. Even though he didn’t see the results of his life’s project, in an afterword he added to the book six years before his death, he had no doubt of the outcome: “I will triumph!” He knew that truth wins out, in the end. Indeed, 50 years after the publication of “Max Havelaar,” it started to emerge, in the form of the Indonesian liberation movement.

In the early 20th century, after more than 300 years of colonial rule, less than five percent of the Indonesian population could read and write. A far smaller percentage could read Dutch, most of them young members of the local aristocracy, who received an elitist education. Some of them – including Ahmed Sukarno, one of the leaders of the national struggle against Dutch rule and later the first president of independent Indonesia – would say that their reading of “Max Havelaar” helped induce them to rebel against generations of oppression. There are streets and squares named for Multatuli in almost every community in Indonesia.

Cultural critic and scholar of colonialism Edward Said pointed to Multatuli, in his book “Culture and Imperialism,” as one of the only writers in the 19th century who addressed the issue of colonial occupation as such. Multatuli is also considered the first European writer to have exposed the details of the exploitation, oppression and corruption spawned by colonial occupation. “Max Havelaar” is often described as “the book that killed colonialism” and is compared to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which worked a similar influence on the public attitude toward slavery in the United States.

The book has been translated into 40 languages, and a film adaptation was released in 1976. There are several biographies of Multatuli, as well as a literary journal and an encyclopedia devoted to his writings. His collected works were published in 25 volumes.

In 2002, by a large majority, the Dutch Foundation for Literature chose Multatuli as the most important Dutch writer of all time and “Max Havelaar” as the most important literary work ever published in the Netherlands. But what might have given Dekker greater joy was the establishment in 1988 of the Max Havelaar Foundation, which was the first such organization to issue the Fairtrade Certification Mark to agricultural products grown in the developing world under fair trade conditions, an idea that was replicated elsewhere in the world.

Multatuli did triumph. And the struggle continues.

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