In his novel Max Havelaar of de koffieveilingen der Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij (Max Havelaar or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company; 1860) the Dutch writer Multatuli offered a critical description of the colony of the Netherlands Indies (present-day Indonesia). This novel hails as the most important work of Dutch literature, and Multatuli as the most important Dutch author.

Multatuli (literally, ”I have sustained a lot”) is the pseudonym of the eccentric Eduard Douwes Dekker, who was born in Amsterdam in 1820 and died in Nieder-Ingelheim, Germany, in 1887. Dekker entered the service of the Dutch colonial government in 1839 in Batavia (present-day Jakarta), worked in faraway parts of the archipelago, and rose to a high administrative post.

In 1856, shortly after his appointment as assistant resident of Lebak in west Java, Dekker became involved in an official conflict. The controversy related to the exploitation of the native population, which was being ill-treated by its own leaders, and the manner in which Dutch authorities attempted to deal with this problem. Dekker advocated immediate radical action. His superiors, however, were convinced of the importance of the role of traditional leaders as representatives of Dutch authority toward the native population, and they held dear to their circumspection and tact. They refused to arrest chiefs before inquiries were made or to criticize them openly. To Dekker their attitude exemplified weakness and ignorance. Dekker resigned his post after the highest Dutch authority in the region, the governor-general, ruled against him.

Back in Europe, Dekker, using the name Multatuli, wrote an idealized autobiography in Max Havelaar, drafting what became a self-portrait. With this work, Multatuli revealed himself to be a phenomenal stylist and a writer with strong powers of persuasion. In opposition to Havelaar—presented as the ideal administrator who is available to the population day and night and who allows himself to be led by his conscience—Multatuli places the fictitious figure of Batavus Droogstoppel. Droogstoppel, a comical character, is a coffee broker who has become rich because of the colonial system; a hypocritical smooth talker who is only interested in his own benefit, Droogstoppel is a personification of the worst aspects of Dutch colonialism.

In a peroration, Multatuli dedicates the book to King Willem III (1817-1890). The message of the book is twofold: (1) the population of the Dutch East Indies deserve better treatment, and (2) Max Havelaar (in actual fact, Dekker) must be rehabilitated. If the Dutch government would not buy into Multatuli’s program, it would face a moral defeat, rendering the Netherlands nothing more than ”a pirate state on the sea, between Eastern Friesland and the river Schelde” (Multaluti 1982, p. 319).

Apart from his trouble in Lebak, Multatuli also describes Havelaar’s (and Dekker’s) earlier career. At the age of twenty-two, he was assigned to an independent administrative position in Natal (Sumatra), but he was not successful. Dekker was suspended from this post in 1844 on suspicion of fraud; eventually Dekker’s bookkeeping was proved to be poor, but no evidence of fraudulent intent was found. Nonetheless, Dekker had to live down the bad reputation incurred in Natal, and he served in lowly jobs for years. He would only work at a higher level again in 1848 to 1851, when he served successfully in Menado (Sulawesi) as the first secretary under a progressive resident. Dekker was promoted to assistant-resident of Ambon, but after a few months he contracted an obscure disease, and had to return for a time to the Netherlands, where he remained from 1852 to 1855.

Although Multatuli tells the story of Havelaar, rather than Dekker, in Max Havelaar, broadly speaking Multatuli’s narrative is historical. The author does, however, see things from his own perspective. Thus, Multatuli represents the Natal incident as the revenge of a superior toward whom Havelaar had not shown adequate meekness. His direct superior in the Lebak affair is represented as a ridiculous figure, and the gover-nor-general—from that time on Multatuli’s greatest enemy—is depicted as incompetent and lazy.

As an author, Multatuli’s power was foremost in the field of literature—in his style, his imagination, and his lively sense of humor. His writing raised a number of social issues, and he pleaded for innovation in many areas. He insisted, for example, on equality and chal-lenged—albeit with a paternalistic attitude—discrimination against Jews, Eurasians, and women. Multatuli is considered the Netherlands’ first feminist writer. He also took up the cudgel for the Dutch worker, whom he referred to as ”de witte slaaf” (”the white slave”; Volledige werken 3, p. 119).

Multatuli also questioned traditional relationships of authority, and the validity of values that had been passed down from earlier generations. Although Multatuli was not the first atheist in the Netherlands, he did eventually become the most discussed. His alter ego, Dekker, a trendsetter until the end, was the first Dutchman to opt for cremation.

Multatuli’s political ideas were less modern. He wanted to abolish the Netherlands’ recently introduced parliamentary democracy and return to absolute monarchy, with the king as an enlightened despot. For the Dutch East Indies, Multatuli advocated enhanced enforcement of the colonial laws, which he believed would radically improve the lives of the native population. Only later did he suggest a revolution, although not a revolution that would bring Indonesians to power in Indonesia. He imagined an independent empire called Insulinde, where the government would stay in European hands—for example, those of Eduard Douwes Dekker.

Multatuli’s books earned much admiration, not only from lovers of literature, but also from freethinkers, socialists, and anarchists. Others, however, sharply denounced his work and personal character. It has been reported that in later years new colonial administrators traveled to the East Indies with copies of Max Havelaar in their suitcases. The more ethical policies that governed Dutch colonial politics at the beginning of the twentieth century, with the goal of making the interests of the population of the Dutch East Indies prevail over those of the Netherlands, were influenced by Multatuli. To this day, Max Havelaar is an icon for humanity, ethics, conscientious actions, and self-sacrifice, particularly in the relations between developed and developing countries.

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