Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company – Multatuli
I read a Dutch edition published by de Nederlandse Boekhandel, 1959
Max Havelaar. Mention that title to any high school student in the Netherlands and he or she will probably look like there is a ghost in the room. Or at least, students from my high school will. This book has a reputation, that’s for sure. It is also considered to be an important part of “our” history, that is, Dutch colonial history. Some claim that this book singlehandedly changed the policy of the Dutch in the Dutch East Indies. Now, I am not sure if that is true, but when it was first published in 1860, it did stir up a social debate.
Max Havelaar was written by a former official of the Dutch East Indian Civil Service, under the pseudonym Multatuli. It is a heavily autobiographical novel. In many ways, “Multatuli” is Max Havelaar in the book and as this personage he severely criticizes the corruption and cruelty of the Dutch colonial presence at Java.
The structure of the novel is complicated to explain. There are several perspectives to this book. The novel starts as you meet the character “Droogstoppel”, a coffee dealer who lives in Amsterdam who tried his best to keep up appearances. Droogstoppel, in Amsterdam, meets an old acquaintance from his school days, a man he now considers to be far below him. The school acquaintance gives him a package of manuscripts, which he is hoping to publish to make some money to support his family. Droogstoppel wants to publish part of these manuscripts, because he thinks they relate to the business of coffee. As a reader, you then get to read part manuscript, part commentary by Droogstoppel. It soon turns out Droogstoppel is disappointed in the manuscript, since instead of praising the coffee industry of the Dutch, it relates the story of Max Havelaar (or, the story of the old school mate’s time in the Dutch East Indies) and his struggle to expose the cruelty and corruption of the Dutch presence..
I wanted to read this book because of its importance in Dutch colonial history. I was prepared to find it boring, and slow, and very detailed but not all that interesting. But I think I underestimated this novel. Droogstoppel, in all his properness is actually very funny. Because through him, you get to laugh at his kind of people. There are also some very funny, but interesting, views of missionaries and the general ideas of the Dutch on Java, in this novel. As for the account of the practises in Java. It is true, there are some stories that seem a little too sentimental, a little too obvious in trying to get a certain point across. But they are interesting nonetheless. And when you realise that this was published in 1860, during the time that the Dutch were still consoling their colonial domination at Java and other areas, I was often left surprised at how much criticism was allowed to be published. Because at times, Multatuli had Havelaar suggest that the Dutch simply killed anyone standing in their way, used their labour for free, made them starve and never cared.
This is no light read, it is not easy to start either. And at times it can be a little long-winded. But I am incredibly glad that I have read it. Moreover, I wouldn’t mind reading it again in a few years. And here’s another small victory: that’s one more book down for the “1001 books you must read before you die” list!
Max Havelaar has been published in English in several versions. One of the more widely available ones is the Penguin classics edition of 1995, translated by Roy Edwards.