Max Havelaar by Multatuli (Eduard Douwes Dekker)

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 – Multatuli

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.

13 thoughts on “Max Havelaar by Multatuli (Eduard Douwes Dekker)

  1. Leeswammes

    Well done for finishing it! I tried this book about 2 years ago (although I may have read it for school before) and as you say, it was hard to get into. I didn’t get far, as I just didn’t have the patience that was needed.

  2. lizzysiddal

    At the beginning of The Tea Lords (set in 1873), Haasse’s coffee/tea planting protagonists have the following discussion about Multatuli.

    “Well, those Liberals have a radical edge. They don’t know what they’re talking about. They take all their ideas from that man, Douwes Dekker, a cousin of ours by marriage, the one who writes books and calls himself Multatuli nowadays. And his notions are anything but liberal, I’d have you know.”
    “But he writes with such passion! I have read his novel, Max Havelaar.”
    “Pardon me, but Douwes Dekker stole that story, characters and plot and all, from Pastor Van Hoevell, who drew attention to the whole sorry affair twenty years ago. Now that was a true martyr for the cause – they banished him from the Indies – but he didn’t make the kind of fuss over here Douwes Dekker made.”

    Interesting? Further research required before I reread Max Havelaar.

  3. Shanra

    Now, I am not sure if that is true, but when it was first published in 1860, it did stir up a social debate.

    In my edition, it mentions that the changes were bound to happen regardless because the system Dekker criticises was already in decline, but the book did help speed that decline along. (This edition, incidentally, is the Penguin one you mention at the end there.)

    Though I’m reading the book myself at the moment, I did read through your review. ^-^ I’ve been trying to read it the way I read most books and finding it quite exhausting, but changing how I read it seems to make me disinclined to pick it up at all! It’s indeed a hard book to get into, but I’m glad I’ve started it too. ^-^

  4. breieninpeking

    It is a very important book, it has changed the lives of many people.
    In The Netherlands “Fair Trade” began as “Max Havelaar” coffee and chocolate from ‘good’ origins, the name came from this book. I thinks it is sad that nowadays lots of children know ‘the brand’ but not the book.

  5. JannyAn

    It’s true, the book did stir up a social debate. By the way, you must realise that the first edition wasn’t exactly what Dekker had wanted to distribute. His “helper” Jacob van Lennep, who had promissed to find a good publisher made a lot of changes in the book. And they did try to prevent the publishing of the book. The first copy of the original manuscript was published after Dekker died.
    And, by the way, buying the book was quite expensive, There weren’t that many copies available and most people really couldn’t afford buying it.

  6. Pingback: The Tea Lords – Hella S Haasse « Lizzy’s Literary Life

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  8. Emma

    I read this one too during this month of Dutch literature.
    I thought it was insightful. He was ahead of his time. As far as I know, there is no equivalent in French literature (at least not with the same fame) and there were probably many similar things to say about French colonisation in Algeria, Indochina or Africa.
    I also think it’s important to have read this book to fully understand Hella S Haasse. I made the mistake to read one of her books before reading Multatuli and I would have enjoyed her book a lot more if I had read Max Havelaar first.

  9. michael9murray

    I must admit to finding Droogstoppel and his world, the way he was presented in the novel as hugely entertaining, a true comic character of high order. It also helped slide me into a view of Dutch life and manners of the time.
    The main body of the novel, the Java piece took several goes to get up sufficient courage to attempt and persevere with. It is the same with all ‘worthy’ works – more of a duty than anything else.

  10. Pingback: The Tea Lords by Hella Haasse: Discussion Post Part 1 | Iris on Books

  11. Pingback: The Tea Lords by Hella Haasse: Discussion Post Part 2 | Iris on Books

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