Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 28, 2019

Max Havelaar (1860), by Multatuli, translated by Ina Rilke and David McKay

Max Havelaar, subtitled The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company, is the famous book that shamed the Dutch government into reforming the system of forced cultivation imposed on its colonial possessions in the Dutch East Indies.  Indirectly, it also led to Indonesian independence in 1945, because the reforms also included educational opportunities—leading to the development of an Indonesian elite, a national language and anti-colonial ambitions.  The only other book that I know that had a similar impact is Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not) by José Rizal, translated by Harold Augenbraum, a novel which forged the independence movement in the Philippines.  Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who wrote the Introduction to my edition, called Max Havelaarearthshaking‘ and (according to Wikipedia) ‘the book that killed colonialism.’

Multituli is Latin for ‘I have suffered greatly’ and it is the pen name of Eduard Douwes Dekker (1920-1887). While this book purports to be a work of fiction and much of it is, it is also an autobiographical account derived from Dekker’s experiences in the Dutch East Indies, from which he returned ignominiously after 17 years in the colonial service.  His attempts at reform of the atrocious treatment of the peasants had failed and on his return to the Netherlands he wrote this book to draw attention to the abuses he had tried to ameliorate.  (Also, it must be said, the book is a justification for his actions and an attempt to salvage a reputation he did not deserve).  Dekker’s ‘Comments and Clarifications’ to the 1875 edition convey his frustration and anger over the lack of reform, but he was not to know the influence his book would ultimately have.

First published in 1860, first translated into English in 1868, not translated into Indonesian until 1972, and now in a new edition translated by Ina Rilke and David McKay for the NYRB, Max Havelaar is a much more lively book than I had expected it to be. It’s structured as a book-within-a-book, framed by the fatuous observations of an Amsterdam coffee broker called Drystubble, (Batavus Droogstoppel), a name intended to arouse mockery.  Self-important, self-aggrandising and fulsomely patronising, this hypocrite prides himself on outsmarting his rivals and graciously growing his business through the hard work of people poorer than himself.  Into his hands comes a manuscript written by an author too poor to publish it.  He begins to read it almost by accident, and then decides to steal it, to publish the bits useful to himself.  He doesn’t do the work of editing himself: he hires Ernest Stern, the son of his best customer, in order to forestall his custom going to a cheaper rival.

The story proper begins in Java with the arrival of the new Assistant Registrar in Lebak. Max Havelaar emerges from a gruelling carriage ride over terrible roads with his wife Tina and small son Max, to be welcomed by various members of the colonial bureaucracy and their spineless Javanese collaborators from the aristocracy.  In a satirical tone the narrator explains beforehand how the colony is administered, making it clear that the entire system is designed to maximise profits from exports to the Netherlands, and that it causes extensive famines throughout the fertile lands of Java.  And, perhaps worst of all, by buying off the aristocrats, the system also ensures corruption to enable a luxurious lifestyle for the Adipati and his Dutch overlords while stifling any complaints or attempts to ameliorate the suffering of the peasants. (This is why Pramoedya Ananta Toer is so scathing about the Javanese aristocracy in his Buru Quartet).

Forced cultivation meant that the peasants had to grow coffee or spices instead of rice, and Max Havelaar is not as dopey as his superiors had assumed him to be.  The very first day after the stultifying formalities of welcome, he gives a speech to all the chiefs of Lebak that makes it clear that things are going to be different.  He says he is pleased to be working in such a poor place because there is so much to be done, and in the usual flattering style with which these people are usually addressed, he warns them that from now onward under his administration there will be justice instead of the usual obfuscation.

But Max has flaws.  He is in debt because of his impulsive generosity to those worse off than him (as well as to those pretending to be). His wife Tina is infatuated with him and interprets everything he does as noble, and though the stereotype of the Dutch housewife was an excellent manager of her household, Tina has no way of ensuring frugality while they pay off their debts.  And she makes no complaint about that.

Max thinks that since they are in a remote area his expenses will be small and their fortunes will be restored.  The reader can see from the outset that this is not going to happen, and also that the narrator’s admiration for Havelaar’s ambitions for reform is tinged with sardonic acknowledgement that his superiors and the local bigwigs will frustrate it. Max was chivalrous and brave, but, like the original Don Quixote, he often wasted his valour tilting at windmills. (p.73)

There are stories within stories in this novel.  At dinner with Verbrugge and Duclari, they tell stories over coffee.  (Tina can’t provide a dessert from her kitchen).  Max tells a story about a man’s endless discontent, always wanting more so that an angel granting his wishes elevates him to a king, the sun, clouds, and a rock, culminating in a return to labouring and being content at last.  This is a story about the desire for power, and it concludes by demonstrating the power of the labouring peasant, if only he realises it.

Havelaar then goes on (in a rather roundabout way) to tell the story of his demotion to the Lebak district. He stole a turkey from General Vandamme in Padang, where no one would help him after he was suspended and he was literally penniless. His suspension was over a technicality: his accounts weren’t in order because he’d been too busy quelling an uprising that could have ignited further unrest in Aceh (which the Dutch had just subdued).  He admits that his oversight of accounts was wanting, but it was very common when other local matters were a priority and everyone understood this.  Administrators were given leeway to sort it out and to repay the money themselves if need be.  But General Vandamme made an exception of Havelaar…

The real reason Vandamme suspended Havelaar was to prevent him from making enquiries about a missing child born in dubious circumstances (which incriminated Vandamme). First he sent Havelaar off on a job out of his area of responsibility, letting Havelaar think that this was an honour possibly leading to promotion.  It was of course intended as a bribe to curtail Havelaar’s investigation into the missing child.  That ruse having failed, Vandamme removed Havelaar from Natal so that he couldn’t attend to the accounts and fix them up. It’s no coincidence that this transfer takes place the very day after Havelaar mentions that as head of the police he’s looking into the disappearance.

And that’s not the only instance of Vandamme’s ambitions leading to corruption.  (Vandamme, BTW, is the name of a notorious French general under Napoleon).

Havelaar is, alas, naïve.  The reason why nothing is ever done in Lebak to relieve poverty and famine, is because everyone in the chain of command likes to report that all is well, right up to the colonial government reporting to their masters in Amsterdam.  The ludicrous statistics sent about there being more rice in Java than there could possibly be, reminded me of Yan Lianke’s The Four Books which reveals how production targets were inflated to appease Mao.  But the acrid tone of this critique reveals Dekker’s bitterness about his own career:

It is almost always unpleasant to bring bad tidings, and it seems that some trace of the unpleasantness of such tidings always clings to the man whose unhappy task it is to deliver them. While this alone might lead some people, against their better judgement, to deny the existence of some inopportune fact, how much greater the temptation when you run the risk not merely of incurring the disfavour that is the messenger’s inevitable fate, but of actually being regarded of the cause of the unfortunate situation you are duty bound to disclose. (p.185)

As the novel makes its way towards its conclusion, the fatuous critique of Drystubble (when he realises  what his protégé Sterne has done with this inflammatory text) fails to offset the bitterness of Dekker’s account.  He is unable to control himself, and reveals himself as the author of the polemic.  The Comments and Clarifications, and Notes which follow the end of the novel only serve to reinforce his anger and frustration.

Highly recommended as a masterpiece of colonialism critique.

Simon reviewed it too, at Tredynas Days.

The cover image is by Raden Saleh, and it’s called Merapi Volcano, Eruption at Night, 1865, courtesy of Naturalis Biodiversity Centre Leiden.   (Merapi is the active volcano that brooded over Universitas Gadjah Madah when I was in Yogyakarta studying Indonesian there in 1996, two years after it erupted killing 27 people.)

Author: Multatuli, pen-name of Eduard Douwes Dekker
Title:  Max Havelaar, or The Coffee Auction Houses of the Dutch Trading Company
Translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke and David McKay
Introduction by Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Publisher: NYRB Classics (New York Review Books), 2019, 289 pages extended to 355 pages with Comments and Clarifications, Notes and a Glossary.  First published in 1860.
ISBN: 9781681372624
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond $22.90

Available from Fishpond: Max Havelaar


  1. The structure is strange; I found the first part, with the highly satirical portrayal of the hypocrite Drystubble, very effective, almost Swiftian in its sense of outrage and disgust. For me the novel then slowed down and lost its way somewhat, and turned into something more like polemic – though as you point out this is mitigated by the portrayal of MH as a Quixotic, flawed figure. A powerful indictment of colonialism, imperialist corruption and exploitation of indigenous peoples nevertheless. The mini love story in the middle is heartbreaking.


    • Ah, I’d forgotten that you reviewed it too. I’ll add the link to mine.
      Simon, do you know of any other C19th lit with a structure anything like this?


  2. Excellent review of a really remarkable novel. I lived a few years in Yogyakarta, and during that period I read quite a number of interesting novels by Indonesian and Dutch Indo authors, such as Edgar du Perron (Land of Origin) and Maria Dermoût (The Ten Thousand Things, also available at NYRB). One of Multatuli’s grand-nephews, Ernest Douwes Dekker (a.k.a. Danoedirdja Setiaboedi) was one of the most important figures of the Indonesian anti-colonial struggle, and the importance of Multatuli as an inspiration for the emergence of a political nationalist movement in Indonesia that led to independence should not be underestimated.


    • Thank you!
      You’re right, I have been hearing about this novel ever since I embarked on the quest to become a teacher of Indonesian, but it’s taken until I’m retired from the chalkface to actually get round to reading it. In my Indonesian bookgroup we’ve been reading Pramoedya’s Buru Quartet and we decided that we really shouldn’t move on to Book 4 until we’d read Multatuli. (The Indonesian members of our group have, of course, already read it. They’re letting the rest of us catch up!)
      I’ll suggest these other two that you’ve recommended to the group when we meet on Wednesday next week.


  3. I really liked this book when I read it.

    I thought it was so daring for the time and also it made me so angry on behalf of the Indonesian people.


    • Yes, that’s the right word for it, daring. Daring in its content – his contemporaries Dickens and Zola, for example, were never so explicit in criticising their governments, and also daring in its style and structure.
      I’m looking forward to discussing it with my group tomorrow, I already know that one of them didn’t find it ‘lively’ but I don’t know which translation she read…


      • I was really surprised of his direct criticism of colonialism, so early in the 19th century.
        This is going to be a very interesting debate.


  4. […] Max Havelaar, by Multatuli, translated by Ina Rilke and David McKay […]


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