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Max Havelaar, a novel from 1860

16 September 2011

The last novel about Indonesia that I have read before leaving (to live there for 10 months) is Max Havelaar, by Multatuli (a pen name of Eduard Douwes Dekker). It’s not always easy for a 21st century reader to enjoy a 19th century novel, and this one is certainly not going to captivate everyone who undertakes it. I stuck with it even though at times it was annoying. At the end, I was glad to have read it.

I wanted to read it because I have seen many references to this book in my reading about the colonial past of Indonesia. The subtitle, Or the Coffee Auctions of a Dutch Trading Company, is probably the most misleading tagline ever given to a book, so don’t think for a minute that you will learn anything about coffee auctions here. The subtitle is not unreasonable — just unrepresentative of the story.

I was surprised to find how much of the book is in the voice of a Dickensian coffee broker, Batavus Droogstoppel, who lives in Holland and has never ventured beyond its borders. But in the story-within-a-story format (familiar from other 19th century novels), Droogstoppel has an important part to play — and his stolid Dutch businessman’s attitudes are an artful counterpoint to the core story, which takes place in Java, in the impoverished state of Lebak.

The endearing Max Havelaar is (one learns from the introduction to the Penguin Classics paperback) a proxy for Eduard Douwes Dekker, who was the Assistant Resident of Lebak in 1856. Max’s miserable experiences with the Regent, the Resident and the Governor General (the first a Javanese noble, and the other two Dutch colonial administrators) serve to illustrate most vividly the oppression of the majority of the people of Java under Dutch rule. It’s clear that one reason this book is so often mentioned in histories of the period is the level of detail about how the system worked — how the fabulous profits flowing out of the Indies and into Holland encouraged the colonial administrators to pretend they did not know how the local people were exploited to produce those profits.

I thought often of slavery in North America while I was reading this book. The mechanics and interpersonal relationships of the system of slavery were different, but I think the selective blindness of the manufacturers of the North (profiting from the raw materials of the South) had a lot in common with the ignorance of the businessmen in Holland who profited from the raw materials of the Indies.

Just as the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1851 changed Americans’ thinking about slavery, the publication of Max Havelaar changed what the Dutch thought about the people in the Indies. It could no longer be imagined that they were being compensated for the labor that yielded the coffee and sugar that made Holland rich — in fact they were starving to death, or being forced to leave their own lands to avoid starvation.

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