Front cover of Max Havelaar, 5th edition (1881)
|Original title||Max Havelaar, of de koffie-veilingen der Nederlandse Handel-Maatschappij|
Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company (Dutch: Max Havelaar, of de koffi-veilingen der Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij) is an 1860 novel by Multatuli (the pen name of Eduard Douwes Dekker), which played a key role in shaping and modifying Dutch colonial policy in the Dutch East Indies in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. In the novel, the protagonist, Max Havelaar, tries to battle against a corrupt government system in Java, which was then a Dutch colony.
By the mid-nineteenth century, the colonial control of the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia) had passed from the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to the Dutch government due to the economic failure of the VOC. In order to increase revenue, the Dutch colonial government implemented a series of policies termed the Cultivation System (Dutch: cultuurstelsel), which mandated Indonesian farmers to grow a quota of commercially crops such as sugar and coffee, instead of growing staple foods such as rice. At the same time, the colonial government also implemented a tax collection system in which the collecting agents were paid by commission. The combination of these two strategies caused widespread abuse of colonial power, especially on the islands of Java and Sumatra, resulting in abject poverty and widespread starvation the farmers. The colony was governed with a minimum of soldiers and Government officials. The former rulers maintained their absolute power and control over the natives. A quite common strategy used by many colonizing countries.
In addition, the Dutch state earned a fortune with the sale of opium to the natives. At that time opium was the only known effective pain killer. A considerable part of the natives was hooked on it. This was called the "opium-regime". To distinguish between smuggled and legal opium, a simple reagent added. After discovery the smuggler could count on a severe punishment. This opium-trade was started centuries before during the VOC-times. Many natives were addicted to the opium, and were kept poor in this way.
Multatuli wrote Max Havelaar in protest against these colonial policies, but another goal was to seek rehabilitation for his resignation from governmental service. Despite its terse writing style, it raised the awareness of Europeans living in Europe at the time that the wealth that they enjoyed was the result of suffering in other parts of the world. This awareness eventually formed the motivation for the new Ethical Policy by which the Dutch colonial government attempted to "repay" their debt to their colonial subjects by providing education to some classes of natives, generally members of the elite loyal to the colonial government.
Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer argued that by triggering these educational reforms, Max Havelaar was in turn responsible for the nationalist movement that ended Dutch colonialism in Indonesia after 1945, and which was instrumental in the call for decolonization in Africa and elsewhere in the world. Thus, according to Pramoedya, Max Havelaar is "the book that killed colonialism".
In the last chapter the author announces that he will translate the book "into the few languages I know, and into the many languages I can learn." In fact, Max Havelaar has been translated into thirty-four languages. It was first translated into English in 1868. In Indonesia, the novel was cited as an inspiration by Sukarno and other early nationalist leaders, such as the author's Indo (Eurasian) descendant Ernest Douwes Dekker, who had read it in its original Dutch. It was not translated into Indonesian until 1972.
In the novel, the story of Max Havelaar, a Dutch colonial administrator, is told by two diametrically opposed characters: the hypocritical coffee merchant Droogstoppel, who intends to use Havelaar's manuscripts to write about the coffee trade, and the romantic German apprentice Stern, who takes over when Droogstoppel loses interest in the story. The opening chapter of the book nicely sets the tone of the satirical nature of what is to follow, with Droogstoppel articulating his pompous and mercenary world-view at length. At the very end of the novel Multatuli himself takes the pen and the book culminates in a vocal denunciation of Dutch colonial policies and a plea to the king of the Netherlands to intervene on behalf of his Indonesian subjects.
- Multatuli, Max Havelaar of De koffiveilingen der Nederlandsche Handelmaatschappy. Critical edition, edited by Annemarie Kets-Vree. Monumenta Literaria Neerlandica VI, 1 and VI, 2. Assen/Maastricht, 1992.
- Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1999). "The book that killed colonialism". The New York Times Magazine. April 18: 112–114.
- Feenberg, Anne-Marie (1997). "Max Havelaar: an anti-imperialist novel". MLN 112(5):817–835.
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