Multatuli is pseudonym of Eduard Douwes Dekker, a Dutch civil servant of The Netherlands during its colonialism in Indonesia (then Dutch Indies) on 19th century. He was an assistance resident in Lebak (the Bantam residency of Java—now Banten) when he began to see—and growingly disgusted by—the abuses of Dutch colonial system. Dekker began to openly criticize (and later oppose) his government, which ended with his resignation. But far from ending his opposition, Dekker began to publish his writings exposing the scandals he had witnessed. Not having enough exposure with the newspaper and pamphlet, he wrote a satire novel under pseudonym of Multatuli: Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company.
If you think this is a dull historical journal about coffee auctions and colonialism by a boring ex-civil servant, you are wrong! I have thought so in the past—hence have never considered reading it. But when I started reading, I found that Multatuli is really a talented and witty writer. Though implied by the title, this book is NOT about coffee trading; it is a satire about the injustice suffered by Indonesian people because of the colonial policy.
As an Indonesian myself, I was interested in how the colonialism have ever started, and why it took so long before the whole nation started to revolt. It only proved how clever the Dutch was at learning Indonesia’s archipelago and rich culture; to use the isolation of so many islands (with many different languages and cultures) to their advantage. Not only that, the Dutch knew one typical character of Indonesians: humble, obedient, inferior. And with our rich soil, no wonder any superior nation—if not Dutch, others would—could easily take advantage of Indonesia as their slave.
Back to the book, Max Havelaar (fictional character which is clearly representing Dekker) is a newly appointed assistant resident in Lebak. He was young, vigorous, brave, and honest. Soon after being appointed, he found out the practice of the regent (“bupati” in Indonesia) in employing local people or taking their animals by force, without paying, as a pretext to preserve his dignity. Instead of protecting local people to be burdened by these thieving, while they still had to pay taxes, Havelaar’s colleagues seemed to close their eyes of these injustices. They chose to please the regent to gain their support, and in the end to create an “all-is-good” report to the government. Other than that, the local people are also forced to grow coffee and sugar on their land, to be shipped to Europe, instead of growing rice for their food. In the end they became poorer and suffered more. Havelaar protested to Dutch government about these cruel treatments; writing many letters which eventually became a manuscript.
Interestingly, the book is narrated by two different persons with two different ways of thinking. The most dominant is a hypocrite, pompous coffee merchant named Mr. Droogstoppel. Max Havelaar’s manuscript accidentally came to his possession and—thinking that its coffee auction subject would be useful to promote his business—instructed his apprentice, Stern, to rewrite it into a book. Being a romantic young man, Stern, instead of writing about coffee trade issues, decided to take another course, that is Havelaar’s effort to fight the injustice done by Dutch government. It was really funny to read how Droogstoppel was furious and indignant of Stern’s romantic idea, while bragging about his hypocritical views. Finally, near the end, Multatuli took over the pen himself to write his own opinions, and closing it with sharp threats that he was going to expose every dirty detail if the government kept silent.
Max Havelaar might not be a great classic—in fact, if it’s not about my nation, I might have not picked it at first place—but we cannot ignore its big influence in Indonesian revolution in 1945 which ended Dutch colonialism, as well as colonialism at some other nations. It was such that the Indonesian greatest writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer called Max Havelaar as “the book that killed colonialism”.