Max Havelaar

by Eduard Douwes Dekker

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 989

Max Havelaar: Or, The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company is a contested narrative—a narrative within a narrative within yet another narrative in which the framing stories underscore the social and cultural problems revealed by the central imbedded story of the quixotic civil servant, Max Havelaar, who does not even enter the story for nearly sixty pages. Multatuli’s agenda is clear: alert the indifferent and complacent middle-class Dutch back home of the system they had imposed on the peoples of the East Indies. For more than two centuries, the Dutch had maintained a considerable empire in the East Indies. At the time Multatuli wrote this novel, the government, rather than private trading companies, controlled the colonies and had imposed harsh production quotas for the islands’ chief exports, primarily coffee and sugar. This policy, coupled with crippling taxation imposed on local farmers, created a system rife with corruption and brutality.

The narrative actually begins with a parcel of manuscripts. A successful middle-aged coffee broker, Batavus Droogstoppel, is accosted on the streets of Amsterdam by an impoverished figure he identifies only as Sjaalman, or the Scarfman, because of the ragged scarf he wears against the cold. The man, a struggling writer who is an old school chum of Droogstoppel and who once saved him from a beating by bullies, thrusts a parcel at the coffee broker, manuscripts he had written, in the hopes that his friend might help him get the works published. Droogstoppel, who has little regard for literature, reluctantly agrees. When he reviews the contents, he is interested only in one essay on Javanese coffee plantations. That, he decides, would be worth pursuing, as his entire life is about coffee.

He assigns a young German clerk named Stern (or “star”) to oversee the compilation of the manuscript into something publishable. Stern agrees on two conditions: that his boss agree not to alter anything he writes and that the struggling writer, Sjaalman, be given a ream of paper and ink and pens. It is only then that the story of Max Havelaar commences—we are to assume it is a text arranged by Stern to be written by Sjaalman, who is most likely Havelaar himself, returned from the disastrous appointment in Java. That narrative in turn will be interrupted midway, when Droogstoppel, who has apparently listened to Stern read the manuscript he has prepared, feels obliged to insert his objections to the story, praising Dutch colonial administration and suggesting that whatever discipline the Dutch apply to the locals was justified, as they were not Christian.

As the story of Havelaar unfolds, the newly appointed colonial administrator at Lebak quickly discovers the depth of the abuses routinely inflicted on the natives at the hands of local regents whose hereditary power (and brutalities) had been buttressed by the Dutch, who are interested only in maintaining a system that guaranteed the uninterrupted flow of spices, coffee, and sugar back to lucrative European markets. In one particularly heartrending story, Havelaar meets a young local, Saïdyah, whose father had lost all his property to the extortions of the local regent and whose betrothed is then brutally murdered by Dutch occupational troops when she attempts to join the revolutionary Javanese underground. Driven by desperation, Saïdyah himself attacks some soldiers and is impaled by bayonets.

Havelaar accumulates considerable evidence of such wrongdoings, and, suspicious that the previous administrator had been poisoned, attempts to file a report with his superiors. He is roundly dismissed and cautioned not to pursue his allegations—indeed others within the post are aware of the injustices but refuse to stand up to them for fear...

(This entire section contains 989 words.)

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of losing their positions. Havelaar, however, refuses to abandon his crusade and maneuvers to have the local regents imprisoned. Ultimately Dutch authorities quash Havelaar’s efforts and reassign him to an obscure outpost on the island. Havelaar, understanding that the same conditions would await him there, resigns after one last futile attempt to secure an audience with the island’s governor-general. He returns to the Netherlands, bitter, angry, and out of work.

It is as this point, as the novel closes, that Multatuli introduces yet a third narrative frame; his own persona, identified as Multatuli, interrupts the story, laments his own clumsy writing skills, dismisses Stern and Droogstoppel’s work as ineffectual fictions, and vehemently denounces the coffee broker as sanctimonious and hypocritical. Multatuli proclaims his own profound disgust with the subjugation of thirty million Javanese people within the exploitative Dutch colonial system. He closes by appealing to no less than the Dutch king, William III, to address the conditions in the islands. It is that outrage, the authorial persona claims, he wants his readers to share.

Within two years of the publication of Max Havelaar, government investigations had found Multatuli’s indictment substantially valid, although the colonial presence in the East Indies would remain well into the twentieth century. What is more fascinating, however, is Multatuli’s decision to contain that considerable outrage within a complex narrative frame, essentially deploying three narrators: the coffee broker, the clerk, and the writer-persona. Clearly, the arrogant and complacent Droogstoppel satirizes what Multatuli thought was a far more insidious problem than the conditions in the colonial outposts: specifically, the indifference of the Catholic Christian Dutch themselves to a colonial system that had built them a commercial empire. The young German, Stern, locked into a dreary apprenticeship with the narrow-minded philistine coffee merchant, represents the idealistic impulse in Multatuli; inspired by the German Romantics, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, Stern seeks to have the courageous idealism of Havelaar promulgated as an exemplar of the crusade for truth and justice. Finally, Multatuli introduces his own writing persona into the narrative, promptly shatters any illusion of the fictional construct, and closes the narrative with a direct appeal to the Dutch people. That narrative experimentation sustains Max Havelaar beyond a period piece or a historic artifact.