Multatuli (Eduard Douwes Dekker), Max Havelaar


Published by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 1965


Do you pay attention to whether or not your coffee was produced under fair conditions? If you do, you know Max Havelaar. This is the name of the foundation established in Switzerland in 1992, which aims at helping consumers to identify goods that have been produced and are sold under fair conditions. The name of this foundation has not been chosen arbitrarily. Max Havelaar is the main character of a novel that has significantly changed the industrialized countries’ attitude towards the so-called Third World.


In 1860 the fictitious biography of a coffee buyer named Max Havelaar was published under the pen name Multatuli – the Latin equivalent of “I have borne much”.


Java was then a Dutch colony. It was acquired by the state because the Dutch East India Company had no longer managed to farm the land profitably. The new officials intended to change this for the better. They forced the farmers to grow a quota of sugar and coffee on their fields to pay the taxes implemented. The goods were collected by officials who did not receive a lump sum but participated in the tax revenue. The terrible consequence was that the farmers could no longer grow enough food for themselves to eat. To forget their misery, they took opium, which the Dutch government had introduced at a profit.


The book describes this appalling cycle – poverty and hunger leading to addiction, addiction causing greater poverty and more hunger still. The novel gains its literary significance through the plot being refracted several times: first, a self-satisfied moneybag with the revealing name Droogstoppel tells and comments on Havelaar’s story. When he loses interest, his romantic German apprentice takes over and recounts from his perspective what happened. Only in the last chapter Havelaar himself speaks and drops the illusion that this book was fictitious. It was all true! These were the terrible conditions under which the colonial goods that every Dutchman enjoyed in his daily life were produced.


The novel was indeed very well researched because its author Eduard Douwes Dekker knew Java from first-hand experience. He had worked there as a colonial civil servant himself. When he made the corrupt deeds involving the supreme colonial administration and a local ruler known to the public, he was given a dishonorable discharge. He returned to Europe and published “Max Havelaar”. He chose the pen name for fear of repression.


The book had an enormous effect. Dekker managed to raise the awareness of the whole of Europe to the inhumane conditions under which the cherished colonial goods were produced. And the customers reacted. The Dutch government had to make a kind of compensation to the local people. Schools were built. European ideas reached Indonesia and inspired people to call for independence and democracy. An Indonesian writer boiled it down to the essence that in the end of the day it was Max Havelaar who was responsible for his home’s decolonization.


That the author’s critique of exploitative systems is not yet obsolete is proven by the fact that the few brands that have been labelled as produced under fair conditions by the Max Havelaar Foundation are faced with a sweeping majority of products produced under conditions we prefer not to know too much about. Otherwise, we would be too ashamed to purchase them.


By the way, in 2002 the Society for Dutch Literature declared Max Havelaar to be the most important Dutch book ever written.


Ursula Kampmann

Translated by Annika Backe

Signet Sunflower Foundation