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19th Century colonialism and oppression in the Dutch East Indies

June 27, 2011 8 comments

Max Havelaar, Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company by Multatuli. 1860. 400 pages. Brilliant French translation by Philippe Noble.

 Multatuli is the pseudonym of the Dutch writer Eduard Douwes Dekker (1820-1887). It means “I suffered a lot”. Douwes Dekker was born in Amsterdam, son of a sea captain and joined the East Indies Civil Service in 1838. He was involved in several disputes with his superiors but nevertheless got promoted thanks to his intelligence. In 1846, he married Everdine (“Tine”), Baroness van Wijnbergen and they had two children. He didn’t approve of the colonial brutalities towards the natives and eventually resigned from service in 1846. He came back to Europe, living poorly on his writing and endeavouring to improve the situation of the Javanese. Max Havelaar was published in 1860 and is largely based on his own experience. This novel is aimed at putting the situation of the Indonesian under the brightest light as possible to provoke emotion in the public leading to political changes. Multatuli had in mind Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852. It is a manifesto without the form of a manifesto. I don’t need to tell more about the plot but I sure want to explore the ideas he exposes and the literary form he chose as the adequate weapon to spread them.  

Multatuli points at the stupid system of paying the native chiefs. The Dutch remunerate them a percentage of the coffee and other raw products they sell to the Netherlands and nothing on dairy products. They are induced to impose on their people the well-paid cultures instead of rice, leading the local population to starvation. Doesn’t that ring a bell?  

Multatuli also dissects the workings of the colonial administration, from down to top. He enlightens the reader on the chain of cowardice and selfishness that ends up in suffering for the Javanese. At each stage of the chain of command, everyone bends their head down and embroiders the reports. The government in La Haye thinks that everything is fine when it isn’t. The statistics are contradictory for someone who would have a closer look at them. But no one really wants to know, they want to believe the lies. It’s more comfortable. The Civil Servants think about their career and try to smother any attempt to change. Multatuli sums up this attitude in describing “the symptoms of the General Governor’s common disease” that affects every Governor of the East Indies.  

First stage. Dizziness. Drunkenness with incense vapours. Arrogance. Excessive self-confidence. Looks down scornfully on other people and especially on “old colonials”. Second stage. Exhaustion. Fear. Discouragement. Drowsiness, need for rest. Excessive confidence in the East Indian Council. Dependence upon the General Secretary. Nostalgia about a country house in the Netherlands.

Between the two stages, as a transition – perhaps because of this transition – dysentery attacks.

He also rebels against the oppression of the Javanese people by the native chiefs with the complicity of the Dutch administration. He describes how the Dutch colonialism takes advantage of the local feudal customs. Peasants are requisitioned to work for free. Their food supplies are requisitioned to feed the chief’s large family. Worse, the buffaloes are requisitioned, leaving the peasants without a means to cultivate the fields. The Dutch civil servants know it and look to the other side, in a laissez-faire attitude, allowing the local chiefs to rob their people. They are accomplice too as they also take advantage of free work to keep up the land surrounding their colonial house.  

He demonstrates how the brutality and the stupidity of the colonial rule can only lead the natives to rebellion. They have nothing to lose. They fight. They are beaten. La Hayes congratulates the military forces who pacified the area. End of story, until despair pushes them to rebellion again.  

Max Havelaar is also a plea against racism, a prayer to consider the Javanese as equals and treat them right.  

What shocked me is how colonialism was justified by priests:

Wavelaar [A priest] said himself that God drives everything in such a way that a rigorous faith leads to wealth. “In truth”, he says “isn’t there a great wealth in the Netherlands? It comes from our faith. Doesn’t France have to face riots from time to time? It’s because the French are Catholic. Aren’t the Javanese poor? They are Pagans. The more the Dutch will deal with the Javanese, the more wealth will flow in here and the more poverty will settle there. Because this is God’s will.”

I’m not religious but as far as I know, the message of Christianity does not include robbing and oppressing poor people. Using religious texts to justify greed and want of power will always make me indignant.  

Multatuli doesn’t go as far as writing that colonialism is a wrong thing and that the European should come back home and let these people live by themselves. Even if he thought about decolonisation (I don’t know if he did), the European societies were not ready to hear that. He would have missed his short-term goal, i.e. to improve the living conditions of the people of Indonesia. He wants to reform colonialism and “only” reveals the absurdity of the system and recalls the readers that it could already be a lot better if the Civil Servants actually did their job and respected the laws.  

Multatuli used several devices to defend his cause in a light and pleasant way. The first device is rather common in literature to introduce a tale. A man, Batavus Droogstoppel, coffee trader in Amsterdam, receives a parcel from a poor man he used to go to school with. It is made of letters, essays and stories. A young German man, Stern, who lives with the Droogstoppel family decides to write a book based on this material. Droogstoppel reminded me of Scrooge (published in 1843). He acts inhumanly, only thinking about money and business. He’s narrow-minded, self-righteous, sure of his good right and his superiority as a Dutchman. He represents the right-thinking bourgeois society of the Netherlands, wrapped up in their blanket of certitudes. Droogstoppel is selfish, prosaic and compassion is totally foreign to him.  

The other devices lay in the mixed style. Multatuli is a satirist; I could feel the influence of the Enlightenment and French writers such as Diderot or Voltaire. In the foreword, the translator says he was influenced by Sterne, but I’ve never read him. His satirist tendency shows up in the names of the characters. According to the footnotes, Droogstoppel means “Dry Thatch”, and another despicable character is named Slymering (Slimy). Multatuli was also influenced by Romanticism and he particularly liked Heine. As a consequence, Max Havelaar is unclassifiable. It includes tales, poems, dialogues, classic narration and satire. It is Voltaire polished with romantic varnish, which is a strange association. Sometimes it works better than others. Sometimes it’s very funny. Eduard Douwes Dekker must have been a witted man. I suppose he’d be proud to know that his Max Havelaar is now the name of an international label for fair trade, which explains the cover of my French edition.  Western consumers, keep your eyes open and buy Max Havelaar products.

This reading is part of my EU Book Tour and contributes to the month of Dutch Reading hosted by Iris.

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As a PS, let’s digress a bit. In the comments on my post about Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell, we discussed how religion influence people’s perception of poverty. I argued that in Catholic countries, poverty is a matter-of-fact. It happens. Contrary to Protestant countries, it doesn’t mean that these persons are abandoned by God. They aren’t responsible for being poor and should not be looked down with contempt. The Netherlands are a Protestant country. Here is how Droogstoppel, who speaks in the name of the Dutch society, assesses poverty and charity.

When you have so little for yourself, it is a sin to give to other people. By the way, I never give money on the streets – it is one of my principles – because as I always say when I see poor people: who knows if it’s not their fault, and I don’t have the right to reinforce their error.

This is the exact opposite reaction to a Catholic: it is a great act of faith to give the little you have to poorer than you and you have to do charity. I’m not judging here and saying one religion is better than the other, it’s just a statement. And it’s important because it is deeply rooted in our cultures and somehow explains why Latin (Catholic) and Northern European or American countries (Protestant) have difficulties to understand each other sometimes. Protestants always feel responsible for other people’s souls and assume they have to intervene, like here, Droogstoppel thinks he could comfort someone in their errors. Catholics think you’re responsible for you own salvation and if someone wants to gamble theirs by acting badly, it’s their problem.

Another priceless and chilling piece by Droogstoppel about poverty: “I don’t like poor people, because usually they can only blame themselves for it: the Lord would not turn his back on who served him with loyalty.” Scandalous. End of digression.

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