A few weeks ago I happened to pick up a copy of Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company (1860) by Multatuli ((the pen name of Eduard Douwes Dekker). It is set against the background of the Dutch colonial administration of Indonesia in the early to mid-19th century. After the financial collapse of the Dutch East India Company in 1800, the Dutch government assumed economic and political control of Indonesia. Dekker went to Java as an idealistic Dutch colonial administrator in 1838. Over the next 20 years he saw and experienced first-hand the venality of colonial administrators and the poverty and starvation that the colonial policies of the Cultivation System had brought to the indigenous population. His superiors threatened him with dismissal if he did not keep silent about what he had uncovered. Dekker eventually resigned his appointment in 1858 and went back home determined to expose the abuses he had witnessed. Following several pamphlets and newspaper articles, he eventually published Max Havelaar, a biting satirical exposure of the rampant abuses of the Dutch colonial policies in Indonesia in the form of a novel. It belongs in the same class of satirical works as those written by Jonathan Swift, Voltaire, Soren Kierkegaard, and Mark Twain.
There are a number of reasons why this book interests me. First of all, the U.S. ventures in Afghanistan and Iraq have insured that the history of imperialism and colonialism, both nationally and globally, are never far from my mind these days. Second, I have a deep and longstanding interest in Reformational thought and its antecedents in Groen Van Prinsterer and Abraham Kuyper . Over the years I have learned much more about these two giants as theologians and political theorists but hardly anything at all about their role as politicians. After reading Max Havelaar I was eager to find out what the ARP and Kuyper had said about Dutch colonialism and what Kuyper’s colonial policies were during his years as prime minister (1901-1905). Following that trail has led me into some very interesting discoveries about the Cultivation System in Indonesia (the IMF and the World Bank learned their lessons well from this system), the enunciation of the ARP’s colonial policy of ethical trusteeship in Ons Program (1879), Kuyper’s domestic policies, Dutch colonial practices down to WWI, the role of the heroin trade in Indonesia, and the role of Max Havelaar in challenging colonialism in other parts of the world (e.g. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and E. D. Morel’s exposure of King Leopold’s brutal empire in the Congo Free State) and serving as an inspiration for the Indonesian independence movement following WWII. I have discovered that there is a great deal of secondary material on these topics that even English readers can profit from.
I look forward to some of my Dutch readers filling in some blanks in my understanding of these topics from their familiarity with sources in Dutch. I would also welcome learning how Max Havelaar has been and is currently read in Indonesia from my Indonesian readers.
If you are at all interested in any of these topics, I commend Max Havelaar to you.