Review #14: Max Havelaar

Or, The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company

Max Havelaar

You’ve never heard of Max Havelaar. I hadn’t either until this project, and there are some good reasons for that. The first is that it was written in Dutch. I don’t read Dutch, and neither do you. The second is that the English translation is out of print. The third, and most important, is that it deals with some European drama from over a century ago.

Despite these setbacks, it is still a worthy novel to read. The focus of the book is the Dutch colonization of Java, and how this occupation corrupted the native Javanese leaders and oppressed the people. He explains this through a biography of the fictional Max Havelaar, a Dutch official in charge of a small region of Java. Havelaar sees the corruption going on around him and, due to his honest and generous nature, has no choice but to intervene. Unfortunately, this decision leads to his eventual ridicule and poverty, as you might expect. The book does implicate Dutch officials in corrupt colonization practices, the but main accusation of the book is that Western colonizers act as enablers for native chiefs, giving them an official sanction to oppress and exploit their own people.

Max Havelaar is the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of nineteenth century Netherlands. It has a hero who ends up worse by the end of the story; it has human enslavement; it has characters that turn a blind eye to problems that don’t touch them directly. The similarities are there. Multatuli—the pen name for author Edward Douwes Dekker—even mentions Uncle Tom’s Cabin in his book. He does an admirable job at putting a human face on the colonization problem, but Max Havelaar is no Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Multatuli seems to realize this since, in the last four pages of the book, he usurps the narration and makes a direct Occupy-Wall-Street-style plea to the reader.

Some of his characters, especially the entertaining and some-time narrator Batavus, are blatant caricatures that surpass plausibility. Also, the author tends to gloss over the complexities of Javanese society before the events recorded in the book, including before colonization. Because of these and other issues, I didn’t find the book as compelling as it could have been. But the Dutch people did. The publication of Max Havelaar coincided with nationwide concerns about the role of the Dutch in third-world affairs. While changes were already being considered in Dutch international policies, Multatuli’s book was the straw that broke the serf’s back.

While Multatuli does tend to simplify the entire argument, Max Havelaar is nonetheless an influential and important book that had a significant impact on world affairs.

The Well-Read Man Project

For more information about this book, visit its Well-Read Man Project page.


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