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Littell's Living Age/Volume 97/Issue 1256/Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company

Max Havelaar: or, The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company. By Multatuli. Translated from the original manuscript by Baron Alphonse Nahuijs. Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas. 1868.

This is a remarkable book. Yet it is one which it is very hard for a foreign critic to judge of fairly. The translator tells us in his preface that it was "published a few years ago, and caused such a sensation in Holland as was never before experienced in that country." He compares it to "Uncle Tom's Cabin," but sets the author — Edward Douwes Dekker, formerly Assistant-Resident of the Dutch Government in Java — far above Mrs. Stowe, as having "sacrificed future fortune, and all that makes life agreeable, for a principle — for right and equity." It is "immortal;" it will "do honour to the literature of any language;" it has been "written by a genius of that order which only appears at long intervals in the world's history." But distance is a dispassionate arbiter, and looked at from across the sea, the first impression which "Max Havelaar" produces is that of an attempt to blend in one a political pamphlet, a novel, and a collection of thoughts and opinions on things in general, which has spoilt all three. The pamphlet is high-toned and sincere, but is deprived of weight by the form adopted; the novel shows power, but loses interest through the intermixture of extraneous elements; the thoughts and opinions are often striking, but out of place. But after coming to such conclusions one feels that they are but platitudes, when the author, dismissing his personages with contempt, tells us that he will make no excuses for the form of his book; that he has simply written it to be read; that read he will be by statesmen, by men of letters, by merchants, by lady's-maids, by governors-general in retirement, by ministers, "by the lackeys of these excellencies, by mutes — who more majorum will say that I attack God Almighty where I attack only the god which they have made according to their own image — by the members of the representative chambers;" that "the greater the disapprobation of my book the better I shall be pleased, for the chance of being heard will be so much the greater;" — when he threatens to translate his book into all European languages, till in every capital the refrain shall be heard, "There is a band of robbers between Germany and the Scheldt;" if this fails, to translate it again into Malay, Javanese, &c., and sharpen scimitars and sabres by warlike songs, so as to give "delivery and help, lawfully if possible, lawfully with violence if need be — and that would be very pernicious to the coffee auctions of the Dutch Trading Company! " Clearly, a man like this must be followed upon his own ground, measured by his own standard. Though he may be only a Dutch-built leviathan, still he is of the breed; there is no putting "an hook into his nose," or boring "his jaw through with a thorn;" no playing with him "as with a bird," nor binding him for our maidens.

The only true way of judging the book, then, is not to view it as a book, but to look upon both book and man as facts — very surprising and portentous facts, it would seem, to the Dutch nation, and surprising, too, to some other nations also. For it had gone forth to the whole world that the Dutch Government of Java of late years was a great success — anomalous indeed, in some respects, according to political economy, since it rested upon monopoly and regulated cultivation, but undeniable, unmistakable. To the Dutchman himself this was a tenet of positive faith, which he drank down afresh with every cupful of his Java coffee, which he saw confirmed day after day at the auctions of his great handelsmaatschappy, or Trading Company, in which his king was known to be a leading shareholder. Foreign visitors confirmed these conclusions, English above all — amongst whom it will be sufficient to name Mr. Money, whose "Java" is little more than a panegyric on Dutch, as compared with British, India.

In the midst of this state of things a book like "Max Havelaar" would explode like a shell. Here was a man, speaking from seventeen years' official experience, who declared that the profit of the Trading Company "was only obtained by paying the Javanese just enough to keep him from starving;" that he was "driven away from his rice-fields" in order to cultivate other products which the Government compelled him to grow, and compelled him to sell to itself, at the price it fixed for itself; that famine was often the consequence, by which sometimes "whole districts were depopulated, mothers offered to sell their children for food, mothers ate their own children" — as in our own Orissa, alas! — that labour was habitually exacted without payment both by native and European officials, cattle amid produce taken away by robbery and extortion; that "endless expeditions" were sent, and "heroic deeds performed, against poor miserable creatures . . . reduced by starvation to skeletons . . . whose ill-treatment has driven them to revolt;" that European officials connived at wrong-doing, or were silent about it where they did not participate in it, knowing that an upright discharge of their duties would only bring on them reproof, disgrace, or ruin; that the official reports of the functionaries to the island Government, and those from the island to the mother country, were "for the greater and more important part untrue," the financial accounts ridiculously false; that a "mild and submissive" population "has complained year after year of tyranny," yet sees resident after resident depart without anything being ever done towards the redress of its grievances; that "the end of all this "would be a "Jacquerie."

The news in itself was startling, and the mode of delivering it was of a nature to make it more so. For a more stinging satire of the lower propensities of the Dutch character could hardly be conceived than that embodied in the Amsterdam coffee-broker, Batavus Drystubble, the supposed author of the work, the contrast between whom and the chivalrous, unworldly Havelaar is most powerfully brought out, though by very inartistic means. Overdone as the picture is, Batavus Drystubble certainly stands out as one of the most remarkable embodiments of money-grubbing Pharisee-ism which literature has yet produced; and this, although the first sketch of the personage is far from consistent with his fuller portrait, — giving a curious instance, in fact, of the way in which a character may grow into life and truth in the author's own mind, if only steadily looked at. Nothing can be better hit off than Drystubble's firm rich man's faith that a poor man must be a scoundrel —

"Mark that Shawlman. He left the ways of the Lord; now he is poor, and lives in a little garret: that is the consequence of immorality and bad conduct. He does not know what time it is, and his little boy wears knee breeches."

The naïf selfishness of this is equally masterly: —

"Why do they want buffaloes, those black fellows? I never had a buffalo, and yet I am contented; there are men who are always complaining. And as regards that scoffing at forced labour, I perceive that he had not heard that sermon of Domine Wawelaar's, otherwise he would know how useful labour is in the extension of the kingdom of God. It is true he is a Lutheran."

Add this touch also to the last: —

"I did not speak to him of the Lord, because he is a Lutheran; but I worked on his mind and his honour."

This again is terrible: —

"Wawelaar himself has said that God so directs all things that orthodoxy leads to wealth. 'Look only,' he said, 'is there not much wealth in Holland? That is because of the faith. Is there not in France every day murder and homicide? That is because there are Roman Catholics there. Are not the Javanese poor? They are Pagans. The more the Dutch have to do with the Javanese the more wealth will be here and the more poverty there.' I am astonished at Wawelaar's penetration; for it is the truth that I, who am exact in religion, see that my business increases every year, and Busselinck and Waterman, who do not care about God or the Commandments, will remain bunglers as long as they live. The Rosemeyers, too, who trade in sugar, and have a Roman Catholic maid-servant, had a short time ago to accept 27 per cent. out of the estate of a Jew who became bankrupt. The more I reflect the further I advance in tracing the unspeakable ways of God. Lately it appeared that thirty millions had been gained on the sale of products furnished by Pagans, and in this is not included what I have gained thereby, and others who live by this business. Is not that as if the Lord said, — 'Here you have thirty millions as a reward for your faith?' Is not that the finger of God who causes the wicked one to labour to preserve the righteous one? Is not that a hint for us to go on in the right way, and to cause those far away to produce much, and to stand fast here to the true religion? Is it not, therefore, 'Pray and labour,' that we should pray and have the work done by those who do not know the Lord's Prayer? Oh, how truly Wawelaar speaks when he calls the yoke of God light! How easy the burthen is to every one who believes! I am only a few years past forty, and can retire when I please to Driebergen, and see how it ends with others who forsake the Lord."

Thackeray himself could not have surpassed this scathing page. It is immortal, come what may to the book which contains it.

Max Havelaar himself, though the conception of his character is a subtle one, and is on the whole well brought out — at once dreamy and practical, lavish and self-stinting, indulgent and rigid, irregular in his impulses, and yet bent on enforcing order — is of far less worth artistically than the coffee-broker, and there is a constant tendency to rhetorical self-assertion about him which one fears is characteristic of the writer himself. The plot is really too slight to be worth analyzing in detail; suffice it to say that Havelaar is an Assistant-Resident in Java, intent on doing justice, and who thereby only brings disgrace upon himself. More than one such tale might be told from the records of British India; and it is indeed remarkable that the worst excesses which the book complains of are laid to the charge of the native officials, although the burden of the vicious system of government, with which the tolerance of their malpractices seems almost irretrievably bound up, lies of course with the European rulers.

Havelaar's random opinions, de omnibus rebus, are often full of quaint power and humour; as when he complains of guidebook measurements which require you to have so many "feet of admiration at hand not to be taken for a Turk or a bagman," or inveighs against cataracts because they tell him nothing: —

"They make a noise, but don't speak. They cry, 'rroo,' 'rroo,' 'rroo.' Try crying, 'rroo,' 'rroo,' for six thousand years or more, and you will see how few persons will think you an amusing man."

A full idea of the book cannot, however, be given without a sample of its pathos. Here is a perfectly exquisite piece of metre-less poetry, which, if not translated from the Javanese, but the work of Mr. Douwes Dekker himself, is simply a nineteenth-century miracle: —

          "I do not know when I shall die.
I saw the great sea on the south coast when I was there with my father making salt.[1]
If I die at sea and my body is thrown into the deep water, then sharks will come;
They will swim round my corpse, and ask, 'Which of us shall devour the body that goes down into the water?'
                    — I shall not hear it.

          "I do not know where I shall die.
I saw in a blaze the house of Pa-ansoe, which he himself has set on fire, because he was mata glap;[2]
If I die in a burning house, glowing embers will fall on my corpse;
And outside of the house there will be many cries of men throwing water on the fire to kill it.
                    — I shall not hear it.

          "I do not know where I shall die.
I saw the little Si-Oenah fall out of a klappa-tree, when he plucked a klappa [cocoa-nut] for his mother;
If I fall out of a klappa-tree I shall lie dead below in the-shrubs like Si-Oenah.
Then my mother will not weep, for she is dead. But others will say with a loud voice, 'See, there lies Saidjah.'
                    — I shall not hear it.

          "I do not know where I shall die.
I have seen the corpse of Palisoe, who died of old age, for his hairs were white:
If I die of old age, with white hairs, hired women will stand weeping near my corpse,
And they will make lamentation, as did the mourners over Palisoe's corpse, and the grandchildren will weep very loud.
                    — I shall not hear it.

          "I do not know where I shall die.
I have seen at Badoer many that were dead. They were dressed in white shrouds, and were buried in the earth.
If I die at Badoer, and am buried beyond the dessah [village], eastward against the hill, where the grass is high,
Then will Adinda pass by there, and the border of her sarong will sweep softly along the grass.
                    — I shall hear it."

Will not any gentlemen or ladies with volumes of poems ready, or preparing, or accumulating for publication, after reading the above, oblige their contemporaries and posterity by throwing their manuscripts into the fire?

There remains to be added that Mr. Douwes Dekker has, the preface tells us, in vain challenged a refutation of his charges — e. g., at the International Congress for the Promotion of Social Science at Amsterdam in 1863 — and that he has been declared to have understated rather than overstated the truth. One word must finally be said in favour of Baron Nahuijs's translation, the English of which might put to the blush many of our professed translators.


  1. An offence in Java, as in British India, salt being a Government monopoly.
  2. In a state of frenzy.