Richard Melson

September 2006

Max Havelaar

Max Havelaar

Front cover of Max Havelaar, 9th edition (1891).

For the Max Havelaar Foundation

See Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International.

Max Havelaar, or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company is a culturally and socially significant 1860 novel by Multatuli (the pen name of Eduard Douwes Dekker) which was to play a key role in shaping and modifying Dutch colonial policy in the Dutch East Indies in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. In the novel, the protagonist, Max Havelaar, tries to battle against a corrupt government system in Java, which was a Dutch colony at the time.

The colonial control of Indonesia had passed from the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to the Dutch government due to economic failure of the VOC. In order to increase revenue, the Dutch colonial government implemented a series of policies termed the Cultivation System (Dutch: cultuurstelsel), which mandated Indonesian farmers to grow a quota of commercially tradable crops such as tea and coffee, instead of growing staple foods such as rice. At the same time, the colonial government also implemented a tax collection system in which the collecting agents were paid by commission. The combination of these two strategies caused widespread abuse of colonial power, especially on the islands of Java and Sumatra, resulting in abject poverty and widespread starvation among the farmers.

Multatuli wrote Max Havelaar in protest against these colonial policies. Despite its terse writing style, it raised the awareness of Europeans living in Europe at the time that the wealth that they enjoyed was the result of suffering in other parts of the world. This awareness eventually formed the motivation for the new ethical policy by which the Dutch colonial government attempted to "repay" their debt to their colonial subjects by providing education to some classes of natives, generally members of the elite loyal to the colonial government.

Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer argued that by triggering these educational reforms, Max Havelaar was in turn responsible for the nationalist movement that ended Dutch colonialism in Indonesia after 1945, and which was instrumental in the call for decolonisation in Africa and elsewhere in the world.

Thus, according to Pramoedya, Max Havelaar is "the book that killed colonialism".[1]

Max Havelaar has been translated into thirty-four languages. It was first translated into English in 1868. In Indonesia, the novel was cited as an inspiration by Sukarno and other early nationalist leaders, who had read it in its original Dutch. It was not translated into Indonesian until 1972.[2]

In the novel, the story of Max Havelaar, a Dutch colonial administrator, is told by two diametrically opposed characters: the hypocritical coffee merchant Droogstoppel, who intends to use Havelaar's manuscripts to write about coffee trade, and the romantic German apprentice Stern, who takes over when Droogstoppel loses interest in the story. The opening chapter of the book nicely sets the tone of the satirical nature of what is to follow, with Droogstoppel articulating his pompous and mercenary world-view at length. At the very end of the novel Multatuli himself takes the pen and the book culminates in a vocal denouncement of the Dutch colonial policies and a plea to the then-king of the Netherlands to intervene on behalf of his Indonesian subjects.

The novel was filmed in 1976 by Fons Rademakers,

as part of a Dutch-Indonesian partnership.

The film was not allowed to be shown in Indonesia until 1987.

This film works. It gives a realistic, grim depiction of life in a European colony, namely Indonesia. The description of web of hypocrisy of church-going Dutch and the utmost repression the natives under their rule endure. People who derive benefits from others misery and use powerful denial mechanisms to evade from the truth. Max Havelaar was a man, the film makers and writers seem to love - a beacon of hope. One stand up guy who resists succumbing to the mire of human power struggles and utmost cruelty towards other people, in a situation where he has the position to wield unquestionable power. In this he reminds of Josef Schindler who also found some humanity in a dire, cruel situation. This film also matches John Sayles' "Men With Guns" in portraying human cruelty.


  1. Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1999). "The book that killed colonialism". The New York Times Magazine. April 18: 112-114.

  2. Feenberg, Anne-Marie (1997). "Max Havelaar: an anti-imperialist novel". MLN 112(5):817-835.

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