WAS DUTCH COLONIALISM IN INDONESIA PROFITABLE?: THE 1860 NOVEL “MAX HAVELAAR” AND THE RADEMAKERS MOVIE FROM 1976

February 23, 2011 at 4:57 am | Posted in Books, Film, History, World-system | Leave a comment

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Max Havelaar is a 1976 Dutch film directed by Fons Rademakers, based on the 1860 novel Max Havelaar by Multatuli.

Max Havelaar (1976)

Max Havelaar of de koffieveilingen der

Nederlandsche handelsmaatschappij

(original title)

An idealistic Dutch colonial officer posted to Indonesia in the 19th century is convinced that he can make the kinds of changes that will actually help the local people he is in charge of, but circumstances soon make him realize just how out of touch he really is, and it doesn’t take long for things to go from bad to worse.

The movie opens with this quote from King William III of the Netherlands:

When We scrutinize, with gratitude,

The highly satisfactory condition of the country’s finances

And we recognize that Our present wealth derives

From the fruits yielded up by Our property in the East Indies

Then We do not hold lightly,

Our calling to further the well-being and development of these Our

colonial possessions

The sacrifice demanded of Us to succour these lands

And to maintain Our authority over them

We will not make grudgingly.

William III, King of the Netherlands

William III (19 February 1817 – 23 November 1890) was from 1849 King of the Netherlands

Max Havelaar

Max Havelaar:

Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company

Eduard Douwes Dekker (2 March 182019 February 1887), better known by his pen name Multatuli, was a Dutch writer famous for his satirical novel, Max Havelaar (1860) in which he denounced the abuses of colonialism in the colony of the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia).

In 1860, he published his novel Max Havelaar under the pseudonym of Multatuli. Dekker’s new pseudonym, which is derived from Latin, means, “I have suffered much”, or, more literally “I have borne much” referring to himself, as well as, it is thought, to the victims of the injustices he saw. An attempt was made to ignore this irregular (for the 1860s) book, but in vain; it was read all over Europe.

Dekker was born in Amsterdam. His father, a ship’s captain, intended his son for trade, but this humdrum prospect disgusted him, and in 1838 he went out to Java and obtained a post as a civil servant. He moved from one posting to another, until, in 1851, he became assistant-resident at Ambon, in the Moluccas. In 1857 he was transferred to Lebak, in the Bantam residency of Java. By this time, however, all the secrets of Dutch administration were known to him, and he had begun to openly protest about the abuses of the colonial system. Consequently he was threatened with dismissal from his office for his openness of speech. Dekker resigned his appointment and returned to the Netherlands in a state of fierce indignation.

Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company (Dutch: Max Havelaar, of de koffij-veilingen der Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij) 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 ) about 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 the 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]

In the last chapter the author announces that he will translate the book “into the few languages I know, and into the many languages I can learn.” In fact, 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, such as the author’s Indo (Eurasian) descendant Ernest Douwes Dekker, 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 the 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 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.

References

  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.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer [1] (February 6, 1925April 30, 2006) was an Indonesian author of novels, short stories, essays, polemics, and histories of his homeland and its people. A well-regarded writer in the West, Pramoedya’s outspoken and often politically charged writings faced censorship in his native land during the pre-reformation era. For opposing the policies of both founding president Sukarno, as well as those of its successor, the New Order regime of Suharto, he faced extrajudicial punishment. During the many years in which he suffered imprisonment and house arrest, he became a cause célèbre for advocates of freedom of expression and human rights.

“The Buru Quartet” is his anticolonial masterpiece

The Buru Quartet

  1. Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind) (1980)
  2. Anak Semua Bangsa (Child of All Nations) (1980)
  3. Jejak Langkah (Footsteps) (1985)
  4. Rumah Kaca (House of Glass) (1988)

The movie Max Havelaar opens with this quote from King William III of the Netherlands:

When We scrutinize, with gratitude,

The highly satisfactory condition of the country’s finances

And we recognize that Our present wealth derives

From the fruits yielded up by Our property in the East Indies

Then We do not hold lightly,

Our calling to further the well-being and development of these Our

colonial possessions

The sacrifice demanded of Us to succour these lands

And to maintain Our authority over them

We will not make grudgingly.

Max Havelaar is a 1976 Dutch film directed by Fons Rademakers, based on the 1860 novel Max Havelaar by Multatuli.

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