For many years my favourite book has been an unconventional milestone in the nineteenth century protest against colonial exploitation. Max Havelaar, by Multatuli (Eduard Douwes Dekker), was published in 1860 in the Netherlands. The book was a major outcry against colonial policy in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). It sent a shockwave through the country. Lifting the lid on the maltreatment of the Javanese, it also attacked those responsible for the colonialists’ hypocritical refusal to admit what was really happening.
The author was Eduard Douwes Dekker, who had been part of the colonial government as Assistant Resident of Lebak (West Java). He made his career in the colonial system and considered it his duty to defend the poor against the local rulers and to re-establish decency and honesty. In the end, he utterly failed. Both Max Havelaar (the main character in the book) and Douwes Dekker lost their battles, left their comfortable positions, and went home.
The story of Max Havelaar is told in a medley of literary styles, varying between realism, irony, poetry and romanticism. As the author emphasizes at the end of his book:
“I make no apology for the form of my book. That form seemed suitable to me for the attainment of my object”.
He wanted the book to be read and for everyone who was minded to hear about it to tell them that the Javanese are maltreated. At the same time he wanted recognition for the injustice done to himself. That recognition would never come.
Dutch schoolchildren get acquainted with this book at an early age, since Max Havelaar has become part of the literary canon. My impression is that they encounter the book when they’re still very young, and so they’re not able to value the irony with which the complacency of the narrow-minded world of coffee-sellers in Amsterdam is depicted. In the first few chapters, Multatuli scoffs at those who became rich by abusing the Javanese. Only later we move to Java and are introduced to the inward looking culture of the Dutch rulers. The books ends with a masterpiece – the love story of Saïjah and Adinda, a romance between a boy and a girl that ends as a disaster. The perpetrators are the Dutch at a horrible moment of colonial war. In the middle of all the violence love does exist, and love stands for honesty and purity. But, as Multatuli writes:
It is a fact that very few Europeans think it worth their trouble to stoop and observe the emotions of those coffee- and sugar-producing machines we call ‘natives’.
I was born on the isle of Java, an island I left as a baby. My parents were servants of a large colonial empire and they continued their later life as white people in Suriname in the West Indies. In Suriname racial prejudice did exist, but the power-relations there operated on different lines. People accepted color-difference, and so did I. But I never felt superior. With this background and for many other reasons I’ve grown up as a person who has been fighting racial and cultural discrimination all her life. Later, as a historian, I found myself in disagreement with a historical culture which was silent about crimes committed during colonialism. I have always been on the side of those who have no voice in history.
For this blog I bought the English edition of Multatuli and I was amazed to read an extremely dull book full of errors in translation. The intriguing irony hidden in the descriptions had disappeared and the stylistic refinement of the original Dutch version was completely lost. Instead of smiling about the image of the blind world of coffee sellers, I became disconnected. Such transformations often happen when books have been translated by a person who does not disassociate from the written text. Probably for this reason Max Havelaar, a most unconventional book and a milestone in anticolonial policies, has never been noticed by an international audience. It needs a good translation.
Selma Leydesdorff is professor of oral history and culture at the University of Amsterdam. Her most recent book is Surviving the Bosnian Genocide: The Women of Srebrenica Speak (Indiana University Press, 2015).