A Champion with a Cause?

Conflicting Views on Multatuli

Multatuli’s position as the most important, most up-to-date and most widely read author to come out of the Low Countries in the nineteenth century is beyond dispute. But in all other respects, Eduard Douwes Dekker (1820-1887), who at thirty-nine embarked on a writer’s career under the pseudonym Multatuli (= ‘I have suffered a great deal’), has always been the subject of fierce debates between his admirers and his critics.

I want to look at three of the most remarkable conflicts surrounding him and if possible give an explanation for them. They are: how can we account for the fact that, in Indonesia, homage is paid to his memory in all sorts of ways and yet the film of his masterpiece Max Havelaar (1860) was banned by the Indonesian censor from public showing? Is it not strange that as recently as 1995, at a conference on Multatuli organised at Leiden University, one of the central questions was: can the civil servant Douwes Dekker’s stand in his clash with the government (the ‘Lebak question’ of 1856) be considered anti-colonial, or is he by no means a ‘hero of the Resistance’ but rather an emphatic advocate of Dutch control of ‘its’ East Indies? Thirdly, was Douwes Dekker really a good government official, or did he in his administration show a total lack of appreciation of the actual situation, as for instance the Dutch critic Rob Nieuwenhuys claims? There is, then, no lack of conflicting views about the man himself and his work.

In 1987 a congress was held in the University of Indonesia at Jakarta-Depok to mark the centenary of Multatuli’s death. As president of the Multatuli Association and editor of his Complete Works (Volledige Werken; completed with volumes 24 and 25 in March 1995) I was invited to attend, and on that occasion met a number of Indonesian intellectuals and heard their opinions on Multatuli’s stance in the Lebak question.

What, briefly, was the background to this affair?

Eduard Douwes Dekker was born in Amsterdam in 1820, in a small seventeenth-century house in Korsjespoortsteeg (that since 1975 has contained the Multatuli Museum). His father was a captain in the mercantile marine. In 1839 he took his third son, Eduard, with him to Batavia (now Jakarta) to give him the chance, after an abortive period in a business office, to try his luck as a government official in the colonies.

Eduard certainly made spectacular progress there. His superiors generally spoke highly of his intelligence and dedication in their reports, though nearly everyone was aware that he was eccentric and hotheaded. But they all realised that Douwes Dekker had a warm affection for the indigenous population.

So in 1856, Dekker, not yet thirty-six years old, was appointed by the governor-general, Duymaer van Twist, to be the deputy commissioner of Lebak, an impoverished region in West Java. This made him the highest Dutch authority in an area the size of Cornwall or Connecticut, and also one of the very few Europeans there. On his accession to office he had had to take an oath that he would protect the native population from arbitrary and unjust treatment. Moreover, he believed that he had been sent to this district just because abuse was rife in Lebak.

So he was as it were on the alert; and indeed noticed soon after his appointment that the peasants were being systematically robbed and exploited by their own chiefs, and in particular by the senior Javanese administrator of the district, the Regent of South Bantam.

One of the most striking features of Dutch rule in the East Indian archipelago was the retention, in name at least, of the traditional form of administration by native princes or noblemen alongside the Dutch authority. In this way the population was kept peaceful and the vast area could be governed by a relatively small number of white administrators, and hence at substantially reduced expense.

Dekker very soon discovered, from his perusal of his predecessor’s documents, that all kinds of abuse were indeed daily occurrences in Lebak. The poor peasants were forced to work without payment for the indigenous chiefs (the so-called ‘corvees 9’) and they regularly had to pay a sort of tax in kind (chickens, buffaloes). True to his oath of office, Douwes Dekker felt duty bound to put a stop to this, so he lodged a complaint against the elderly and affable, but nonetheless despotic regent, Raden Adhipatti Karta Natta Negara. By so doing, however, he created a threat to one of the most sacred cows of the administrative system: the preservation of peace and order, normally maintained by allowing the indigenous chiefs the maximum freedom of operation.

Dekker therefore received a haughty rap on the knuckles from his superiors, and specifically from the commissioner, Brest van Kempen (‘Slijmering’ in the novel); whereupon he there and then resigned from the colonial service, even though he knew that he was thereby cutting himself and his family off from any regular income, and deliberately putting an end to a glorious and very lucrative career.

Thus began a wearisome traipse through Europe, ending up in the renowned ‘cold attic room in Brussels’ where, in 1859, within a few weeks (though undoubtedly relying on notes taken earlier), he wrote his greatest work, the semi-autobiographical novel Max Havelaar or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company (Max Havelaar of de koffieveilingen der Nederlandse Handelmaatschappij), which brought him immediate fame, as much for the cause he was championing (the defence of the oppressed Javanese) as for the literary qualities that gained immediate recognition from the more cultured members of the public.

The book makes very easy reading and is structured with great wit and subtlety. The history of his own vain struggle in Lebak is relived in the novel by Dekker’s alter ego, Max Havelaar, who thus becomes the hero of the book. But an author runs a considerable risk in characterising his own principles and actions as morally commendable. In order to avoid the effect of self-aggrandisement, Multatuli introduces the masterly ruse of having a typically narrow-minded Dutch coffee broker, Batavus Droogstoppel, write his comments on Havelaar’s account. In his hypocritical Christianity he seems to be willing to recommend the book because, after all, the abuses described constitute a threat to coffee production in Java, leading perhaps to a revolt against ‘our’ rule, with obvious repercussions on the very considerable Dutch revenues.

By allowing the book to be presented by one of Havelaar’s potential opponents, a sanctimonious bigot with whom no reader would wish to be identified, Havelaar’s role stands out in even greater contrast, without the author having to extol his own points of view.

The literary artistry of the book was immediately recognised, but for Dekker the bitter disappointment was that this did not lead to his personal vindication; the Havelaar was being read as a novel and the author was not accorded the reinstatement he actually wished for. As a result he repeatedly inveighed against the public that pursued him with its adulation without taking up the cause espoused by the acclaimed Havelaar.

This misunderstanding of his intentions became a regular theme of Dekker’s throughout the rest of his life. It appears, for instance, in a collection of fictional correspondence between Max Havelaar, his wife Tine and his personified literary talent, his ‘muse’, Fancy. This was his second masterpiece, the so-called Love Letters (Minnebrieven, 1861), a compelling but chaotic book containing fairy tales, poems and parables spread among numerous documents in which the author tries to establish his claims in the Havelaar affair. Later again, when he published his thoughts and observations as separate issues of Ideas (Ideën, seven series, 1862-1877), he still kept harping on the same theme of being unappreciated and misunderstood, despite his success as a writer.

Later colonial officials, ‘Havelaar’s’ successors, roundly endorsed Multatuli’s case that the indigenous population was entitled to the protection of the home country. It is quite clear that the later, so-called ‘ethical’ policy in the colonies, that sought to protect the natives as well as the Dutch financial interests, must largely be attributed to Multatuli’s novel.

This further increased the author’s fame in the East Indies as the champion of the Indonesian cause, particularly among the rare indigenous intellectuals who in the twentieth century were able to further their education under the Dutch administration. Hence numerous Indonesian towns to this day contain a ‘Jalan Multatuli’, or Multatuli street.

Max Havelaar itself, however, which was written for Dutch readers and assumed an inside knowledge of European life with its tea-parties and Wawelaar sermons (Wawelaar is called Blatherer in the English translation) remained a closed book to the Indonesian people, with the exception of the novella of Saïdjah and Adinda contained within it, which appeared in 1921 in a Malay translation.

This romantic short story, written from a Javanese point of view and seasoned with numerous Malay expressions, tells of the blossoming love of two Javanese children who meet their deaths at the hands of the Dutch East Indian colonial army; it thus reinforced Multatuli’s calling as the champion of freedom for the indigenous population. So he was implicitly seen as the pioneer of decolonisation and as a kind of nineteenth-century Poncke Princen, the Dutch soldier who deserted and joined the Indonesians during the police action against the Republicans in the late 1940s.

Only when Fons Rademaker’s film of Max Havelaar was released in 1983, however, (half financed by a Javanese co-producer!) did the first Indonesians to see it realise what the gist of the story was: an elderly, venerable Javanese prince was apparently the real culprit, and Max Havelaar himself never openly attacked the Dutch colonial authorities as such. Here was cause enough for the censor to object to the film. It would, after all, only give rise to misunderstanding. Not until 1987, on the occasion of the Multatuli Congress, was the ban lifted, resulting in a furious debate in the Indonesian press about the actual part played by Multatuli and his attitudes towards colonial rule.

With hindsight the author was particularly blamed for protecting the Dutch protagonists in the dispute with pseudonyms (Verbrugge, Duclari and Slijmering representing Langeveldt van Hemert, Collard and Brest van Kempen) whereas the regent was exposed to contempt with his full name and title, Raden Adhipatti Karta Natta Negara. We must of course remember that it never occurred to Dekker that his book would ever be read in the present ‘Insulinde’, as he called his beloved archipelago. He obviously wrote his accusation primarily for the Dutch reader, from whom he expected personal redress as well as improvement in the lot of the Javanese.

However, in a forum discussion of Multatuli’s importance and relevance (during the same congress), criticism also focused on the fact that Multatuli, even after the publication of Max Havelaar, continued to insist on reinstatement, meaning: a return to his official position in the Netherlands Indies, of course in a higher rank. This exposed the author in Indonesian eyes as an opponent, as someone who wanted to reform the colonial system while not directly attacking it. This, then, brings us to my second question: was Multatuli essentially a supporter or an opponent of (Dutch) colonialism as such?

In March 1995 this question was answered in the negative by the Leiden historian W.H. Wesseling, but that was in a fast-moving television programme to mark the completion of the Complete Works, so that the professor could only deal briefly with the question: ‘No, the Havelaar is not an anti-colonial novel’. But that is clearly not the last word on the subject. At the congress in Leiden (on ‘The Genius of Multatuli’ on 23 and 24 May 1995) various shades of opinion were expressed.

The Havelaar as we now know it certainly implied that the colonial administration would not have been so bad if the government officials had strictly applied the regulations then in force. That does not indeed sound so revolutionary. But it is equally certain that Multatuli’s own view of his book changed with the years, as he realised that he would not achieve his principal aim, and that it would bring him only literary fame.

In a later, now notorious letter to the East Indian official Gustave Boulet written in 1876, 17 years after writing Max Havelaar, Dekker’s view of the situation in the colonies had evolved so far that he could write: ‘The watchword for everyone who takes the future of Country and People to heart, is “Holland out”, oh yes, but first: “unity under a universally recognised ruler”.’

The letter-writer is implying here that the lack of unity under a widely accepted leadership is for the present the greatest obstacle to immediate release from the colonial yoke. It is that discord among the disaffected, Dekker adds in his letter, that characterises the situation in the East Indies… ‘since the “Havelaar”’.

So in its author’s eyes, and in retrospect, the book certainly served as a clarion call and a first summons to overthrow the Dutch rule. But was it only retrospectively that the Havelaar had this significance for the older, disillusioned Dekker?

We must not forget that at the beginning of the novel there is a list of all the manuscripts on which Max Havelaar’s account is based (the so-called Sjaalman’s – in English: ‘Scarfman’s’ – parcel). Multatuli has his enemy Droogstoppel comment on one of these items: ‘Another infamous piece! This contained a poem that I would have found most dastardly if I had finished reading it.’ In 1875, for a new edition, the author added a note to this passage, in which he says that he has not got Sjaalman’s parcel to hand and cannot therefore reproduce the scandalous poem. But to give an impression of the reason for Droogstoppel’s indignation he reproduces S.E.W. Roorda van Eysinga’s notorious Malediction (Vloekzang) written under the pseudonym ‘Sentof’, with the title ‘The Last Days of the Dutch in Java’. This is a fairly pungent text, as if from the mouths of revolutionary Javanese, with lines such as: ‘Then we shall slay your children and drench ours in their blood’ and ending with the verse:

And when the sun in the East appears
Before Mohammed the Javanese kneel,
For the gentlest folk on earth he saved
From Christendom’s crushing heel.
Not exactly a nursery rhyme, then. But the later addition of such an inflammatory ‘song’ does not necessarily prove that any such defiant intent can be attributed to Multatuli himself. However, we must not overlook the peroration in which Multatuli himself takes up the pen, with the conclusion: ‘A pirate state lies on the sea, between the Scheldt and Eastern Friesland.’ And if the author’s complaints should not be heard, he announces that he will ‘hurl scimitar-sharpening war-songs into the hearts of the poor martyrs to whom I have promised help, I, Multatuli.’ And when those scimitars have been sharpened, it will of course be every bit as gruesome as in Sentot’s poem, and this is stated within the text of the 1859 Havelaar itself. For there Multatuli says that the revolution will come ‘by lawful means “if possible” … by legitimate use of force “if not”’. This, then, gives us a first glimpse of a clearly anti-colonial intent. In my opinion, however, the revolutionary character of the book is more clearly evident in the way in which literary craft is used to entice the Western readers into adopting a fresh attitude to the Javanese, despite the vested interest they had in the traditional view of the incompetent, primitive Oriental, rightly controlled by the Dutch.

This is achieved first and foremost through and in the story of Saïdjah and Adinda which, as we have seen, is included in the novel. It is therefore not surprising that it was this romance that established Multatuli’s name and fame in Indonesia. Multatuli had apparently been able to adopt the outlook of the natives, from which I am inclined to deduce that the author’s vision was less Eurocentric than (for instance) Rob Nieuwenhuys has for years insisted. According to him, Dekker’s stand in the Lebak question depends entirely on a faulty understanding of what the native people thought and felt. Let me put my objections to this opinion. Nieuwenhuys, born in Java in 1908, formed his views on the relations between the Netherlands and Indonesia in the colonial period of the thirties, at a time when the new concept of cultural relativism between cultures brought with it a new awakening, teaching that much of the Western arrogance was founded on nothing but prejudice and ignorance. That was true enough. But to apply that principle of equality between diverse cultures to the Lebak question of 1856 has led to grotesque misinterpretations.

In broad terms, Nieuwenhuys’ view comes down to this: that Multatuli from his Dutch perspective totally misunderstood the tyranical behaviour of the native princes. The raising of various payments in kind and the requirement of corvees were entirely acceptable in East Asian eyes. They were not seen as theft or extortion by the people, according to this view. It was simply a question of ‘adat’, and adat was accepted as an implicit system of unwritten regulations which the population only too readily agreed with, since the regional chief of Lebak (in this case) was treated with almost god-like veneration.

I have serious problems with this condemnation of Dekker’s position. In the first place Nieuwenhuys’ view is incompatible with everyday logic. What peasant population would gladly accept extortion? The objective facts of the appropriation of buffaloes, the corvees, the poverty, the fugitives and the attempted revolts, are contested by no-one. In the second place, it is by no means certain that the traditional conventions of the adat actually existed, or really endorsed extortion. Present-day commentators in Indonesia doubt it. But even if they did exist, why should we have to take a relativistic view of them? That would imply, for instance, that we should condemn the struggle of any colonial government against the burning of widows or head-hunting as being a Western and colonial campaign that shows a lack of understanding of indigenous culture. It is simply not true that every system of cultural mores is equivalent to every other system and that unquestioning tolerance should be applied in all cases. It is all too obvious what this view could lead to in extreme cases, e.g. in the Rushdie affair: extradition of the author to the Iranians.

In the middle of the last century, Multatuli had taken an oath of office that he would protect the native population from abuse, and we can scarcely expect of him that, prompted by questionable twentieth-century principles, he would not be serious about fighting injustice wherever he clearly and impartially discovered it.

Multatuli was in my opinion absolutely right. Moreover it is particularly absurd to accuse him, of all people, of seeing the whole situation in the colonies through Western eyes. If it can be said of anyone that he tried to immerse himself in the ideas and attitudes of the people, it can be said of him.

If we adopt this position and then carefully reconsider the novella of Saïdjah and Adinda, we find that the details of both content and style reveal Multatuli’s attempt to see the situation through the eyes of the native and to recount it as such. So nowhere in the tale is there any condemnation of the extortion of buffaloes or the punishment of objectors: the characters in the account accept their sufferings as a natural disaster or as a trick of fate. The author attempts to tell his story as an Oriental to his Asian audience, e.g. resulting in this kind of statement, made without any comment: ‘No less an authority than the penghulu had said that there was ontong in the pattern of those whorls of hair on its withers.

It is also very striking that Multatuli uses an oriental measure of time to indicate that the day is drawing on: ‘and next day he came to Tangerang, before the shadow had descended to his lips, although he wore the big tudung which his father had left behind for him.’ This shadow from a wide-rimmed hat is a typical indication of the author’s capacity for empathy and observation.

There are numerous instances of these subtle, atmospheric exoticisms, such as the savings that Saïdjah brings back after working for three years in Batavia: thirty Spanish matten (Mexican gold coins). Naturally the Dutch reader had no idea of the value of this sum, so that the three buffaloes that could be bought with it comes all the more surprisingly. Saïdjah’s observation of the white people in the capital comes from a native’s perspective – it is a nice touch for instance, that according to Javanese usage, and again with no further comment, he calls the governor-general the ‘grandfather of the Susuhunan of Solo’. This recalls the natives’ custom of expressing degrees of authority in terms of family relationships. It is, of course, also very telling that Multatuli has Saïdjah repeatedly expressing himself instinctively in poetry when his feelings overwhelm him. Some chance of finding that in a Droogstoppel or Slijmering!

Of course such a ‘spontaneous poetry’ arises from the romantic Westerner’s desire to attribute every conceivable natural gift to the ‘primitive’ savage. But it in no way points to the prejudice of an unshakeable occidental sense of superiority. On the contrary, there are two entirely typical passages in which an almost throw-away use of the word ‘consequently’ delivers a magnificent, sarcastic blow at the European’s inflated ego. There is the famous case of the native village ‘that had just been overrun by the Dutch army and consequently stood in flames.’ And when Saïdjah arrives in Batavia, he was immediately taken into a gentleman’s employment ‘because he did not understand Saïdjah’s language’. For a moment the reader is puzzled, but the next sentence gives the embarassing explanation: ‘For in Batavia people like to have servants who have not yet learnt Malay, and consequently are not yet so corrupted as others who have been longer in contact with European civilisation’. Without further comment, this ‘consequently’ equates European civilisation with corrupt morals. Rousseau summed up in one word!

It is this seemingly self-evident purity of Saïdjah’s morality that must have made a shattering impression on Western self-assurance. The subtlety of these underplayed literary devices quietly stripped the assets of the Dutch presence in the colonies.

By the effective use of such literary ruses, Multatuli, in my opinion, emerges as a true champion of an anti-colonial cause that places him several decades ahead of his times.

By Hans van den Bergh
Translated by Peter King

First published in The Low Countries, 1996