Extract from ‘Max Havelaar’

Saïdjah’s father had a buffalo with which he worked his field. When this buffalo was taken from him by the District Chief of Parang-Kujang he was very sad, and said not a word for many days. For ploughing-time was drawing near and it was to be feared that, if the sawah was not prepared soon enough, sowing-time would also pass by, and in the end there would be no paddy to cut and to store in the barn.

For the benefit of readers who know Java but do not know Bantam, I must point out here that in this Residency there is such a thing as personal ownership of land, which is not the case elsewhere.

Well then, Saïdjah’s father was greatly distressed. He feared that his wife would lack rice, and also Saïdjah, who was still a child, and the little brothers and sisters of Saïdjah. Moreover, the District Chief would report him to the Assistant Resident if he was behindhand in paying his land tax. For that is punishable by law.

Then Saïdjah’s father took a kris which was pusaka1 left him by his father. The kris was not a very beautiful one, but there were silver bands round the sheath, and a small silver plate at the tip of the sheath. He sold this kris to a Chinaman who lived in the Divisional capital, and came home with twentyfour guilders, which is about two pounds in English money, for which sum he bought another buffalo.

Saïdjah, who was then about seven years old, soon struck up a friendship with the new buffalo. Not inadvisedly do I use the word ‘friendship’; for it is indeed touching to see how attached the Javanese buffalo becomes to the little boy who minds and takes care of him. Presently I shall give an example of this attachment. The great strong animal meekly bends his heavy head to right or left or downward, in response to the pressure of the finger of the child whom he knows, whom he understands, with whom he has grown up.

And such friendship, then, did little Saïdjah rapidly inspire in the newcomer, and Saïdjah’s encouraging child’s voice seemed to give even greater power to the powerful shoulders of the animal as it tore open the heavy clay soil and marked its passage in deep, sharp furrows. The buffalo turned docilely round when it reached the end, and lost not an inch of ground in ploughing the new furrow, which always lay right next to the old one as though the rice field were a garden plot which had been raked by a giant.

Beside this sawah lay those of Adinda’s father, the father of the child who was to marry Saïdjah. And when Adinda’s little brothers reached the border between the fields, at the same moment that Saïdjah was there too with his plough, they called out to each other merrily, and in friendly rivalry bragged of the strength and obedience of their respective buffaloes. But I believe Saïdjah’s was the best, perhaps because he knew how to speak to it better than the others did. For buffaloes are very susceptible to kind words.

Saïdjah was nine years old, and Adinda already six, when that buffalo was taken from Saïdjah’s father by the District Chief of Parang-Kujang.

This time Sakijah’s father, who was very poor, sold to a Chinaman two silver klambu-hooks – pusaka from the parents of his wife – for eighteen guilders. And with that money he bought a new buffalo.

But Sakljah was sick at heart. For he knew from Adinda’s brothers that the last buffalo had been driven off to the Divisional centre, and he had asked his father whether he had not seen the animal when he was there selling the klambu-hooks? To which question Sakljah’s father had not chosen to reply. And therefore Sakljah feared that his buffalo had been slaughtered, like the other buffaloes which the District Chief took from the people.

And Saïdjah wept much when he thought of the poor buffalo with which he had lived so intimately for two years. And he could not eat for a long time, because his throat was too tight when he tried to swallow.

You must remember that Sakljah was only a child.

The new buffalo got to know Sakljah and very soon took the place of the old one in the child’s affections … too soon, really. For, alas, the impressions made on the wax of our hearts are so easily smoothed out to make room for other writing! Anyway, even though the new buffalo was not so strong as the old one … even though the old yoke was too wide for its shoulders … yet the poor animal was as tractable as its predecessor which had been slaughtered; and though Sakljah could no longer boast of the strength of his buffalo when he met Adinda’s brothers at the edge of the fields, he still maintained that no other buffalo surpassed his in willingness. And when the furrows did not run as straight as before, or when the animal walked round clods of earth, leaving them unbroken, Sakljah gladly remedied all that with his pachol, to the best of his ability. Besides, no buffalo had such an user-useran as Sakljah’s buffalo! No less an authority than the penghulu2 had said that there was ontong3 in the pattern of those whorls of hair on its withers.

One day when they were out in the field, Sakljah shouted in vain to his buffalo to get a move on. The beast had stopped dead. Sakljah, annoyed at such great and, what was more, such unusual insubordination, could not refrain from insulting it. ‘A-s-!’ he exclaimed. Anyone who has been in the Indies will know what I mean, and those who do not know what I mean can only benefit by my sparing them the explanation of a coarse expression.

Sakljah meant no harm by it. He only said it because he had so often heard it said by others when they were dissatisfied with their buffaloes. But he need not have said it, for it was of no avail: his buffalo did not budge. The animal shook its head, as though to throw off the yoke … you could see the breath steaming from its nostrils … it snorted, trembled, shook … there was fear in its blue eye, and its upper lip was drawn back baring the gums …

From Max Havelaar or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company, Copyright © 1987 by Penguin Books (Harmondsworth)
By Multatuli
Translated by Roy Edwards

First published in The Low Countries, 1996


1. Heirloom, here — as often — with all that that implies in the way of veneration
2. Village priest
3. Happiness, good fortune