Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company
(1860), a historical novel by Eduard Douwes “Multatuli” Dekker, follows a Dutchman who fights against the corrupt Dutch government and its poor colonial policies. Historians and critics credit the book with radically overhauling how the Dutch government implemented colonial policy across the Dutch East Indies in the late 19th century. Dekker was a Dutch writer best known for his satirical writing style. His experience working in the Dutch East Indies informed his work.
When the book begins, narrator Batavus Droogstoppel is a coffee broker living in Amsterdam. He isn’t a novelist and he hasn’t written a book before, but he plans to write a book about the coffee auctions of the Dutch Trading Company, from which the book gets its name. He thinks that novel writing is a lucrative business and it will help him make some extra income.
One day, Droogstoppel runs into a boy called Scarfman. Scarfman is a devoted writer who dreams about seeing his work in print one day. Knowing that Droogstoppel has money and connections, he wonders if he could help him get published. Droogstoppel says he can’t help Scarfman with publication, but he will give the boy a job at his company.
In the meantime, another boy, Stern, settles into his new job at Droogstoppel’s company. Losing interest in writing his book, Droogstoppel asks Stern to do it. Stern agrees, but only if Droogstoppel lets him write whatever he wants. Droogstoppel isn’t happy with this condition, but since he will never finish the book otherwise, he goes along with it.
Despite Droogstoppel’s complaints, Stern doesn’t want to write a book about coffee trading auctions. He doesn’t think anyone wants to read such things. He decides to write a book about what is happening in the Dutch East Indies. In particular, he wants to tell the story of a well-known man called Max Havelaar.
Max, an idealistic young man who works for the Dutch civil service, is currently stationed in Java, where he works with the Dutch Colonial Administration. Although the Dutch officials want Max to control the natives and exploit them for their labor, Max plans to reform the system. He wants to help the natives prosper and live independent lives. When Droogstoppel finds out what Stern has chosen to write about, he is horrified, but the book is too far advanced to turn back now.
Max’s wife, Tina, is beautiful and kind. She encourages Max to help the locals and to speak on their behalf at council meetings. Mingling with the natives, she doesn’t have much in common with the other council wives. Max loves her dearly, and he does everything she tells him to do.
At this point, Droogstoppel intervenes in the narrative. He is unhappy with how much time and attention Stern devotes to Max’s reformative efforts. He doesn’t see how anyone in the Netherlands will buy a book that so obviously criticizes them. Moreover, he thinks the book is dull and unrealistic. Despite his protests, Stern refuses to change a word of the manuscript—in fact, he is now more determined than ever to show how corrupt the Dutch colonial policy truly is.
Max earns a good reputation with the locals. They come to him for money and help. He gives them what he can because he hates hearing about the injustices they endure under his own country’s regime. However, Max is too helpful. Giving money away too freely, he soon finds himself in debt.
Tina doesn’t complain about the debt they’re in. She knows that Max is doing what he can to soothe his conscience and to give the local people a better life. Nevertheless, even she accepts that there might come a point when he has to put his own family before the natives, or else they’ll end up with nothing.
Max travels around the area, meeting with more locals and offering aid. He petitions the councilmen at the local meetings to intervene to provide better working conditions and housing. They don’t listen to him. Instead, they offer him a new house in a safe, secure compound. They expect him to spend more time there, working on Dutch policy, than outside, talking to the locals.
From the comfort of his compound, Max remarks on how different life is in Europe compared with the East Indies. He notes that many of us have no idea how privileged we are. Again, his comments don’t go down well with Droogstoppel, who suspects that Stern has his own radical political agenda.
At the end of the book, we learn that Stern doesn’t exist. Stern is Scarfman, and he is writing under his own assumed identity. He wanted to tell Max’s story, through it exposing how damaging Western colonial policy is. Droogstoppel knows that he is powerless to stop the manuscript falling into the wrong hands; he is right in the sense that the book is the first step toward colonial reform, and in the process, many businessmen like Droogstoppel lose everything.