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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Eduard Douwes Dekker (Multatuli) (1820–1887)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
TEN years after ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ there appeared in Amsterdam a book that caused as great a sensation among the Dutch coffee-traders on the Amstel, as had Harriet Beecher Stowe’s wonderful story among the slaveholders at the South. This book was ‘Max Havelaar,’ and its author, veiled under the suggestive pen-name of “Multatuli” (“who have suffered much”), at once became famous. It frankly admitted that it was a novel with a purpose, and this purpose was to bring home to his countrymen the untold sufferings and oppression to which the natives of the Dutch East Indies were subjected, in order that the largest possible profit might flow into the coffers of the people of Holland. Multatuli, under the disguise of fiction, professed to give facts he had himself collected on the spot.  1
  Eduard Douwes Dekker, born in 1820 in Amsterdam, went as a youth of seventeen to the Dutch colonies. There for nearly twenty years he was in the employ of the government, obtaining at last the post of Assistant Resident of Lebak, a province of Java. In this responsible position he used his influence to stem the abuses and extortions practiced by the native chiefs against the defenseless populace. But his humanitarianism clashed with the interests of his government, and sacrificing a brilliant career to a principle, he sent in his resignation and returned to Holland in 1856 a poor man. He began to put his experiences on paper, and in 1860 published the book that made him famous. ‘Max Havelaar’ is a bitter arraignment of the Dutch colonial system, and gives a more excruciating picture of the slavery of the natives of fair “Insulind” than ever existed in the South. For nearly three hundred years Dutch burghers on the Scheldt, the Maas, and the Amstel, have waxed fat on the labors of the Malays of the far East. In these islands of the East-Indian Archipelago the relations between the Europeans and the Dutch are peculiar, based on the policy of the government of getting the largest possible revenues out of these fertile possessions. Practically the native is a Dutch subject, and the product of his labor goes directly to Holland; nominally he is still ruled by his tribal chief, to whom he is blindly and superstitiously devoted. Playing on this feudal attachment, the Dutch, while theoretically pledging themselves to protect the defenseless populace against rapacity, have yet so arranged the administration that the chiefs have unlimited opportunities of extortion. They are paid premiums on whatever their provinces furnish for the foreign market, and as they have practically full control over the persons and property of their subjects, they force these poor wretches to contribute whatever they may demand in unpaid labor and provisions, besides the land taxes.  2
  And there is yet another hardship. Rice is the staple product of Java, but as that does not pay so well as coffee, sugar, indigo, or spices, the Javanese is driven away from the rice fields he loves, and famine is often the result.
          “Famine? in Java, the rich and fertile, famine? Yes, reader, a few years ago whole districts were depopulated by famine; mothers offered to sell their children for food; mothers ate their own children. But then the mother country interfered. In the halls of the Dutch Parliament complaints were made, and the then reigning governor had to give orders that THE EXTENSION OF THE SO-CALLED EUROPEAN MARKET SHOULD NO LONGER BE PUSHED TO THE EXTREMITY OF FAMINE.”
  3
  The book is an eloquent plea for more humane treatment of these wretches. In glowing colors Dekker paints the condition of Java, its scenery, its inhabitants, the extortions of the native regents, and the rapacity of the European traders. The truth of these accusations has never been disputed; indeed, it has been said that he kept on this side of exaggeration. At the International Congress for the Promotion of Social Science, at Amsterdam in 1863, he challenged his critics to prove him false, but no one came forward. One high government official indeed said that he could refute ‘Max Havelaar,’ but that it was not in his interest to do so.  4
  Despite the sensation the book made, affairs in the East remained pretty much the same as before. Dekker tried in vain to get some influence in Holland, but he had killed himself politically by avowing that ‘Max Havelaar’ was not written in the interests of either party, but was the utterance of a champion of humanity. Thoroughly disappointed in his countrymen, he exiled himself and went to live in Germany in 1866. But he did not therefore lay down a pen that had become in his hands a powerful weapon. He published a number of books on political, social, and philosophic subjects, in the form of stories, dramas, aphorisms, or polemics. Noteworthy among these are his fine parables, the novel ‘La Sainte Vierge’ (The Holy Virgin); the drama in blank, ‘Vorstenschool’ (School for Princes), containing many fine thoughts, and still one of the most popular plays of the day; and the incomplete ‘Geschiedem’s van Wontertje Pieterse’ (Story of Wontertje Pieterse), published in 1888 by his widow, who also brought out his letters, and in 1892 a complete edition of his works.  5
  The writings of Dekker are marked by a fiery yet careful style, Oriental richness of imagery, and originality and independence of thought. He wrote as social reformer, and attacked with unrivaled power of sarcasm all manner of cant, sham, and red-tape. His works betray the disappointment of a defeated idealist. He was a man of marked individuality, and strongly attracted or repelled others. For the last few years of his life he ceased to write, and lived in retirement in Nieder-Ingelheim on the Rhine, where he died February 19th, 1887.  6
 
 
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