M2: Unit 2: Chapter 2 – The Passage in Context

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Chapter 1: Introduction Chapter 5: Siebenhaar 1927 Chapter 9: Siebenhaar 1927: Preface
Chapter 2: The Passage in Context Chapter 6: Edwards 1967 Chapter 10: Edwards 1967: Preface
Chapter 3: Three Translations Chapter 7: Three Prefaces Chapter 11: Conclusion
Chapter 4: Nahuijs 1868 Chapter 8: Nahuijs 1868: Preface

Chapter 2 – The Passage in Context

The original Dutch novel, first published in 1860, is called Max Havelaar, after the name of its protagonist. The full title, according to the most recent English translation, is Max Havelaar, or The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company. Its author is Eduard Douwes Dekker (1820-1887), who wrote under the pseudonym Multatuli (which is Latin for ‘I have endured much’, multa tuli).

Max Havelaar is a colonial novel, and an extraordinary book. Douwes Dekker was in the Netherlands Indies (then a Dutch colony, now Indonesia) from 1838 till 1857. He worked there as a colonial administrator but resigned his post in disgust following a conflict with his superiors. Deeply offended, he returned to Holland. He wrote Max Havelaar in the space of about six weeks in 1859, mainly in a furious attempt to rehabilitate himself.

The novel is complex. It is set partly in Amsterdam and partly on the island of Java in the then Netherlands Indies. We start in Amsterdam, with scenes written in the first person by a character called Batavus Drystubble. He is a Dutch coffee broker who comes across, through what he says and thinks, as the epitome of the stingy, opinionated and hypocritical Dutch bourgeois. One day Drystubble meets a former schoolfriend who appears to have fallen on hard times. Drystubble refers to him as ‘Shawlman’ because the man is wearing a shawl (or a scarf). Shawlman deposits papers about the Netherlands Indies coffee trade with Drystubble, who reckons there may be commercial opportunities here. He sets his son Frits and a young trainee called Stern to work on the papers.

But Frits and Stern get carried away by the task entrusted to them. Instead of extracting data on the coffee trade from the papers, they use them to compose a story about a character called Max Havelaar who is an idealistic colonial administrator in the Indies and runs into trouble with his superiors when they condone blatant corruption and the exploitation of the native poor by the native elite. Drystubble does not like the story of Max Havelaar as is it being written down by Frits and young Stern, but they persist.

The Max Havelaar story ends when Havelaar, frustrated in his efforts to protect the natives, resigns his post in disgust. At that point, very close to the end of the book, the author Multatuli suddenly steps into the narrative, dismisses the horrible Drystubble, thanks Frits and Stern for their good work, and directly addresses the Dutch king with the question: how can you allow the exploitation of millions of your colonial subjects to continue?

By the time we reach the end of the novel it has becomes clear that Max Havelaar is an alter ego of Douwes Dekker alias the writer Multatuli. The ‘Shawlman’ who deposited the papers about the coffee trade (and about Max Havelaar) with Drystubble in Amsterdam, is the now impoverished Max Havelaar after his return to Holland.

The passage we are concerned with occurs near the beginning of the novel, in Amsterdam, shortly after Drystubble has first met Shawlman and obtained the latter’s papers. In the scene, Drystubble has come to Shawlman’s flat. Shawlman himself is not there, but his wife and two children are. Drystubble chats with the wife and children for a short while, and then leaves. The names of Drystubble and Shawlman, and also those of Frits and Stern, appear in the passage.

A mentioned in the previous chapter, we will not be using the original Dutch text. If you would like to glance at it anyway, click here. If you are really keen and read Dutch: the complete Dutch text of Max Havelaar can be accessed here – our passage occurs towards the end of Chapter 4.

> Translations