In Association with

Choose another writer in this calendar:

by name:

by birthday from the calendar.

Credits and feedback

for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Multatuli (1820-1887) Pseudonym of Eduard Douwes Dekker; Multatuli in Latin: "I have suffered much"


One of the Netherlands' greatest writers, who criticized the colonial administration of the former Dutch Indies. Multatuli's Max Havelaar (1860), a polemical story of a young civil servant in the corrupt colonial administration, was the most successful prose work of the 19th century in the Netherlands. However, its use of different viewpoints and innovative style was not first understood by his contemporaries and even D.H. Lawrence wrote in his introduction to the American edition (1927) that "As far as composition goes, it is the greatest mess possible." The book has been translated three times into English.

"The devil! Why must indignation and sorrow so often masquerade in the motley of satire? The devil! Why must a tear be accompanied by a grin, in order to be understood? Or is it the fault of lack of skill on my part, that I can find no words to probe the depth of the wound that eats into the body politic of our State like a cancer, without looking for my style in Figaro or Punch?" (from Max Havelaar, translated by Roy Edwards)

Eduard Douwes Dekker was born in Amsterdam of Frisian parents. His father, the sea captain Engel Douwes Dekker, was seldom at home. Sietske Eeltjes Klein, his mother, was a deeply religious woman. Early destined to a clerical career, Douwes Dekker studied at the Latin School in Amsterdam. However, he left his studies after three years and worked in an office and a textile business. At the age of eighteen he went with his brother Jan to Indonesia on his father's ship. Douwes Dekker lived nearly 20 years in the Dutch Indies, where he held a number of governmental posts at the East Indian Civil Service from 1838 to 1856.

Douwes Dekker's reputation as a gambler and a fighter ruined his plans to marry Caroline Versteegh, who was a Roman Catholic, and who wanted her husband to be one also. In 1842 Douwes Dekker was appointed District Officer at Natal, a small place on the west coast of Sumatra. His stay became a disaster, and he spent a year in poverty, suspended by the Governor, because his bookkeeping wasn't correct. However, after a year he was rehabilitated. In 1846 he married Everdine Huberta van Wijnbergen (the Tina of Max Havelaar); they had two children. Douwes Dekker rose steadily in rank although he did not hide his critical views on colonial rule. The Governor-General, Duymaer van Twist, with whom Douwes Dekker ofted dined, felt sympathy towards him because he had a heart for the natives.

Although the Council of the East Indies had not put forward Douwes Dekker's name as a candidate, the Governor-General nominated him in 1856 as Assistant Resident of Lebak in West-Java. After a few months Douwes Dekker made accusations of corruption against the higher authorities in Lebak, but they were disregarded. He believed that his predecessor had been poisoned by order of the Regent. When the Governor-General withdrew his support, Douwes Dekker resigned and tried in vain to find a new job. Upon returning to Europe, he wandered around, played his money at a casino, lived in poverty, and finally settled in Brussels. During this period Douwes Dekker started to write about his experiences in Java. His most important novel Max Havelaar, a bitter complaint against colonial policy, he finished in the space of a few weeks in the autumn of 1859.

"Yes, I want to be read! I want to be read by politicians who are obliged to keep an eye on the sing of times... by literati, who 'would just to like to have a look, all the same' at the book everyone is running down... by merchants who have an interest in the coffee auctions... by ladies' maids who will borrow me for a few pence... by ex-Governors-Generals in retirement... by Ministers in office... by the lackeys of those Excellencies... by praying preachers, who will say more mojorum that I am attacking Almighty God whereas I am only rising against the petty idol they have made in their own image... by thousand and tens of thousands of specimens of the tribe of Droogstoppel, who – continuing to grind their own little axes in the well known fashion – will be the loudest in joining in the chorus about the 'prettiness' of my writing..."

The manuscript was heavily edited by Jakob van Lennep, a lawyer, journalist, and novelist, who immediately understood its explosive nature and replaced recognizable names and dates with dots. Douver Dekker's predecessor Calorolus was renamed as Slotering, and the unpopular General Michiels was Vandamme. Van Lennep held the copyright to the Dutch text and it was not until after his death that Douwes Dekker was able to get rid of "the pestilential dots," as the author himself called them. Max Havelaar, a revealing story of the Dutch exploitation of the Javanese, caused a great sensation, although it did not immediately stop the oppression. In his preface to the first English translation (1868), Alphonse Nahuˇs compared Max Havelaar to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, "but I do not compare Multatuli, the champion and the martyr of humanity and justice, to Mrs. Stowe, for I am not aware that that lady, with all her merits, has sacrificed future fortune, and all that makes life agree≠able, for a principle – for right and equity – as has been done by Eduard Douwes Dekker." Due to the politically explosive nature of the book, Douwes Dekker was not re-appointed in Indonesia.

His last years Douwes Dekker spent engaged in political and economic polemics. "They [the public] want me to be a whore – I shall ne a whore, a whore that strokes and titillates. But I shall harangue my customers! That's a noveltty in whoredom!" (A Literary History of the Low Countries, edited by Theo Hermans, 2009, p. 435) During his lifetime Max Havelaar was translated  into German, French and English. After his wife died Douwes Dekker married Mimi Hamminck Schepel, a teacher, with whom he had lived in the Hague and Germany. In 1879 he was given a house in Nieder-Ingelheim near Wiesbaden and Mainz. Douwes Dekker died there on February 19, 1887. The Multatuli association (Multatuli Genootschap) was founded in 1910. A Multatuli Hotel, a Multatuli brand of coffee, and a Multatuli travel agency have also been established or launched. Among Douwes Dekker's other acclaimed works is the radical IdeŽn (7 vols.; Ideas), collected over period of fifteen years. "My Ideas are the Times of my soul." The work includes essays, short stories, aphorisms, a play, and a novel of the author's childhood, Woutertje Pieterse.

Max Havelaar is set in Java. Writer Schalman leaves to his friend Batavus Droogstoppel a manuscript, hoping that he would finance the printing of the work. However, Droogstoppel, who is a coffee merchant, gets another idea from the text, which deals with the cultivation of coffee, and starts to write his own book. The protagonist is the young Max Havelaar, a young idealist civil servant who is a new district chief in Java. Witnessing the oppression of the local people, he tries to improve their living conditions and wins their confidence. Havelaar complains about the activities of the Javanese chief to the President. No one will listen to him and he is removed from his office.

The events that lead to Havelaar's resignation are narrated from several viewpoints. The method has a strikingly modern feel. At the end, the implied author Multatuli breaks through the frame of narration, dismisses his narrators as his own despicable creatures, and explicitly addresses himself to the reader in order to plead his cause. "Halt, wretched spawn of sordid moneygrubbing and blasphemous cant! I created you . . . you grew into a monster under my pen . . . I loathe my own handiwork: choke in coffee and disappear!" (translated by Roy Edwards)

Despite the tragic theme of the book, particularly the chapters narrated by Droogstoppel (Dry stubble) have a satiric tone. The hero with strong moral principles, who tries to change the system, was Douwes Dekker's romanticized self-portrait. He had been dismissed and wrote the book in order to be heard, to rehabilitate himself. The political impact of the work was enormous, and it is still discussed today. "The publication of Max Havelaar in 1859 was nothing less than earthshaking," said the Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer in his induction to its 2019 edition. "Just as Uncle Tom's Cabin gave ammunition to the American abolitionist movement, Max Havelaar became the weapon for growing liberal movement in Netherlands, which fought to bring about reform in Indonesia." As a colonial administrator, Douwes Dekker was never rehabilitated, but enjoyed his celebrity as an author. Later an official inquiry found that his allegations had been true.

For further reading: Het leven en de werken van Eduard Douwes Dekker by J. de Gryter (1920); Douwes Dekker en Multatuli by M. ter Braak (1937); De man van Lebak by E. du Perron (1937); Eduard Douwes Dekker by J. Saks (1937); De beteekenis van Multatuli voor onzen tijd by H.A. Ett (1947); Multatuli by G. Brom (1958); Anekdoten over Multatuli by Annet Horsman (1960); De structuur van "Max Havelaar" by A.L. SŲteman (1966); Multatuli en David Koning by J. Kortenhorst (1968); Max Havelaar by M. Janssens (1970); Multatuli in Delft by H.A. Ett (1970); Multatuli en de kritiek by J.J. Oversteegen (1970); Multatuli, sarcast op een ongelegen mome by P. Spigt (1972); Multatuli als lotgenoot van Du Perron by J.H.W. Veenstra (1979); De multatulianen by Atte Jongstra (1985); Multatuli: ik kan met niemand meegan by PhilipVermoortel (1987); Multatuli, Max Havelaar by Jos Paardekooper (1987) Multatuli's Max Havelaar, Fact and Fiction by Peter King (1987); Multatuli: 1820-1887 by Jacky Goris (1988); And Bid Him Sing: Essays in Literature and Cultural Domination by Vernon February (1988); De veelzinnige muze van E. Douwes Dekker by E. Francken (1990); Multatuli's legioen van Insulinde by Tristan Haan (1994); Multatuli, van blanke radja tot bedelman by Hans van Straten (1995); De schrijver Multatuli by Philip Vermoortel (1995); 'The Book That Killed Colonialism' by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, The New York Times, April 18, 1999; Star Authors in the Age of Romanticism: Literary Celebrity in the Netherlands by Rick Honings; translation, Annemarié van Niekerk (2018); Dutch and Flemish Literature as World Literature, edited by Theo D'haen (2019) - "... I fear, that God perhaps really begins when we say the word with which Multatuli finishes his Prayer of an Unbeliever: 'Oh God, there is no God.' That God of the clergymen, he is for me as dead as a doornail. But am I an atheist for all that?" (Vincent van Gogh in his letter to Theo in December 1881). Other 19th century writers criticizing colonialism: Cuban Josť MartŪ and Herman Melville, whose novel Omoo (1847) bitterly reveals colonial and especially missionary debasement of the native Polynesian peoples. See also the American novelist James A. Michener

Selected works:

  • Losse bladen uit het dagboek van een oude man, 1841-45
  • Geloofsbelijdenis, 1859
  • Max Havelaar, of de Koffiveilingen der Nederlandsche Handelmaatschappy, 1860
    - Max Havelaar; or, the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company (translated from the original manuscript by Baron Alphonse Nahuˇs, 1868) / Max Havelaar; or, The Coffee Sales of the Netherlands Trading Company (translated by Willem Siebenhaar, with an introduction by D.H. Lawrence, 1927) / Max Havelaar; or, The Coffee Auctions of the a Dutch Trading Company (translated by Roy Edwards, 1967)
    - Max Havelaar (suom. Helmi Krohn, 1946)
    - film adaptation in 1977 by Fons Rademakers, screenplay Gerard Soeteman, prod. Jakarta Film, starring Peter Faber, Sacha Bulthuis, Adendu Soesilaningrat, Maruli Sitompul
  • Minnebrieven, 1861 [Love letters]
  • Japansche gesprekken, 1862
  • IdeŽn, 1862-77 (7 vols.)
  • De bruid daarboven, 1864
  • Nog-eens: Vrye-Arbeid in Nederlandsch-IndiŽ, 1870
    - Once More Free Labour (translated by Nicolaas Steelinck, 1948)
  • Duizend - en eenige hoofdstukken over specialiteiten, 1871
  • Verspeide stukken, 1872
  • Vorstenschool, 1875
    - TV play 1976. dir. Hermann Fortuin, prod. Verenigde Arbeiders Radio Amateurs (VARA)
  • Verzamelde werken, 1888-89 (10 vols., edited by M.F.C. Douwes Dekker)
  • De geschiedenis van Woutertje Pieterse, 1890
    - Walter Pieterse: A Story of Holland (translated by Hubert Evans, 1904)
  • Brieven, 1890-96 (10 vols., ed. M.D.B. Hamminck-Schepel)
  • Multatuliana, 1903 (ed. A.S. Kok)
  • Het gulden boekje der vrijheid, 1907 (ed. F. Domela Nieuwenhuis)
  • Multatuli en z?n zoon: brieven van Multatuli aan J. van der Hoeven, 1937 (ed. Menno ter Braak)
  • Keur uit de brieven van Multatuli, 1944 (ed. Julius Pťe)
  • Brieven aan J. Waltman Jr. [van] Multatuli, 1947 (ed. Henri A. Ett)
  • Indonesia: Once More Free Labor, by Multatuli, 1948 (tr. from the original Dutch by Nicolaas Steelink)
  • Volledige werken, 1950-1995 (25 vols., ed. G. Stuiveling et al.)
  • The Stonecutter’s Dream, 1961 (translated by Gustav Rueter)
  • Ik wil gelezen worden. Werk van Multatuli, 1969 (ed. M.C.A. van der Heijden)
  • The Oyster and the Eagle: Selected Aphorisms and Parables of Multatuli, 1974 (ed. E.M. Beekman)
  • Multatuli liefdesbrieven: bezorgd en van aantekeningenen een nawoord voorzien, 1980
  • Brieven van Multatuli, 1990 (ed. by H. Brandt Corstius)
  • Max Havelaar, of, De koffiveilingen der Nederlandsche Handelmaatschappy: historisch-kritische uitgave, 1992 (2 vols., ed.  A. Kets-Vree)
  • Men moet van myn gestreken lans, een vlaggestok maken: brieven van Multatuli en Tine Douwes Dekker aan de redersfamilie Smit, 2001 (ed. Chantal Keijsper et al.)  
  • O God, er is geen God!: Multatuli over geloof en godsdienst, 2008 (ed. August Hans den Boef and Kees Snoek)
  • Multatuli, een zelfportret: het leven van Eduard Douwes Dekker, door Multatuli verteld, 2010  (ed. Dik van der Meulen, Cees Fasseur and Hans van den Bergh)
  • Max Havelaar, or, The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company, 2019 (introduction by Pramoedya Ananta Toer; translated by Ina Rilke and David McKay)
  • Liefdesbrieven, 2020 (bezorgd en van aantekeningen en een nawoord voorzien door Paul van 't Veer; met een voorwoord van Elsbeth Etty; naar moderne spelling gezet door Henk Gielkens)

In Association with

Some rights reserved Petri Liukkonen (author) & Ari Pesonen. 2008-2023.

Creative Commons License
Authors' Calendar jonka tekijš on Petri Liukkonen on lisensoitu Creative Commons Nimeš-Epškaupallinen-Ei muutettuja teoksia 1.0 Suomi (Finland) lisenssillš.
May be used for non-commercial purposes. The author must be mentioned. The text may not be altered in any way (e.g. by translation). Click on the logo above for information.