Dekker, Eduard Douwes (Multatuli)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Dekker, Eduard Douwes (Multatuli)

Dekker, Eduard Douwes (Multatuli) (1820-1887) Dutch satirist

Anticolonial iconoclast Eduard Douwes Dekker used literature to fight imperial abuses in Indonesia. A native of Amsterdam, Holland, he sailed on his father's trading vessel to the Dutch Indies at age 18 but chose not to become a sea captain. Over the next 18 years, he witnessed the dehumanizing aspects of colonialism on the island of Java, where he worked for the Dutch government's accounting office in Batavia (present-day Jakarta). He advanced to a civil clerkship in Ambon, the Moluccas, and resisted despotism over the Muslim Javanese until he was forced to resign a powerful position as assistant magistrate and provincial commissioner at Lebak. Under the pen name Multatuli, Latin for “I have borne much,” he denounced petty profiteering and press labor gangs through published tracts, journalism, and stage drama.

During the rise of Dutch colonial literature, Dekker impoverished himself to become a reformer and crusader for humanism. He is best known for the didactic classic Max Havelaar: or, The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company (1860). For its romantic subplot “Saidjah and Adinda,” the novel earned the sobriquet “the Dutch Uncle Tom's Cabin.” Describing the reactions of mercenary Dutch coffee merchants to the revelation of corruption contained in manuscripts written by the title character, Dekker appeals to the conscience of William III, the autocratic king of Holland. The message is painfully direct: “13,000,000 of your subjects are being maltreated and sucked dry in your name” (quoted in Leipoldt 1903, 442). As PROPHECY, Dekker's vision of revolt came true with the Aceh rebellion against Dutch sovereignty, a costly guerrilla conflict in North Sumatra that raged from 1873 to 1904. After some 100,000 deaths and 10 times that many wounded, the Aceh capitulated to the Dutch forces.

Dekker's writings made explicit charges against loss of civil rights for natives under their Dutch rulers, the sexual concubinage of Javanese women by Dutch men, and racism against the “liplap” (half-caste) offspring. The authorities offered him a new post in the East Indian Civil Service to dissuade him from writing antigovernment diatribes calling Holland a pirate state. He refused the bribe and lived as an expatriate in Antwerp and Brussels, Belgium, while exposing the venality and corruption in Dutch Pacific colonies. The saucily titled SATIRE Minnebrieven (Love letters, 1861) outlines his grievances against the Dutch military through a fictitious romantic correspondence with his wife Fancy. One of his parables, “Life in the Heights,” pictures a butterfly's choice of a milieu high in the hill country of the Dutch East Indies, far from the dismaying scandal, graft, and exploitation of the lowlands.

For his spirited devotion to social truth in the midst of protestant hypocrisy and inflexible social hierarchy, Dekker earned the titles of the Dutch Aesop and father of contemporary Dutch literature. He died in Nieder Ingelheim, Germany, on February 19, 1887.


Leipoldt, C. Louis. “Multatuli and the ’Max Havelaar.'” Westminster Review 160, no. 10 (October 1903): 438-447.

Multatuli. The Oyster and the Eagle: Selected Aphorisms

& Parables of Multatuli. Translated by E. M. Beekman. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1974.