At the Multatuli Museum

Multatuli (see pp.163–165 of Geary’s Guide) was the pseudonym of Eduard Douwes Dekker, the son of a Dutch sea captain. Dekker seemed destined for a career as an obscure colonial bureaucrat until he uncovered corruption in Dutch–administered Java and decided to expose it. When Dekker brought the exploitation of local labor to the attention of his superiors, they fired him. He returned to Europe and roamed around the Continent for a while, trying to earn enough money gambling to survive. He believed he had invented a foolproof system for winning at casinos, but he always lost. In 1860, he published Max Havelaar, a fictionalized account of the colonial abuses he had witnessed in the Dutch East Indies.

The book caused a sensation throughout Europe, though it initially did nothing to stop the exploitation of the Javanese. After the success ofMax Havelaar, Dekker made a career out of polemical writing, becoming an early supporter of women’s rights, an impassioned lobbyist for educational reform and a fierce critic of religion. He was the first Dutchman to be cremated, in Germany, because at the time of Multatuli’s death it was illegal to be cremated in the Netherlands. His pseudonym is Latin and means, “I have suffered much.” I recently visited the home in which he was born, a tiny house in a narrow lane between the Singel and the Herengracht in central Amsterdam, now a museum. The museum houses an extensive collection of Multatuli books in many different languages, as well as a few scattered personal effects: his desk, an urn for ashes (though his aren’t in it), and the tattered, tasselled red divan on which he died. Some of his aphorisms:

Faith is the voluntary incarceration of the mind.

No one has a high enough estimation of what he could be, nor a low enough one of what he is.

A standpoint reached as the result of an ascent has a different meaning from the same standpoint reached as the result of a fall.

One does not advance the swimming abilities of ducks by throwing the eggs in the water.

He who has never fallen has no true appreciation of what’s needed to stand firm.