1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Dekker, Edward Douwes

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DEKKER, EDWARD DOUWES (1820–1887), Dutch writer, commonly known as Multatuli, was born at Amsterdam on the 2nd of March 1820. His father, a ship’s captain, intended his son for trade, but this humdrum prospect disgusted him, and in 1838 he went out to Java, and obtained a post in the Inland Revenue. He rose from one position to another, until, in 1851, he found himself assistant-resident at Amboyna, in the Moluccas. In 1857 he was transferred to Lebak, in the Bantam residency of Java. By this time, however, all the secrets of Dutch administration were known to him, and he had begun to protest against the abuses of the colonial system. In consequence he was threatened with dismissal from his office for his openness of speech, and, throwing up his appointment, he returned to Holland in a state of fierce indignation. He determined to expose in detail the scandals he had witnessed, and he began to do so in newspaper articles and pamphlets. Little notice, however, was taken of his protestations until, in 1860, he published, under the pseudonym of “Multatuli,” his romance entitled Max Havelaar. An attempt was made to ignore this brilliant and irregular book, but in vain; it was read all over Europe. The exposure of the abuse of free labour in the Dutch Indies was complete, although there were not wanting apologists who accused Dekker’s terrible picture of being over-coloured. He was now fairly launched on literature, and he lost no time in publishing Love Letters (1861), which, in spite of their mild title, proved to be mordant satires of the most rancorous and unsparing kind. The literary merit of Multatuli’s work was much contested; he received an unexpected and most valuable ally in Vosmaer. He continued to write much, and to faggot his miscellanies in uniform volumes called Ideas, of which seven appeared between 1862 and 1877. Douwes quitted Holland, shaking off her dust from his feet, and went to live at Wiesbaden. He now made several attempts to gain the stage, and one of his pieces, The School for Princes, 1875 (published in the fourth volume of Ideas), pleased himself so highly that he is said to have styled it the greatest drama ever written. It is a fine poem, written in blank verse, like an English tragedy, and not in Dutch Alexandrines; but it is undramatic, and has not held the boards. Douwes Dekker moved his residence to Nieder Ingelheim, on the Rhine, and there he died on the 19th of February 1887.

Towards the end of his career he was the centre of a crowd of disciples and imitators, who did his reputation no service; he is now, again, in danger of being read too little. To understand his fame, it is necessary to remember the sensational way in which he broke into the dulness of Dutch literature fifty years ago, like a flame out of the Far East. He was ardent, provocative, perhaps a little hysterical, but he made himself heard all over Europe. He brought an exceedingly severe indictment against the egotism and brutality of the administrators of Dutch India, and he framed it in a literary form which was brilliantly original. Not satisfied with this, he attacked, in a fury that was sometimes blind, everything that seemed to him falsely conventional in Dutch religion, government, society and morals. He respected nothing, he left no institution untouched. Now that it is possible to look back upon Multatuli without passion, we see in him, not what Dutch enthusiasm saw,—“the second writer of Europe in the nineteenth century” (Victor Hugo being presumably the first),—but a great man who was a powerful and glowing author, yet hardly an artist, a reckless enthusiast, who was inspired by indignation and a burning sense of justice, who cared little for his means if only he could produce his effect. He is seen to his best and worst in Max Havelaar; his Ideas, hard, fantastic and sardonic, seldom offer any solid satisfaction to the foreign reader. But Multatuli deserves remembrance, if only on account of the unequalled effect his writing had in rousing Holland from the intellectual and moral lethargy in which she lay half a century ago.  (E. G.)