|photo courtesy of Robertson/Kerr Photography|
Dekker was born in Amsterdam. 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. Thereupon quitting his appointment, Dekker 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 novel Max Havelaar. An attempt was made to ignore this irregular (for the 1860s) book, but in vain; it was read all over Europe. The exposure of the abuse of free labor in the Dutch Indies was thorough, although colonialist apologists accused Dekker's terrible picture of being overdrawn. Multatuli now began his literary career, and published Love Letters (1861), which, in spite of their mild title, were mordant, unsparing satires.
Although the literary merit of Multatuli's work was widely criticized, he received an unexpected and most valuable ally in Carel Vosmaer. He continued to write much, and to publish his miscellanies in uniform volumes called Ideas, of which seven appeared between 1862 and 1877 and also contain his novel Woutertje Pieterse.
Douwes left Holland, and went to live at Wiesbaden, where he made several attempts to write for the stage. One of his pieces, The School for Princes (published in 1875 in the fourth volume of Ideas), expresses his non-conformist views on politics, society and religion. It pleased him so much that he is said to have called it the greatest drama ever written. It is a fine poem, written in blank verse and stylistically resembling an English tragedy; but it lacks drama and so has not been widely performed. Douwes Dekker moved his residence to Nieder Ingelheim, on the Rhine, where he died in 1877.
Toward the end of his career he was the centre of a crowd of disciples and imitators, whose attentions have dimmed his own reputation. To understand his fame, it is necessary to remember the sensational way in which he broke into the dullness of Dutch literature of his time. He has been compared to a flame out of the Far East. He was ardent, provocative, and edgy, but he made himself heard all over Europe. He brought an exceedingly severe indictment against the egotism and brutality of the administrators of Indonesia, 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 greatest 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 Dutch literature from the intellectual and moral lethargy of the time.