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    24 February 2011

    The Book That Killed Colonialism

    Best Story; The Book That Killed Colonialism
    By Pramoedya Ananta Toer
    Published: April 18, 1999 [NYT magazine]

    About 50 years ago, at a diplomatic reception in London, one man stood out: he was short by European standards, and thin, and he wore a black fezlike hat over his white hair. From his mouth came an unending cloud of aromatic smoke that permeated the reception hall. This man was Agus Salim, the Republic of Indonesia's first Ambassador to Great Britain. Referred to in his country as the Grand Old Man, Salim was among the first generation of Indonesians to have received a Western education. In this regard, he was a rare species, for at the end of Dutch hegemony over Indonesia in 1943, no more than 3.5 percent of the country's population could read or write.

    Not surprisingly, Salim's appearance and demeanor -- not to mention
    the strange smell of his cigarettes -- quickly turned him into the
    center of attention. One gentleman put into words the question that
    was on everyone's lips: ''What is that thing you're smoking, sir?''

    ''That, your excellency,'' Agus Salim is reported to have said, ''is
    the reason for which the West conquered the world!'' In fact he was
    smoking a kretek, an Indonesian cigarette spiced with clove, which for
    centuries was one of the world's most sought-after spices.

    Is my tale about an Indonesian at the court of King James the greatest
    story of the millennium? Certainly not, though I must smile at the
    irreverence shown by my countryman. I include it here because it
    touches on what I would argue are the two most important
    ''processes''of this millennium: the search for spices by Western
    countries, which brought alien nations and cultures into contact with
    one another for the first time; and the expansion of educational
    opportunities, which returned to the colonized peoples of the world a
    right they had been forced to forfeit under Western colonization --
    the right to determine their own futures.

    The latter process is exemplified by what is now an almost unknown
    literary work: ''Max Havelaar, or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch
    Trading Company,'' a novel by Eduard Douwes Dekker, a Dutchman, which
    he published in 1859 under the pseudonym Multatuli (Latin for ''I have
    suffered greatly''). The book recounts the experiences of one Max
    Havelaar, an idealistic Dutch colonial official in Java. In the story,
    Havelaar encounters -- and then rebels against -- the system of forced
    cultivation imposed on Indonesia's peasants by the Dutch Government.

    D. H. Lawrence, in his introduction to the 1927 English translation of
    the novel, called it a most ''irritating'' work. ''On the surface,
    'Max Havelaar' is a tract or a pamphlet very much in the same line as
    'Uncle Tom's Cabin,' ''Lawrence wrote. ''Instead of 'pity the poor
    Negro slave' we have 'pity the poor oppressed Javanese'; with the same
    urgent appeal for legislation, for the Government to do something
    about it. Well, the [American] Government did do something about Negro
    slaves, and 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' fell out of date. The Netherlands
    Government is also said to have done something in Java for the poor,
    on the strength of Multatuli's book. So that 'Max Havelaar' became a
    back number.''

    Before telling you more about ''Max Havelaar'' and its author, I would
    like to go back in time, even before the start of the present
    millennium, to tell you about the search for spices. The key word to
    remember here is ''religion.''

    For hundreds of years, spices -- clove, nutmeg and pepper -- were the
    primary cause of religious conflict. Their value was inestimable: as
    food preservative (essential in the age before refrigeration), as
    medicine and, at a time when the variety of food was almost
    unfathomably limited, for taste.

    In A.D. 711, Moorish forces conquered Cordoba in southern Spain. By
    756, the Muslim ruler Abdar Rahman proclaimed that he had achieved his
    goal of spreading Islamic culture and trade throughout Spain. That
    country became the world's center for the study of science and the
    guardian of Greek and Roman learning that had been banned by the Roman
    Catholic Church. By controlling the land on both sides of the entrance
    to the Mediterranean, the Moors were also able to maintain control
    over trade with the East, source of spices and other important goods.
    Christian ships were not allowed to pass.

    For several centuries, the development of the Christian countries of
    Europe came to a virtual standstill; all available human and economic
    resources were being poured into the Crusades. The Holy Wars were
    waged not just to reclaim Jerusalem but also to expel the Moors from
    Spain and, in so doing, gain control over the spice trade.

    In 1236, the Catholic forces of Europe finally succeeded. Islam was
    pushed from Europe. To their credit, the victors refrained from
    vandalizing symbols of Moorish heritage. Nonetheless, revenge toward
    Islam continued to burn -- as did the passion to drive Muslim forces
    from any country they reached.

    The first place to fall was Ceuta in Morocco, on Africa's north coast,
    which, together with Gibraltar, has always served as the gateway to
    the Mediterranean. With this, the Europeans had established an
    important toehold in wresting control of the spice trade. The problem
    was, they had little idea where spices actually came from.

    Spain and Portugal, Europe's two great seafaring nations of the time,
    set out to find the answer. To preserve order among Catholic
    countries, a line of demarcation was drawn (later made official by
    Pope Alexander VI in 1493), giving Spain the right to conquer all
    non-Christian lands to the west of the Cape Verde Islands, and
    Portugal the authority to take pagan countries to the east of the
    islands and as far as the 125th meridian (which falls near the
    Philippines). It was for this reason that Columbus, helmsman for the
    Spanish fleet, sailed west and found a continent instead of the source
    of spices. Portugal, on the other hand, sent its ships eastward to
    Africa, from which they returned laden with gold, ostrich eggs and
    slaves -- but no spices.

    In early 1498, Vasco da Gama reached the island of Madagascar, off the
    coast of east Africa. There he found a guide to lead him across the
    Indian Ocean to the port of Calicut in southwestern India. Arriving on
    May 20, da Gama ''discovered'' India. Unfortunately for the weary
    sailor, he also found that of the spices he sought, only cinnamon was
    in abundance. To reach the true source of spices, he would have to
    sail thousands of miles southeast to what is now known as Indonesia
    and then on to the Moluccas (located, incidentally, in Spain's half of
    the world). Over the next century, the Portuguese forged their way
    southeast, consolidating Muslim-held trade routes and converting souls
    along the way. By the time da Gama's ships made it to the Moluccas in
    the middle of the 16th century, Africa, the Indian subcontinent and
    Malaya had all been subjugated in the name of both trade and Christ.

    Other travelers had visited the region before -- including Marco Polo
    -- but it was the Portuguese who established the first permanent
    foreign presence. With the help of handheld firearms, Portugal quickly
    spread its power across the archipelago. In no time, the country
    controlled the spice route from beginning to end.

    There was a problem, though. Portugal lacked the population required
    to support a maritime force capable of controlling half the
    non-Catholic world. As a result, it was forced to hire sailors from
    Germany, France and especially the Netherlands. This weakness would
    eventually spell the downfall of its monopoly in the spice trade.

    One Dutch sailor in the Portuguese fleet, Jan Huygen van Linschoten,
    made extensive notes during his six years of travel throughout the
    archipelago. He paid particular attention to the weaknesses of his
    employers. Portugal, not surprisingly, had done its best to mask its
    vulnerabilities, but all these were exposed in 1596, when van
    Linschoten returned home and published a book, ''A Journey, or Sailing
    to Portugal India or East India.'' The book -- a virtual travel guide
    to the region -- was quickly translated into French, English, German
    and Latin.

    Two years after van Linschoten's work was published, the Netherlands,
    through a consortium of Dutch companies, sent its own fleet to
    Indonesia. The Dutch fleet's first attempt failed, but gradually, wave
    after wave of Dutch ships reached the islands, driving out the
    Portuguese and bringing untold wealth to the Netherlands. Lacking not
    only manpower but also the diplomatic stature to protect its
    interests, the Portuguese were unable even to put up a fight.

    In part, the success of the Dutch can be attributed to their good
    working relationship with Java's powerful feudal lords and to their
    professionalism. Initially at least, they had come to trade, not to
    conquer / and on that basis created what was then the largest maritime
    emporium in the world at its seat in Batavia (now Jakarta).

    Over time, however, the Dutch shippers needed military force to
    safeguard their monopoly. To keep international market prices high,
    they also limited spice production. For this reason, almost the entire
    populace of the Banda Islands, source of nutmeg, was exterminated in
    the early 17th century. The island was then stocked with European
    employees of the company. For field workers they brought in slaves and
    prisoners of war.

    Also for the purpose of controlling spice production, people from the
    Moluccas were forcibly conscripted, placed in an armada of traditional
    Moluccan boats and sent off to destroy competitors' nutmeg and clove
    estates. Buru Island, where I was a political prisoner from 1969 to
    1979, was turned from an island of agricultural estates into a vast

    Let us now fast forward to the mid-19th century. As a result of the
    Napoleonic and Java wars, the Netherlands and the East Indies had
    entered an economic downturn. Sugar, coffee, tea and indigo had
    replaced spices as the archipelago's cash crops, but with increased
    domestic production and limited purchasing power abroad, they were
    becoming increasingly unprofitable for the Dutch consortium. To
    replenish profits, the Governor General, J. van den Bosch, decided
    that the Government must be able to guarantee long-term property
    rights for investors and that a fixed supply of crops should be
    exported every year.

    To that end, van den Bosch put into effect on Java a system of forced
    cultivation, known as cultuurstelsel, in which farmers were obliged to
    surrender a portion of production from their land to the colonial
    Government. Through this plan, the Government was able to reverse the
    Netherlands' economic decline in just three years. Java, however, was
    turned into an agricultural sweatshop. In addition to surrendering
    land for Government-designated production, paying high taxes to the
    Dutch and ''tithes'' to local overlords, peasants were forbidden by
    law to move away from their hometowns. When famine hit or crops
    failed, there was literally no way out. As a result, tens of thousands
    of peasants died of hunger. Meanwhile, Dutch authorities and feudal
    lords grew richer by the day.

    On Oct. 13, 1859, in Brussels, Eduard Douwes Dekker, a former employee
    of the Dutch Indies Government, finished ''Max Havelaar.'' Concern for
    the impact of the colonial policies on the Indonesian people had
    marked the career of Dekker, who originally studied to be a minister.
    When he was posted in North Sumatra, he defended a village chief who
    had been tortured, and unwittingly found himself on the opposite side
    of a courtroom from his superior. As a result, he was transferred to
    West Sumatra, where he protested the Government's efforts to incite
    ethnic rivalry. Before long, he was called back to Batavia. Only his
    writing skills saved him from getting the sack entirely. After a few
    more bumpy stops, Dekker wound up in West Java. It was there, when
    Dekker was 29, that his disillusionment came to a head and he
    resigned. Judging from his autobiographical novel, we can assume he
    wrote the Governor General something like this: ''Your Excellency has
    sanctioned: The system of abuse of authority, of robbery and murder,
    under which the humble Javanese groans, and it is that I complain
    about. Your Excellency, there is blood on the pieces of silver you
    have saved from salary you have earned thus!'' He returned to Europe
    -- not to the Netherlands, but to Belgium, where he poured his
    experiences into ''Max Havelaar.''

    Dekker's style is far from refined. In depicting the cultuurstelsel he
    writes: ''The Government compels the worker to grow on his land what
    pleases it; it punishes him when he sells the crop so produced to
    anyone else but it; and it fixes the price it pays him. The cost of
    transport to Europe, via a privileged trading company, is high. The
    money given to the Chiefs to encourage them swells the purchase price
    further, and . . . since, after all, the entire business must yield a
    profit, this profit can be made in no other way than by paying the
    Javanese just enough to keep him from starving. Famine? In rich,
    fertile, blessed Java? Yes, reader. Only a few years ago, whole
    districts died of starvation. Mothers offered their children for sale
    to obtain food. Mothers ate their children.''

    The publication of ''Max Havelaar'' in 1859 was nothing less than
    earth-shaking. Just as ''Uncle Tom's Cabin'' gave ammunition to the
    American abolitionist movement, ''Max Havelaar'' became the weapon for
    a growing liberal movement in the Netherlands, which fought to bring
    about reform in Indonesia. Helped by ''Max Havelaar,'' the energized
    liberal movement was able to shame the Dutch Government into creating
    a new policy known as the ethical policy, the major goals of which
    were to promote irrigation, interisland migration and education in the
    Dutch Indies.

    The impact of the reforms was modest at first. By the beginning of the
    20th century, however, a small number of Indonesians, primarily the
    children of traditional rulers, were beginning to feel their effects.
    One of them was Agus Salim, the man with the clove cigarette, whose
    reading of ''Max Havelaar'' in school proved an awakening. He, along
    with other Indonesians educated in Dutch, fostered a movement for
    emancipation and freedom, which eventually led, in the 1940's, to
    full-scale revolution.

    The Indonesian revolution not only gave birth to a new country, it
    also sparked the call for revolution in Africa, which in turn awakened
    ever more of the world's colonized peoples and signaled the end of
    European colonial domination. Perhaps, in a sense, it could be no
    other way. After all, wasn't the world colonized by Europe because of
    Indonesia's Spice Islands? One could say that it was Indonesia's
    destiny to initiate the decolonization process.

    To Multatuli -- Eduard Douwes Dekkera whose work sparked this process,
    this world owes a great debt.

    Pramoedya Ananta Toer is a novelist. ''The Mute's Soliloquy,'' a
    chronicle of his years as a political prisoner in Indonesia, will be
    published this month. This article was translated by John H. McGlynn
    from the Indonesian.
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