Posted: June 26, 2014 in Chat
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One unsung comedy character I have long thought, must be BATAVUS DROOGSTOPPEL.

The Dutch novel MAX HAVELAAR by Matatuli, is mostly known, famous, for exposing the iniquities of the Dutch East Indies/Java coffee trade. Published in 1860 it found an uncomfortable welcome in the colony-based wealth and comfort of Dutch culture.



Indonesian novelist Pramoedva Ananta Toer has put forward the argument that this book started educational reforms, and by extension firing the Javanese nationalist movement against the Dutch colonists. His point is that the book was instrumental in killing colonialism. Indonesian President Sukarno cited the book as an inspiration in his struggle.

The name Max Havelaar is now synonymous with Dutch Fair Trade


It is an uncomfortable read, even now.

Matatuli’s (Eduard Douews Dekker, 1820-1887) framing of the central episodes of fictionalised reportage was with the creation of the comfortable world of Dutch coffee traders. They lived far away and wholly ignorant and disinterested in the horrible realities their trade was based on. This world of coffee traders he depicted was not direct realism, but exaggerated and made droll and ridiculous.

His master stroke was the creation of narrator Batavus Droogstoppel.


The name, suggesting dry as dust, introduces us to a solid citizen. He is a coffee trader – Last and Co, 37 Lauriergracht – husband, and father. In that order.

Batavus Droogstoppel – Last and Co, 37 Lauriergracht – is so honest and upright, and true in his Faith that he cannot tell a lie. Truth and common sense – that’s what I say, and I’m sticking to it. And so when he comes across culture he cannot see anything but lies there. And this he goes on to describe at great length.

The trouble starts, he tells us, as far back as children’s books (Van Alphin). Those ‘dear little mites’. What on earth made that old gentleman want to pass himself off as an adorer of my little sister Gertie, who had sore eyes, or my brother Gerard, who was always picking his nose?

Droogstoppel’s character is not malicious or criminal. He is reasonable, sensible and oh so dull. It is his sheer dullness Multatuli renders so well.

His dullness and grey sensibility does have a sinister shade which only goes to further point up his ridiculousness by being ever-so-slightly over the top.

We have to talk about Luke.
There are always 13 at the office – Last and Co, 37 Lauriergracht –  but Luke was the warehouseman. He was always punctual, honest to a fault, and dependable. Droogstoppel was discussing the concept of Virtue with us, the reader: regular churchgoer, teetotal, Luke became old. Now he’s old and rheumatic, and can’t work any more. So now he starves, for we deal in business, and we need young people. Well, then … I consider Luke very virtuous; but is he rewarded?….. Not on your life! He is poor and stays poor, and that is how it should be.

Where would virtue be, he says, if he could have an easy time in his old age? Then every warehouseman would become virtuous, and every one else too, which can’t be God’s intention, because in that case no special reward could remain for the good in the hereafter.

The ‘good’ of course, are the Droogstoppel’s of the world.

Droogstoppel is, as I stated above, coffee trader- Last and Co, 37 Lauriergracht – , husband, and father. In that order.
We get a sense of this order when he tells us of his ingenious plan to prevent life-long German customer Ludwig Stern from being lured away by competition, who are trying to undercut Last and Co (- 37 Lauriergracht – ).
His plan was to write to Stern  – and, by the way did he and we know this competitor’s young daughter had just run away with a young German trader-trainee? And Droogstoppel’s daughter only 13, too. So he wrote to Stern to invite his young son to stay with him and his… family, to learn the trade.
A master-stroke, thinks Droogstoppel, tying the Sterns’ ever closer.

The man could come across as an absolute scoundrel, but the author balances his character so well, skillfully, that we become more deeply aware of ridiculousness than villainy.

The last point in his support as a great comic character is in Droogstoppel’s encounter at last with ex-school friend Max Havelaar. Havelaar we learn in due course has just returned almost destitute from the East Indies, the Trade grounds, with young a family, but also a document he has authored, which becomes the substance of this book. Trying to shake off this man, because he is poor, and the poor should not be encouraged, he leaves him his card. The card reads, you guessed it – Last and Co, 37 Lauriergracht – . But, says Havelaar, I took you for Droogstoppel; your card says Last.
The reality is that Droogstoppel for all his indispensability, purposely marrying into the old firm, supporting it, working all hours, his name is not even on the card. It is still his father-in-laws’ name.
Do we get a moment here of old Luke’s fate being Droogstoppel’s?

Droogstoppel is pompous, narrow, limited but he is also a great comic creation. Multatuli (the name refers to ‘one who has borne much’ for like Max Havelaar, Dekker witnessed the Javanese trade) has so finely observed, detailed and balanced this character that he is capable of holding the weight and strain of the book together. He is larger than life in a book exposing iniquities that are larger than one man’s blame or fault.

Droogstoppel could have gone on and on. He could have had his own series of books; it is a loss to Dutch literature he did not. He could have opened up the unknown, enclosed, 19th Century Dutch world to world literature.



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