European Review

Research Article

The case of the missing empire, or the continuing relevance of Multatuli's novel Max Havelaar (1860)

a1 Department of Dutch, University College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, United Kingdom E-mail:


I discuss the Dutch maritime and colonial empire in South East Asia (1600–1950) and its literature. Focusing in particular on its absence from most postcolonial debate today, my aim here is to explore why and how this missing Dutch empire and its literature matter to postcolonial theory. I will consider a range of recent reactions to the 19th-century Dutch author Multatuli and his classic novel Max Havelaar or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company (1860). The Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer, for example, has expressed the view that it was this novel that ‘put an end to colonialism”. I will also try and assess the continuing relevance of Multatuli's Max Havelaar, considering in particular the issues of justice and humanity raised by this novel about the human cost of coffee production.