Written by a former civil servant following his resignation from a post in the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia), it reshaped both public opinion and Government policies, inspired freedom fighters in many parts of the world, and ultimately killed colonialism.
The book is called 'Max Havelaar; or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company' - a title which is neither snappy nor inspiring. But such was its importance, it was translated into 34 languages, reaching English in 1868, and a film version was produced in 1976.
The author, Eduard Dekker (1820-1887), had become increasingly concerned and outspoken about the abuses he'd witnessed resulting from the colonial system. The policies of a remote government were having a devastating effect on the peasant farmers of Java and Sumatra, resulting in considerable poverty and widespread starvation.
Two policies in particular came under the spotlight. One was the demand that each farmer should produce a quota of crops valuable to Europeans, which were to be traded - crops such as coffee and sugar. These were produced at the expense of crops such as rice, on which the subsistence farmers depended. The result was a shortage of food across the rural population. At the same time, tax collectors, paid by commission, sought to maximise their own income by enforcing the tax regime as harshly as possible. Any money available to buy scarce food was soon redirected to the colonial power and its agents.
Dekker was threatened with dismissal for speaking out. In response, he resigned and returned to the Netherlands, where he wrote and published this book under the pseudonym Multatuli - meaning 'I have borne much'. In response to the book and the public outcry it provoked, the Dutch Government introduced a policy of providing education to selected colonial subjects, who thereby gained the ability and confidence to establish a nationalist movement and, in 1945, independence. Max Havelaar is claimed to be 'the book that killed colonialism.'
Meanwhile the educated elite of other European countries were also reading the book, gradually becoming aware that the price of their affluent lifestyles was the suffering and exploitation of people elsewhere in the world. The slowly changing perceptions, coupled with decolonisation in Indonesia, fuelled the ending of the era of colonialism more generally.
Tomorrow at All Saints' we celebrate World Fairtrade Day. Please drop in! The Fairtrade movement arises out of the recognition that the producers of commodities we take for granted - coffee, tea, bananas, and many more - are all too often exploited in order to maximise the profits further up the distribution chain. Fairtrade guarantees a fair minimum price to farmers and in addition pays into a fund for the development of their communities, in order to alleviate poverty, give fair access to markets, and facilitate sustainable development. In other words, it's about justice - not so much in terms of the one-off righting of a wrong, but in terms of making the world a more just place for those who are currently disadvantaged.
Justice for the poor and sustainable development are also at the heart of the work of Christian Aid - important to remember as Christian Aid Week begins on Sunday with its nationwide door-to-door collection and various sponsored events. Please give generously!
Back to Fairtrade: the concept began in the Netherlands. In 1988, the first Fairtrade coffee was launched. Its brand name? Max Havelaar.
Read the book! And more importantly, do whatever lies in your power to change the world for the better.