Industriousness in an imperial economy. Delineating new research on colonial connections and household labour relations in the Netherlands and the Netherlands Indies


1 May 2013


Volume 1 – Number 3

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Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk



This article delineates new research on the entangled histories of household labour, particularly women’s and children’s work, in the Netherlands and its colonies on Java. It offers suggestions for future empirical studies and how we may disentangle the workings of colonial connections on labour relations. A first analysis of the debates on Dutch and Javanese women’s and children’s work shows many ambivalences and tensions, for instance, between ideology and practice. Despite the ideal of the male breadwinner in the Netherlands, many married women and children still worked in the first half of the twentieth century. Regarding Javanese women and children too, we can discern tensions between the attempts on the one hand to “Westernize” them, and introduce the ideal of domesticity. On the other hand, inherent differences between Dutch and Indonesian women and children were stressed. This “grammar of difference” helped justify why Dutch women and children should not perform (heavy) labour and why their Javanese counterparts could indeed perform it.


Netherlands, Netherlands Indies, Household labour relations, Dutch and Indonesian women and children