Ordinary People’s Extraordinary Resistance

Social Sciences5 MIN READ

Arnout van der Meer’s new book illuminates everyday defiance in colonial Indonesia

By Kardelen Koldas '15
October 14, 2021

For most of us, wearing pants or sitting on a chair are carefree choices. But for Indonesians living under Dutch rule in the early 20th century, such acts were intentional decisions and ways of resisting colonial power.

Until recently, those seemingly minor acts of everyday defiance have gone unaccounted for in the broader understanding of Indonesian history.

“In the case of colonial Indonesia, the focus was mostly on institution building, such as the history of the government, civil service, economic systems of exploitation … [or] on outright political resistance,” said Associate Professor of History Arnout van der Meer. “But what historians hadn’t really done is look at everyday life as a site of everyday contestation.”

He made this the subject of his new book, Performing Power: Cultural Hegemony, Identity, and Resistance in Colonial Indonesia, published as open-access by Cornell University Press. A product of lengthy detective work, his research uncovered stories of daily clashes between the colonized and colonizer in Indonesia.

“A lot of historians,” he said, “basically wrote colonial histories in which it almost appears that in between moments of outright political activism—such as strikes, rallies, revolts, or rebellions—colonialism was passively endured without resistance,” something that always struck him as odd. His research found instead that there was always resistance. “What this book shows by focusing on these lives is it adds a whole new layer into our understanding of colonialism and colonial systems of power.”

Van der Meer has been exposed to Dutch colonial history since childhood.

Arnout van der Meer

“What I found most amazing was learning about all these personal experiences of what it means to live in this incredibly difficult and hostile situation under colonialism and how some of these [Indonesian] people were incredibly brave for standing up for their own rights … in ways that might seem not as relevant or impactful to us.”

Associate Professor of History Arnout van der Meer

Born and raised in the Netherlands, he grew up hearing stories from his mother, a teacher specializing in colonial literature, and from neighbors of Eurasian descent. “That’s where the seed got planted,” said van der Meer, who was increasingly drawn to study Indonesia at Leiden University.

Performing Power book cover

In graduate school, he began to examine photos from colonial Indonesia, including the image on the cover of his book. Those prompted him to think about people’s interactions with one another through language, clothing, objects, and mannerisms, all of which signified one’s status and contained clues about the power struggles between Indonesians and the Dutch. “It started to click for me,” he said.

He embarked on a research journey to find narratives of everyday experiences, where people challenged colonialism by wearing different clothing, speaking another language, withholding deference, or even changing consumer behavior.

He turned to archives, newspapers, periodicals, magazines, and novels. He came across many stories, like that of Raden Soemarsono, a young, Western-educated prosecutor from Java, an Indonesian island.

When Soemarsono moved to a smaller city, his new Dutch superior wanted him to abandon his Western trousers for a Javanese sarong and to sit on the floor. “Trousers really were a very powerful symbol of demanding respect,” van der Meer explained. Sitting on the floor with trousers would signal submission, so would abandoning them for traditional clothes.

Don't forget where you come from cartoon
Another site of everyday resistance in colonial Indonesia was pawnshops. This 1940 cartoon from the government periodical Pandji Poestaka, intended for indigenous civil servants, warns readers that living above their means in order to be modern—wearing a suit, taking taxis, going to first-class movie theaters—might lead them to a pawnshop to sell their belongings.

Soemarsono refused. He demanded to be treated equally like he was previously. His actions, coupled with the resistance of many others, culminated in a turning point in Indonesian history. In 1913 they led not only to the emergence of Indonesian political movements but also to a circular from the colonial government requiring Dutch civil servants to treat Indonesians with respect.

“Without that everyday resistance, I would argue that outright political resistance would have been impossible,” said van der Meer, whose research was supported by several sources, including Colby’s start-up funds and Social Science Division grants. “By looking at those everyday moments, you get a new dynamic of Indonesian history and colonial histories in general.” And also one that’s richer, more engaging, and meaningful as it gives agency to the colonized, he believed.

“I’m incredibly inspired by their bravery, really, and the way that they dared to stand up against power, because that requires incredible strength,” said van der Meer, who continues to look at everyday resistance in his work. “It really changed my perception of colonial societies as well as our own times.”

Listen to a Cornell University Press podcast with van der Meer about his book

Read about van der Meer’s take on facemasks as a current-day symbol of resistance