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Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Norms of Dress, the Market, and the Decline of Surfing, with special relation to the trade in Sandalwood

Img_0805 So here's something you probably never thought you'd see talked about: changes in surfing in the nineteenth century, which were inspired in part by the rise of the market economy in Hawaii and in part by norms of dress driven by Christian missionaries. 

In the process of working on a paper on missionaries' ideas about property law, I've been reading Hiram Bingham's memoirs, A Residence of Twenty-One Years in the Sandwich Islands. (Dedicated propertyprof readers will recall that Mr. Bingham's grandson, Hiram Bingham III, is at the center of the controversy between Peru and Yale on treasures taken from Machu Picchu in the early part of the twentieth century.)  I came across this description of surfing:

The royal parties . . . resorted to the favorite amusement of all classes--sporting on the surf, in which they distinguish themselves from most other nations. In this exercise, they generally avail themselves of the surf-board, an instrument manufactured by themselves for the purpose. it is made of buoyant wood ' thin at the edges and ends, but of considerable thickness in the middle, smooth, and ingeniously adapted to the purpose of sustaining a moderate weight and gliding rapidly on the surface of the water.

It is of various dimensions from three feet in length, and six or eight inches in breadth, to fourteen feet in length, and twenty inches in breadth. In the use of it, the islander, placing himself longitudinally upon the board as it rests upon the surface of the water, and using his naked arms and hands as a pair of oars, rows off from the sand-beach a quarter, or half a mile into the ocean. Meeting the succession of surges as they are rolling towards the shore, he glides with ease over such as are smooth, plunges under or through such as are high and combing, allowing them to roll over him and his board, coming out unhurt on the other side, he presses on till his distance is sufficient for a race, or till he has passed beyond the breaking or combing Surf.  After a little rest, turning around and choosing one of, the highest surges for his locomotive, he adjusts himself and board, continuing longitudinally upon it directing his head towards the shore, and just before the highest part of the wave reaches him, he gives two or three propelling strokes with his spread hands. The board, having its hindmost end now considerably elevated, it glides down the moving declivity, and darts forward like a weaver's shuttle.  He rides with railroad speed on the forefront of the surge, the whitening surf foaming and roaring just behind his head, and is borne in triumph to the beach. Often in this rough riding, which is sometimes attended with danger, several run the race together.

And yet, after describing that fun practice, Bingham observes how declined in recent years (his memiors were published in 1842), as a result of the missionaries' success in changing the norms of dress:

The adoption of our costume greatly diminishes their practice of' swimming and sporting in the surf, for it is less convenient to wear it in the water than the native girdle, and less decorous and safe to lay it entirely off on every occasion they find for a plunge or swim or surf-board race.  Less time, moreover, is found for amusement by those who earn or make cloth-garments for themselves like the more civilized nations.

He attributes the decline in surfing not to specific prohibitions adopted by the missionaries against it, but to changing habits of dress, behavior, religion, and the rise of the market for sandalwood on the islands, which led people to work rather than to surf:

The decline or discontinuance of the use of the surf-board, as civilization advances, may be accounted for by the increase of modesty, industry or religion, without supposing, as some have affected to believe, that missionaries caused oppressive enactments against it. These considerations are in part applicable to many other amusements. Indeed, the purchase of foreign vessels, at this time, required attention to the collecting and delivering of 450000 lbs. of sandal-wood, which those who were waiting for it might naturally suppose would, for a time, supersede their amusements.

Yet another example of a sophisticated understooding of norms and the effect of the economy long ago (though not as long ago as Dave Hoffman talked about recently). Our friends at ELSblog, the Chicago Law faculty blog, or Volokh, may have a pretty sophisticated explanation of all this.  And who knows, maybe it'll be an example in Eric Posner's next volume on norms.

Further evidence that the market economy's been interfering with fun for a really long time.

On a serious note, there's some great work to be done on antebellum understanding of the evolution of property rights and on antebellum understandings of the rule of law and norms.  Perhaps I'll talk a little about them this summer.

Alfred L. Brophy

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