Pearls worth Rds4000 or less: Reinterpreting eighteenth century sumptuary laws at the Cape

18 March 2013
Publication Type: Working Paper
JEL Code: N47, N97

Governor Ryk Tulbagh promulgated sumptuary laws at the Cape in 1755. Umbrellas could no longer be carried freely by all classes, silk dresses of a certain length could not be worn by ladies without regard to rank, and the value of pearl necklaces was strictly limited. These laws have often been interpreted as an attempt to maintain a social hierarchy (e.g. Ross 1990), a “defence against emulation” in the words of De Vries (2008). But the standard explanation leaves something to be desired: it does not engage with the economic motivation for sumptuary laws that influenced similar regulations in Europe and Asia at the time, nor does it explain why the VOC would legislate in the Cape what the Dutch never tolerated at home, and it seamlessly extrapolates the explanation for laws in Batavia to a different social and economic setting in the Cape.

An alternative interpretation of Tulbagh’s sumptuary laws is developed in this paper, which draws on evidence from the Cape and from Batavia. Their economic causes are sought in the East, where the laws originated, while their social reception and their impact are sought in the records of the Cape. In this way the paper provides a new interpretation of the causes underlying the sumptuary laws of 1755 and their role as instruments of economic and social policy.

Series title: Working paper 336
1 March 2013
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