Golf is known as a stylish sport for a civilized player, but it has a grim history linked to colonial exploitation, according to a new exhibition.
Researchers from the University of St Andrews claim that the game was “imposed” by the British Empire in colonial countries around the world in the 19th century.
Golf is linked to imperial exploitation by the British because balls were once made from rubber harvested from those colonial lands, they say.
Gutta-percha, a natural rubber material found in trees native to Southeast Asia, was harvested to make golf balls for the European market.
St Andrews is known as the ‘home of golf’ for its 600-year history of golf, but the university has now explored the sport’s controversial links in the new exhibition.
Golf balls were the product of colonial exploitation, according to the University of St Andrews, while the game itself was “imposed” by the British Empire around the world (file photo).
Gutta-percha (pictured), a natural rubber material found in trees native to Southeast Asia, is a tree in the genus Palaquium. In the 19th century it was harvested to make golf balls for the European market
Gutta-percha, a natural rubber material found in trees native to Southeast Asia, was harvested to make golf balls for the European market
The Re-collecting Empire exhibition at the Wardlaw Museum in St Andrews is now open to the public and runs until October 22nd.
WHAT IS GUTTA PERCHA?
Gutta-percha is a natural rubber material found in trees native to Southeast Asia and is a tree in the genus Palaquium.
In the 19th century it was harvested to make golf balls for the European market.
Its natural bounce made it ideal for creating a new “gutta ball” that replaced the older “shuttlecock” made of feathers and stitched leather.
According to British historian of science James Burke, the gutta-percha core revolutionized the game of golf.
It is part of St Andrews’ pledge to continue “examining the legacy of the Empire in our collections and exploring how we can build a more just future”.
It’s also part of a broader trend of academic “decolonization” accelerated by the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020.
“The exhibition opens at a time when museums and galleries across Britain and beyond are rethinking how best to care for the objects in their collections acquired during colonial rule,” said Dr. Emma Bond, Exhibitions Advisor and Academic of St Andrews.
“Multiple voices need to be included in these important conversations so that museums can move forward in a more equitable manner.
“I hope that Re-collecting Empire will signal the beginning of a productive and transparent conversation with these groups on how to count on the legacy of Empire that resides in the University’s collections.”
Golf originated in Scotland in the 15th century, although it was banned by King James II on the grounds that games were a distraction from military training.
Restrictions on gambling were lifted with the Treaty of Glasgow, which came into force in 1502.
Gutta-percha’s natural bounce made it ideal for making a new “guttaball” (pictured) to replace the older “shuttlecock” made of feathers and stitched leather
Saint Andrews Links in the town of St Andrews, Fife, Scotland is widely recognized as ‘The Home of Golf’.
GOOD GOLFERS LEARN TO PLAY WITH THEIR WRONG HAND, STUDY FINDS
According to a 2021 study, good golfers learn how to play the sport “reverse” by switching hands when holding the club.
In a sample of 150 golfers, the researchers found that the successful players tend to hold their golf club in an “inverted stance.”
Traditionally, a right-handed person would place their right hand on the underside of the racquet when gripping.
Conversely, a right-handed player placing their left hand down would play in what is known as an “inverted” stance.
Left-handers who play right-handers – or vice versa – might have a better chance of excelling in the sport, as great championship winners Phil Mickelson and Jordan Spieth have shown.
By the late 19th century, golf had spread to Ireland, the United States and other parts of Europe, and had also reached areas of the British Empire including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Egypt, South Africa, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Hong Kong.
But the exhibition claims that both cricket and golf were ‘forced’ on the Empire when British enthusiasts founded clubs abroad.
A display at the exhibition states: “By replicating and enforcing British sports in colonized countries, golf and cricket spread around the world.
“Natural resources from colonized countries were exploited to produce sports equipment.”
The information is displayed alongside the Karachi Golf Club Cup, the award given by one of the many British founded clubs in India during the days of Empire.
Gutta rubber grew most plentifully in Malaysia, formerly held by the British, and some experts said harvesting the rubber for western markets was causing ecological damage.
Victorian scientists had discovered that gum was a perfect and profitable material for covering burgeoning telegraph wire.
Its natural bounce also made it ideal for the manufacture of a new “gutta ball” said to have been invented in 1843 by Robert Adams Paterson, a student at St Andrews, replacing the older “shuttlecock” made of feathers and stitched leather.
The Re-collecting Empire exhibition also includes exhibits arguing that European textile mills produced goods inspired by styles that were ‘overseas’ in the colonies.
The Re-collecting Empire exhibition at the Wardlaw Museum in St Andrews is now open to the public and runs until October 22nd
The textile mills therefore “exploited the culture of origin” by exploiting their styles and selling them for profit.
The exhibition is funded by Museum Galleries Scotland, who have also supported a Scotland-wide review of the national links to the slave trade.
Exhibits also include a copy of the Koran that once belonged to the Sultan of Mysore, a Tibetan stone, a Chinese bell used in sacred ceremonies, and a statue of a Buddhist monk.
Contributions also include personal reflections, notes and quotes, as well as poetry and art, offering voices and perspectives “that have often been excluded”.
“This exhibition is the result of careful thought and deliberation on how we manage the colonial legacies in our collection,” said Dr. Catherine Eagleton, Director of Libraries and Museums at the University of St Andrews.
“It’s an attempt to publicly explore these stories and explore new ways of telling them, while prioritizing the voices of those who have often been excluded.”
A BRIEF HISTORY OF GOLF
The game of golf as we know it today can be attributed to the Scots, although there are records of several stick and ball games throughout history.
As early as the 13th century, the Dutch played a game of hitting a leather ball to hit a target several hundred yards away.
The winner would be the player who reached the target with the fewest shots.
However, the Scottish variant of the sport was characterized by the goal of getting the ball into a hole.
When talking about the modern 18-hole game, golf history traces its origins back to 15th-century Scotland.
The game is first mentioned in 1457 in an Act of the Scottish Parliament calling for a ban alongside football.
King James II of Scotland banned the playing of games as a distraction from military training. Therefore, he felt it was more rewarding to perfect archery.
After several further bans in the 15th century and golf being vilified as an unprofitable sport, restrictions on playing the game were lifted when the Treaty of Glasgow came into force in 1502.
The oldest recorded rules for the game date back to 1744 when the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers published Articles and Laws in Playing at Golf.
This ancient piece of golf history, now in the National Library of Scotland, made Muirfield Club famous as the longest surviving club in the history of golf.
Scottish soldiers, immigrants and expatriates played a central role in the history of golf.
They were responsible for spreading the game to the British Isles in the 18th century.
However, it wasn’t until the 19th century that the game gained an international presence, including in the British Empire.
The oldest golf courses outside of Britain are in nearby France, with the founding of the Royal Calcutta Golf Club in 1829 and the club at Pau in 1856.
By 1880 golf had spread to Ireland, many other parts of Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Singapore and South Africa.
The game has since grown in popularity in the UK. By 1880 England had 10 golf courses, which quickly increased to 1000 by 1914.
Source: College of Golf at Keizer University