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The Hawaiian Origins of Surfing

When I was growing up, I assumed surfing was a White people sport. All the images I saw on mainstream media perpetuated this mistaken assumption. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-20s that I learned about how surfing originated in Hawaii and that discovery only came about because I had a summer job in a cool little surfer town of Oaxaca, Mexico called Puerto Escondido. It was the first time I ever tried surfing and I fell in love with it, wanting to learn all about it. Surfing- as I came to find out- was intricately woven into Hawaiian culture. Surfing is but the tip of an iceberg into understanding the history, struggles, and evolution of Hawaiian culture and society.

Anthropologists can’t say for sure when wave-riding began, but the first Polynesians arrived in the Hawaiian Islands in the fourth century A.D. and they had to have been excellent watermen and women to successfully endure the difficult journey from Tahiti and the Marquesas to Hawaii. One of the customs Polynesians brought with them was playing in the surf on “paipo” (belly) boards. This laid the foundation for surfing to blossom within Hawaii.

By 1779, which is when Europeans first documented the surfing activity they witnessed on the Kona Coast of the Big Island, surfing already had taken deep root in Hawaiian culture. The kahuna (experts) had special chants to bless new surfboards, to conjure big surf, and to build the courage of surfers. Hawaiians had no written language at this time, so their history and traditions were passed down through songs and chants. But because Hawaiian society was divided between the royalty and the commoners, there were beaches in which only royalty could surf.

When the European documentation of surfing spread in Europe, it caused Hawaii to have its’ first kind of touristy appeal, attracting not only adventurers but also missionaries with an agenda of their own. As the Calvinistic Christian missionaries converted more and more Hawaiians, surfing -which had been so tied into the Hawaiian religion- was stripped of the sacred rituals it once went hand-in-hand with. Unfortunately, because this new religion also insisted on more restrictions and less play, surfing dropped from being such an integral part of the Hawaiian culture.

Even more unfortunate than this, was the decimation of Hawaiians themselves during this time due to diseases, alcohol, and other poisons brought by Europeans. This culture clash reached a boiling point in 1893, when Queen Lili’uokalani attempted to maintain Hawaii as a sovereign nation, but was overthrown and imprisoned by businessmen, plantation owners and missionaries, assisted by U.S. marines. By 1896, there were only about 40,000 Hawaiians left whereas the population had been closer to 600,000 during the first interactions with Europeans. It was in this vulnerable context that Hawaii was then declared to be a U.S. territory in 1898.

Surfing was revitalized within Hawaiian culture in 1905 when a group of native Hawaiians created an informal surf club. Surfing as a sport gained momentum in 1907, when Jack London- a famous U.S. author at the time- became fascinated with surfing during his visit to Hawaii and ended up writing A Royal Sport: Surfing in Waikiki, which was published that year. In his writing, London included descriptions of George Freeth, an Irish/Hawaiian who was a skilled surfer. And since London was so famous, Freeth became a surfing icon and was invited to Southern California by a railroad & real estate big businessman to demonstrate wave-riding as a way to promote the Redondo-Los Angeles Railway.

Meanwhile in Hawaii, Alexander Hume Ford, the guy who had introduced surfing to the famous writer, was campaigning on behalf of surfing and in 1908 successfully founded the Hawaiian Outrigger Canoe Club, the first modern club dedicated to surfing and the growth of it as a sport. By 1915, the club had 1200 members and hundreds more on the waiting list. It was also this year that Duke Kahanamoku, a famous Hawaiian surfer and swimmer, was invited to Sydney by the New South Wales Swimming Association. He had already sparked awe with his surfing demonstrations in Southern California while passing through on way to the Summer Olympics in Sweden. He sealed his fame by winning the 1912 Gold Medal in the 100-meter freestyle at Stockholm, therefore earning him his invitation to Sydney. When the Australians saw Gold Medalist Duke Kahanamoku ride an 8’6 board he made out of native Australian sugar pine, they were hooked onto surfing!

By the end of the 1920s, surfing was slowly but steadily growing in Hawaii, California and Australia, with Duke at the forefront of spreading fascination with surfing. By the 1950s and 60s,  awareness and involvement in surfing exponentially grew as more and more people learned about it through photography and film media. Southern California capitalized on surfing,  producing many Hollywood movies, songs, books and magazines all about it, and it is through this media frenzy that the Hawaiian origins of surfing got pushed to the background.

But it is important to learn about the Hawaiian history of surfing because it gives you not only a deeper  appreciation for this fascinating sport, but also insight as to how cultures evolve and influence each other, both the pros & cons of such cross-cultural interactions. It is only through learning about our interconnected histories that we can discover the lessons of past mistakes not to repeat.  Learning about the evolution of cultural traditions, arts & sports also helps us discover the ways in which our interactions can foster positive cross-cultural understanding and solidarity.

Kaira Portillo

Kaira Portillo-Espinoza was born and raised in San Francisco, CA. She is grateful for having grown up around such a wide spectrum of diversity, which makes the Bay Area the unique place it is. Her first published book, Poems About This Roller-Coaster Ride Called Life, is a collection of poems she wrote throughout high school and college and explores issues of injustice, resistance, sexuality, and empowerment.