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Surfing's Darkest Days

"The decline and discontinuance of the use of the surfboard, as civilization advances, may be accounted for by the increase in modesty, industry and religion..." -- Hiram Bingham, 1847  

"The sport of surf-riding possessed a grand fascination, and for a time it seemed as if it had the vitality of its own as a national pastime. There are those living... who remember the time when almost the entire population of a village would at certain hours resort to the sea-side to indulge in, or to witness, this magnificent accomplishment. We cannot but mourn its decline. But this too has felt the touch of civilization, and today it is hard to find a surfboard outside of our museums and private collections." -- Nathaniel Emerson, 1892

As hard as it may be to imagine, today, surfing as a sport, lifestyle and culture declined from its Hawaiian "golden age" of the pre-European period to a near-fatal extinction in the mid-to-late 1800s. Once an integral part of Polynesian life, by the end of the 1800s, surfing as a practice was all but forgotten by the beginning of the Twentieth Century.

This turn of events was in stark contrast to the state of Hawaiian surfing at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. For example, in Polynesian Researches, published in 1831, William Ellis described how, in the late 1700s and beginning 1800s, whole villages would drop everything to surf. Yet, by 1844, in a work entitled Scenes and Scenery in the Sandwich Islands, James Jarves noted that surfing at Lahaina, on the island of Maui, was already a rare sight. Lahaina, in fact, was one of the few places where, "surfers still rode with the enthusiasm of former days." By 1876, Hilo, on the island of Hawai`i, was one of surfing's last strongholds. At Hilo, waves were still ridden, but the surfers were primarily from the older generation and they were no longer riding the bigger boards like the olo and kiko`o.

During the Nineteenth Century, an entire spectrum of ancient Hawaiian customs and lifestyle components declined dramatically or disappeared altogether as a result of the cultural, political and religious imperialism forced upon the Hawaiians by Europeans. The subsequent upheaval these pressures caused damaged the entire traditional Hawaiian social fabric to such a degree that even today much remains to restore. "Sports, games, Kapa-making, ritual dancing, canoe-building -- all were to disappear," wrote Finney and Houston in Surfing, The Sport of Hawaiian Kings, "just as the Hawaiian's smooth dark skin disappeared under gaudy gingham from the holds of early trading ships."

What happened to the many hundreds if not thousands of olo, alaia, kiko`o and paipo surfboards that existed prior to the White Man's arrival? "What caused the Hawaiians," asked Finney and Houston, "to abandon the sport they alone had developed to such a high peak through so many generations?"    

1. Foreign Landings

Prior to the European arrival, the Hawaiian Islands had been visited to a much lesser degree by at least two other races of foreigners before the British landings in 1778.

According to Desmond Muirhead, in his Surfing in Hawaii, there are tales of Asian arrivals who were absorbed into the race without leaving a trace. Along the same lines, the noted archaeologist Kenneth Emory, an authority on Polynesian customs, advanced the theory that Hawaiians learned gambling from contact with Japanese fishermen who were known to have reached the Islands by shipwreck.

Evidence of Japanese vessels being blown off course over large stretches of the Pacific Ocean is documented such books as Kaigai Ibun (A Strange Tale From Overseas), originally written in 1844:

"During Japan's centuries of relative seclusion... Japanese fishing craft, coasting freighters, and transport ferries... were blown out to sea. While most of these were probably lost, some survivors were rescued from disabled hulks or from barren islands, and others drifted to Kamchatka, China, the Phillipine Islands, Hawaii, and even the coast and offshore islands of North America."

In addition to Japanese, the Hawaiian Islands had also been visited by the Spanish. In a well-documented event, the Spaniard Juan Gaetano, while sailing en route between New Spain (Mexico) and the Spice Islands (Phillipines), landed in the Islands in 1555. It is entirely probable that other Spaniards passed by or through the Hawaiian archipelago on their way to or from Manila. In fact, accounts handed down and repeated to the early British explorers of the late 1770s claimed that more than one Spaniard had been shipwrecked upon and later lived in the Islands. One account even tells of a "white woman," wrote Muirhead, "possibly Spanish, who came with several men. Other Spanish adventurers reported the finding of the islands but did not chart the location correctly, so that the islands were lost..."

 2. The Landings of Cook, 1768-79  

Without question, though, it was the contact with the British and later the North Americans that was to reshape Hawaiian society and deal a near-death blow to surfing and other aspects of Hawaiian culture.

The British first came to Hawai`i during the Cook Expeditions of 1768-79. British navigator and explorer Captain James Cook (1728-1779) began his first voyage to the Pacific in late May of 1768, returning to England in 1771. Thereafter, Cook made several more voyages; the second (1772-75) when he landed at Tahiti; and the fateful third (1776-1779), when he and his crew came upon the Hawaiian Islands. It was January 18, 1778 that the British ships Resolution and Discovery entered Hawaiian waters and the island of O`ahu was spied.

One of the ironies of Cook's "discovery" of the "Sandwich Islands," wrote surfing historian Craig Stecyk, was that he "never recognized that he had encountered a seafaring people whose formidible voyaging accomplishments far surpassed his own. The widespread migration of the Polynesians via their canoes was the greatest dispersal of any nautically based culture ever. Cook never deduced this essential fact and remained relatively clueless..."

Twentieth Century pilot, surfer and sailor Woody Brown put it another way, addressing the general European tendency towards superiority complexes and Cook's specific failure to understand the Polynesian outrigger canoe:  

"Captain Cook said, 'Well, they're nice canoes, but they're all bent out of shape. They don't know how to make 'em straight. They're all bent crooked.' He just didn't understand it was an asymmetric hull. They made them that way on purpose! So, the Polynesians understood hydrodynamics, which we'd never heard of! Captain Cook never heard of that. The Polynesians were so far ahead of Captain Cook and yet he just said, 'They're dumb, they don't know anything.' We're so arrogant and conceited, aren't we?"  

After an initial fear of the unknown, the "floating islands" (British ships) were welcomed by the kanaka maoli (indigenous people) and the visitors moved from one island to the next. "Chiefs and commoners saw the wonderful sight and marvelled at it," wrote the Hawaiian historian Samuel Manaiakalani Kamakau. Eventually, Hawaiians paddled out to meet the ships and what many considered to be the "gods" on board. Their means of transportation were outrigger canoes and surfboards.

3. Writings & Drawings of Surfing

One of the first European accounts of Hawaiian surfing appears in the official journals of the Cook expeditions. In A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, Volume III, Lieutenant James King devoted two pages to writing about the Hawaiian surfers he saw. He noted that, "swimming is not only a necessary art, in which their men and women are more expert than any people we had hitherto seen, but a favorite diversion among them." Surfing to the British crew, though, "appeared to us most perilous and extraordinary."  

In describing surfing techniques and preferred wave conditions he observed at Karakakooa Bay (Ke-ala-ke-kua Bay, southwest coast of Hawai`i), King wrote that, "The surf, which breaks on the coast around the bay, extends to the distance of about one hundred and fifty yards from the shore, within which space, the surges of the sea, accumulating from the shallowness of the water, are dashed against the beach with prodigious violence. Whenever, from stormy weather, or any extraordinary swell at sea, the impetuosity of the surf is increased to its utmost height, they choose that time for this amusement which is performed in the following manner: twenty or thirty of the natives, taking each a long narrow board, rounded at the ends, set out together from shore. The first wave they meet, they plunge under, and suffering to roll over them, rise again beyond it, and make the best of their way by swimming out to sea. The second wave is encountered in the same manner with the first: the great difficulty consisting in seizing the proper moment of diving under it, which, if missed, the person is caught by the surf, and driven back again with great violence; and all his dexterity is then required to prevent himself from being dashed against the rocks. As soon as they have gained, by these repeated efforts, the smooth water beyond the surf, they lay themselves at length upon their boards, and prepare for their return. As the surf consists of a number of waves, of which every third is remarked to be always larger than the others, and to flow higher on the shore, the rest breaking in the immediate space, their first object is to place themselves on the summit of the largest surge, by which they are driven along with amazing rapidity toward the shore. The boldness and address, with which we saw them perform these difficult and dangerous maneuvers, was altogether astonishing, and is scarce to be credited."

Although no formal drawings of surfing were made during the Cook landings, the commissioned artist, John Webber included a surfer when he did one of his most famous scenic studies. Titled "A View of Karakakooa, in Owyhee," a lone surfer can be seen in the foreground, paddling a blunt-nosed surfboard alongside a group of outrigger canoes going out to greet the British ships Resolution and Discovery. Except for petroglyphs, the Webber drawing is the first known illustration of a surfboard.

Prior to witnessing stand-up surfing in Hawai`i, Captain James Cook and his colleagues, while anchored at Tahiti's Matavai Point, December 1777, observed the wonders of canoe surfing. Besides describing the endeavor, Cook commented on the therapeutic and aesthetic effects of wave riding. In writing of the Tahitians, Cook noted: "Neither are they strangers to the soothing effects produced by particular sorts of motion, which in some cases seem to allay any perturbation of mind with as much success as music."

Cook described how one local rode the waves at Matavai Point, nearly oblivious to the presence of his large European vessels. "I could not help concluding that this man felt the most supreme pleasure while he was driven on so fast and so smoothly by the sea; especially as, though the tents and ships were so near, he did not seem in the least to envy or even to take any notice of the crowds of his countrymen collected to view them as objects which were rare and curious. During my stay, two or three of the natives came up, who seemed to share his felicity, and always called out when there was an appearance of a favourable swell, as he sometimes missed it by his back being turned, and looking about for it."

British Captain James Cook's life ended abruptly on February 14, 1779, during a return voyage to the Hawaiian Islands. A group of angry locals attacked and killed Cook and four of his men in the shallows of Kealakekua Bay on Hawai`i's Kona Coast.

The writings of the Cook voyages were completed by Lieutenant James King. He was joined by Cook historian William Ellis, who was another of the first Europeans to describe surfing. Ellis described late 1700s Hawaiian surfing in his writings published in 1831: "Native men, and women alike, enjoyed it. In Kealakakua Bay the waves broke out about one hundred and fifty yards. Twenty or thirty natives, each with a narrow board with rounded ends, would start out together from the shore and battle the breaking waves to a point out beyond. The surfers would then lay themselves full length upon the boards and prepare for the swift return to shore. They would throw themselves in the crest of the largest wave, and be driven towards shore with amazing rapidity. The riders must ride through jagged opening in the rocks, and, in case of failure, be dashed against them."

"The higher the sea and the larger the waves, in their opinion the better the sport," Ellis wrote of wave riding circa 1820. "They use a board, which they call papa he naru (wave sliding-board), generally five or six feet long, and rather more than a foot wide, sometimes flat, but more frequently slightly convex on both sides. It is usually made from the wood of the erythina, stained quite black, and preserved with great care. After using, it is placed in the sun until perfectly dry, when it is rubbed over with coconut oil, frequently wrapped with cloth and suspended in some part of their dwelling house.

"They generally prefer a place where the deep water reaches to the beach, but prefer a part where the rocks are ten to twenty feet under water, and extend to a distance from shore, as the surf breaks more violently there. When playing in these places, each individual takes his board and pushing it before him, swims perhaps a quarter of a mile or more out to sea. They do not attempt to go over the billows which roll towards the shore, but watch their approach, and dive under water, allowing the billow to pass over their heads.

"When they reach the outside of the rocks, where the waves first break, they adjust themselves on one end of the board, lying flat on their faces, and watch the approach of the largest billow; they then poise themselves on its highest edge, and paddling as it were with their hands and feet, ride on the crest of the wave in the midst of the spray and foam, until within a yard or two of the rocks or the shore; and when the observers would expect to see them dashed to pieces, they steer with great address between the rocks, or slide off their board in a moment, grasp it by the middle, and dive under water, while the wave rolls on, and breaks among the rocks with a roaring noise, the effect of which is greatly heightened by the shouts and laughter of the natives in the water.

"Those who are expert frequently change their position on the board, sometimes sitting and sometimes standing erect in the midst of the foam. The greatest address is necessary in order to keep on the edge of the wave: for if they get too forward, they are sure to be overturned; and if they fall back, they are buried beneath the succeeding billow."

"There are few children who are not taken into the sea by their mothers the second or third day after their birth," added Ellis, "and many can swim as soon as they can walk."

In the mid-1800s, David Malo became one of the most respected authorities on early Hawaiiana. This native Hawaiian historian was translated by Emerson and wrote a short chapter on surfriding as it existed in the Hawai`i of the first half of the 1800s:

"Surfriding was a national sport of the Hawaiians," Malo wrote, "at which they were very fond of betting, each man staking his property on the one he thought to be the most skillful.

"With the bets all put up, the surfriders, taking their boards with them, swam out through the surf till they had reached the waters outside the surf.

"The surfboards were broad and flat, generally hewn out of koa. A narrower board was made from the wood of the wili wili. One board would be one fathom in length; one, two fathoms; and another, four fathoms or even longer.

"The surfriders having reached the belt of water outside the surf, the region where the rollers begin to make head, awaited the incoming wave in preparation for which they got their boards under way by paddling with their hands until such time as the swelling wave began to lift and urge them forward.

"Then they speeded for the shore until they came opposite to where was moored a buoy, which was called a pau. If the combatants crossed the line of this buoy together, it was a dead heat, but if one went by in advance of the others, he was the victor.

10. Kauikeauoli (Kamehameha III)

Kauikeauoli was born March 17, 1814, at Keauhou, on the Big Island. Kauikeauoli later became ruler of the entire island chain and was renamed Kamehameha III. He was a great athlete and especially enjoyed holua sliding.

Lorrin Thurston, early 1900s kamaaina (native born) resident of Hawai`i, student of ancient Hawaiian culture, and reknowned surfer, told Tom Blake about sled sliding. Thurston said he had been told by the natives of the Keauhou district of Hawai`i that Kamehameha III's "holua slide was over a half mile long." At the bottom of the long slide, on the shore, was a grass house, a public place. People would gather there to witness the contests between holua riders and surfers.

"Coasting down slopes... Sliding on specially constructed sleds was practiced only in Hawai and New Zealand," wrote historian Kenneth Emory. "The Maori sled, however, was quite different from the Hawaiian... One of the Hawaiian sleds, to be seen in [the] Bishop Museum, is the only complete ancient sled in existence. The narrowness and the convergence of the runners toward the front should be noticed. Coasting on these sleds was a pastime confined to the chiefs and chieftesses. Before use the runners were oiled with kukui nut oil to make them as slippery as possible. The sliding course was carefully prepared by being made even, by paving with stones, then by a covering of hard-packed soil overlaid by a layer of slippery grass. A track was about eighteen feet wide, and might be from 150 to several hundred yards long.

4. Cultural & Political Imperialism

Following Cook's landings in the Hawaiian and Society Islands (Tahitian chain), other Europeans followed. They came first came as explorers and traders and then, later, as missionaries and settlers. Gradually, the Western infiltration made its mark on Hawaiian culture and politics. The fascinating features of the European-based culture eventually overwhelmed Hawaiian traditional life to such an extensive degree that the old ways rapidly fell by the wayside.

Politically, the arrival of the foreigners contributed to the first unification of all the Hawaiian Islands under Kamehameha I, in 1795. However, the new Caucasian arrivals were ambitious. Those who first became advisors to the throne were soon presiding as important ministers in the government. By the late 19th century Caucasians had grown politically so powerful that they were able to force Queen Lili`uokalani from the throne and establish their own government over the island chain, paving the way for its incorporation into the United States. Economically, the development of barter, trade, and industry undermined the traditional subsistence-based Hawaiian economy, replacing the one with the other.

"First came the explorers and traders, eager for food supplies," wrote Finney and Houston. "Sandalwood traders and whalers followed, and finally the settlers arrived to usher in a new era of industrial and commercial development with mammoth cattle ranches and sugar plantations. The rapid disintegration of traditional life during this period of expanding foreign contact amounted to a cultural revolution. Old ways were abandoned as the islanders copied the more sophisticated, technically-advanced Caucasians."

5. Kapu and Makahiki End

During this social upheaval, the point of no return was reached in 1819, when two devastating developments took place:

First, as a result of Western influence and "a long-festering religious schism," the traditional Hawaiian kapu system was abandoned. This came about following the death of King Kamehameha that year. Kamehameha I, was not only a great lover of surfing, but a noted surfer. Liholiho, his eldest son, succeeded to the throne and subsequently gave his endorsement to the traditional kapu system's departure from Hawaiian life. Duke Kahanamoku, The early Twentieth Century "Father of Modern Surfing," referred to this act as "surfing's kiss of death."

As noted in Chapter Two, kapu was the system of rules and prohitions that governed every phase of traditional Hawaiian society. Since kapus -- or taboos -- were also basic to traditional religious practice, the ending of governmental support for them amounted to the formal end of traditional Hawaiian religion. Because the kapu system was a regulatory code in the life of the Islands, the effects of its end reached much farther than native forms of worship. Disorganization soon followed in the family, the class structure, farming and fishing, and in traditional crafts, customs and culture. Respect for all traditional institutions wavered, and the end of the kapu system in 1819 marked the beginning of the end of traditional life.

The other development, which was directly related to the kapu system's demise, was the lapsing of the great Makahiki festival, also in 1819. This was the annual festival of three months duration where every Hawaiian sport -- including surfing -- was celebrated in tournaments. With the shutdown of the Makahiki festival, interest in Hawaiian sports quickly declined in favor of European-endorsed activities.As an institution, the Makahiki had helped stimulate formal competitions in sports and games. After these festivals ceased, surfing tournaments were not held again until the Twentieth Century. As the culture of the islands deteriorated in the Nineteenth Century, all recreation and amusements joined surfing on a course to oblivion.

More than a sport or recreational activity, surfing was hit hardest of all Makahiki-promoted activities. The end of traditional religion meant an absence of the sacred elements that had been so important to wave sliding -- he`e nalu. "With surf chants, board construction rites, sports gods, and other sacred aspects all removed," wrote Finney and Houston, "the once ornate sport of riding waves was stripped of much of its cultural plumage."

6.    Religious Imperialism

If all this wasn't bad enough, a new religion arrived to replace the old. It had its own system of restrictions to replace the kapu system. It didn't take long before activities like gambling, sexual freedom, nudity and even surfing, itself, met disfavor under the influence of Christian puritanical teachings of the the first wave of Christian missionaries -- those of the Calvinist variety.

The first Christian missionaries arrived in the Hawaiian Islands in 1820, the year after kapu was taboo. While their efforts to stabilize and Christianize the Hawaiian society helped counter the negative influences of adventurers, whalers and traders, their successful efforts to convert Hawai`i into a Christian nation was devastating to all recreational activity. Beyond the recreational aspects, Hawaiian culture, lifestyle, and society paid a heavy price to what was a well-meaning but fundamentally wrong evangelical Christian movement that raged in Hawai`i throughout the Nineteenth Century and well into the Twentieth Century.

Legendary surfer Woody Brown gave me an example in the form of a comparison between the Hawai`i of the 1940s and that of the 1990s: "You see, when I first surfed and came over here, surfing was looked down upon. 'Oh, you surfing bum!' or 'Don't have anything to do with him, he's a surfing bum.'

"The missionaries were the ones that told the Hawaiians, 'Oh, that's just horrible, you're just wasting your time on that sort of thing.' Terrible thing, you know. It kind of killed the spirit of the Hawaiian people, just like missionaries killed the spirit in everything they did; took away all their customs, eh?

"Yet, I laugh. The Hawaiians should have sent missionaries to the Mainland, instead of missionaries coming over here. Because, they understood Christ better than the 'religious' people do! Cuz, they had love for every body. They loved everybody! But, the religious people said, 'No, no. Just love the good people. All these other guys are going to hell.' Well, of course, the Hawaiians knew nobody was going to hell. They loved everybody, which is the real Christ, you see."

"I didn't know a soul," Woody told another interviewer. "I got a bicycle and went all around O`ahu and the different islands -- Maui, the Big Island, Kaua`i -- just bumming around, lost. The old Hawaiians were such wonderful people. I'd stop in front of a house and ask if I could stay for the night and they'd say, 'Oh sure! Sure! Come in!' Then they'd treat me like a king and didn't want me to go." Woody told me one Hawaiian man even broke down in tears, begging Woody to stay.

"The missionaries changed the Hawaiian people," Woody -- a deeply devout person, himself -- repeated. "They were beginning to be like us Mainlanders, when I first came over. They lost their beautiful ways. Like I told ya, when I went around the island, they cried when I left. If I go around, now, nobody's gonna cry for me or ask me to stay there for nothin'; they pay for everything I'm doin'. No way, man! Hawaiian, haole, or anybody else."

The missionaries who came to Hawai`i -- like most evangelists -- were unable to see past their own religion. Hiram Bingham was typical of the type and the leader of the first party of 14 Calvinist missionaries to arrive in 1820. Upon his arrival, he wrote from shipside that, "The appearance of destitution, degradation, and barbarism, among the chattering and almost naked savages, whose heads and feet, and much of their sunburnt skins were bare, was appalling. Some of our number, with gushing tears, turned away from the spectacle. Others, with firmer nerve, continued their gaze, but were ready to exclaim, 'Can these be human beings?!... Can such things be civilized?'" Leonard Lueras, in Surfing, The Ultimate Pleasure, sarcastically wrote that Bingham "no doubt was describing a covey of laughing surfers -- men, women and children -- who had paddled out to meet the missionary ship Thaddeus." One thing for sure was that the Hawaiian people were not about to get any respect for their indigenous culture at the hands of people with such perceptions.

When the missionaries discovered that the Hawaiians had just discarded their ancient religion and abandoned their ancient laws -- the kapu system -- they interpreted this as a sign that God was blessing their crusade. Immediately, the Christians began working to convert the Hawaiians. "Their goal was to remake the lives of the Hawaiians," wrote Finney and Houston, "and purge them of all un-Christian practices. As their evangelism took its course, many of the missionaries [even] regretted the passing of the 'noble' pastimes, among which surfing was included, but they felt utterly powerless to stop the substitution of foreign amusements for native."

The missionaries found an impressionable ally in their initial conversions. Kaahumanu, the favorite wife of Kamehameha the Great, had proclaimed herself kuhina nui, or prime minister of Hawai`i. Although Kamehameha's son Liholiho was titular head of the Hawaiian royalty, it was Kaahumanu who ended up actually ruling the kingdom. The missionaries were able to convert her fairly quickly. Despite the fact that she had been a surfer, hereself, noted Duke Kahanamoku, "they soon had her inveighing against surfing," in addition to other Hawaiian activities. Kaahumanu had great influence over her people and ruled with a strong hand. With this kind of support for the "new tabus," surfing was practiced less and less throughout the island chain.

W.R.S. Ruschenberger was one of the first haoles to point to the missionaries in Hawai`i as less than a positive force. Writing 18 years after Hiram Bingham and his Calvinists first landed, Ruschenberger observed that "A change has taken place in certain customs... I allude to the variety of athletic exercises, such as swimming, with or without the surfboard, dancing, wrestling, throwing the javelin, etc., all of which games, being in opposition to the strict tenets of Calvinism, have been suppressed." In his Narrative of a Voyage Around The World, published in 1838, Ruschenberger asked, "Can the missionaries be fairly charged with suppressing these games? I believe they deny having done so. But they write and publicly express their opinions, and state these sports to be expressly against the laws of God, and by a succession of reasoning, which may be readily traced, impress upon the minds of the chiefs and others the idea that all who practice them secure themselves the displeasure of offended heaven. Then the chiefs, from a spontaneous benevolence, at once interrupt the customs so hazardous to their vassals."

Not surprisingly, Hiram Bingham was an early defender of missionary policy in the Hawaiian Islands. He claimed that representatives of the church played no part in the disappearing of Hawaiian sports and other pastimes. Concerning surfing specifically, he wrote, "The decline and discontinuance of the use of the surfboard, as civilization advances, may be accounted for by the increase in modesty, industry and religion, without supposing, as some have affected to believe, that missionaries caused oppressive enactments against it."

By the "modesty" of a new life, Bingham must have meant the adoption of European clothing, which was useless for swimming and surfing. As for "industry," Bingham proudly pointed to the time-consuming process of earning or making a new cloth garment, and the local chiefs' demands on commoners for their labor so the chiefs could purchase European merchandise. His reference to "religion" apparently meant that the requirements of the new faith left little time for leisure, which was, itself, discouraged. After all, as the puritanical slogan goes, "Idle hands are the Devil's workshop."

Another example of this kind of righteous attitude, on the part of the missionaries who came primarily from New England, was voiced by Sheldon Dibble. In A History of the Sandwich Islands, Dibble wrote about "rough" sports such as surfing: "The evils resulting from all these sports and amusements have in part been named. Some lost their lives thereby, some were severely wounded, maimed and crippled; some were reduced to poverty, both by losses in gambling and by neglecting to cultivate the land; and the instances were not few in which they were reduced to utter starvation. But the greatest evil of all resulted from the constant intermingling, without any restraint, of persons of both sexes and of all ages, at all times of the day and at all hours of the night..." This was written by a man who came from the same culture that nearly decimated the Hawaiian population with syphilitic contamination and other diseases!    

7. Diseases

The changes wrought on the Hawaiian people in the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s were many: the demise of the kapu system, loss of leisure time, the attractions of a new culture, working for others in order to consume, and the restrictions of a new religion. These changes intensified their impact due to the introduction of deadly diseases by Europeans and North Amreicans.

This tragedy began right from the beginning of "first contact," with the arrival of the British ships commanded by Captain James Cook. "The isolated Hawaiians," wrote Finney and Houston, "lacking any natural immunity to the infectious diseases carried by the British and the succession of seamen, whalers, and adventurers from many nations who followed, were struck down in great numbers by measles, small pox, and other diseases previously unknown in Hawai`i. Imported venereal diseases then sterilized many of the survivors. By the 1890s, this biological onslaught had reduced the Hawaiian population from the 400,000 estimated by Lieutenant King in 1779 to around 40,000, a drop of 90 percent."

By 1900, the kanaka maoli population (40,000 approximate persons) made up only one fourth of Hawai`i's total population. "Aside from the cultural disorganization this implies," Finney and Houston noted, "the Hawaiians' pathetically depleted numbers must certainly have figured in the decrease of their surfing activity."  

8. Noted Surfers of the 1800s

The Hawaiians of the 1800s became preoccupied with understanding and adapting to a new way of life. This pursuit, in itself, contributed to the neglect and disappearance of the old ways. "The preoccupation of the Hawaiians in learning and adapting to the new social order in the nineteenth century contributed to the disappearance of their traditional pastimes," confirmed Kenneth Emory, adding that this alone was "-- an imposing challenge to the Hawaiians."

During the decline of wave riding in the Nineteenth Century, there were, nevertheless, standout surfers like the first man who unified the Islands and his Queen..

9. Kamehameha & Kaahumanu

Kamehameha the Great (1753?-1819) and his favorite wife Kaahumanu (1768-1832) were both surfers of some reknown. According to Hawaiian historian John Papa Ii, they liked to surf Kooka, a break located at Pua`a, in north Kona, "where a coral head stands just outside a point of lava rocks. When the surf dashed over the coral head, the people swam out with their surfboards and floated with them. If a person owned a long narrow canoe, he performed what was called lele wa`a, or canoe leaping, in which the surfer leaped off the canoe with his board and rode the crest of a wave ashore. The canoe slid back of the wave because of the force of the shove given it with the feet. When the surfer drew close to the place where the surf rose, a wave would pull itself up high and roll in. Any timid person who got too close to it was overwhelmed and could not reach the landing place. The opening through which the surfer entered was like a sea pool, with a rocky hill above and rows of lava rocks on both sides, and deep in the center. This was a difficult feat and not often seen, but for Kaahumanu and Kamehameha I it was easy. When they reached the place where the surf rose high, they went along with the crest of a wave and slipped into the sea pool before the wave rolled over. Only the light spray of the surf touched them before they reached the pool. The spectators shouted and remarked to each other how clever the two were...

  11. Abner Paki (1808-1855)

Another famous Nineteenth Century Hawaiian surfer was chief Abner Paki. According to J.F.G. Stokes, Paki was born on Molokai in 1808 and lived until 1855. It was probably around the 1830s that Paki was in his prime as a surfer.

Duke Kahanamoku wrote that Paki "was reputedly a 300-pound man, six feet four inches tall, and had prodigious strength. He passed away in 1855, but he had used those long olo boards during the early missionary days." Paki's boards can still be seen at the Bishop Museum, in Honolulu, which was founded as a memorial to his daughter Bernice Pauahi Bishop, a descendant of King Kamehameha. Tom Blake was instrumental in the restoration, in the 1920s, of Paki's two olo boards. Blake felt "that they are undoubtedly much older than anyone suspected. In fact, they were probably already antiques when Paki acquired them."

It is said that Paki would not go surfing, "unless it was too stormy for anyone else to go out," wrote Blake, adding that, "His reputation of going out only in big surf is the natural thing when a man gets beyond his youth. Today [1930s], it takes big waves to get the old timers out on their boards."

 12. Kaua`i, Kona & Maui Holdouts

In the Hawaiian Annuals of 1822, Kaua`i was credited as home -- perhaps because of its cooler climate -- of the Hawaiian surfing masters and at least one reknowned body surfer. In "The principal sport of surfriding... The people of Kauai generally held the credit of exceeding all others in the sports of the Islands. At one time, they sent their champion surfrider to compete with the chiefs in the sport on Hawaii, who showed them man's ability to shoot, or ride with the surf without a surfboard."

Adventurer Francis Allyn Olmsted described surfing in the Kailua area of the Kona Coast on the Big Island, in July 1840. In Incidents of a Whaling Voyage, Olmstead described a walk "down to the sea shore, where a party of natives were playing in the surf, which was thundering upon the beach. Each of them has a surf board, a smooth flat board from six to eight feet long, by twelve to fifteen inches broad. Upon these, they plunged forward into the surf, diving under a roller as it broke in foam over them, until they arrived where the rollers were formed, a quarter of a mile from shore perhaps, when watching a favorable opportunity, they rose upon some huge breaker, and balancing themselves, wither by kneeling upon their boards or extending themselves full length, they dashed impetuously toward the shore, guiding themselves with admirable skill and apparent unconsciousness of danger, in their lightning-like courses, while the bursting combers broke upon each side of them, with a deafening noise. In this way, they amuse themselves hour after hour, in sports which have too terrific an aspect for a foreigner to attempt, but which are admirably adapted to the almost amphibious character of the natives."

At least one missionary looked at wave riding with envy. "Many a man from abroad who has witnessed this exhilarating play," wrote Reverend Henry T. Cheever, "has no doubt only wished that he were free and able to share in it himself. For my part, I should like nothing better, if I could do it, than to get balanced on a board just before a great rushing wave, and so be hurried in half or quarter of a mile landward with the speed of a race-horse, all the time enveloped in foam and spray, but without letting the roller break and tumble over my head."

Cheever wrote Life in the Sandwich Islands, The Heart of the Pacific, As It Was and Is, published in 1851. In it, Cheever observed surfing in the Lahaina area of Maui. "It is highly amusing to a stranger to go out into the south part of this town, some day when the sea is rolling in heavily over the reef, and to observe there the evolutions and rapid career of a company of surf-players."

Cheever was not afraid or embarrassed to admit that he wished surf riding a long life. To Cheever, surfing was "so attractive and full of wild excitement to Hawaiians, and withal so healthy, that I cannot but hope it will be many years before civilization shall look it out of countenance, or make it disreputable to indulge in this manly, though it be dangerous, exercise." Riding the waves required "strength of muscle and sleight-of-hand, to keep the head and shoulders just ahead and clear of the great crested wall that is every moment impending over one, and threatening to bury the bod surf-rider in its wary ruin." Cheever added that it was, indeed, a sport for both sexes. "Even the huge Premier (Ahuea) has been known to commit her bulky person to a surfboard; and the chiefs generally, when they visit Lahaina, take a turn or two at this invigorating sport with billows and board."

13. 1800s Surfing

As noted in Chapter One, surfing was a Polynesian sport and not simply limited to the Hawaiian Islands. Likewise, surfing declined not only in Hawai`i, but elsewhere in Polynesia. Since he`e nalu had reached its highest level of development in the Hawaiian chain, its rapid disappearance was noted early on. To what extent surfing's decline throughout Polynesia compared to Hawai`i is not really known. All we know is that wave sliding continued -- even if just slightly -- in a number of areas in Polynesia.  

14. Polynesian Wave Riding

Wilkes, one of the several Nineteenth Century writers who observed surfing with interest, wrote of Polynesian wave riding outside Hawai`i. "The King's Mile Islanders use a small board in swimming in the surf like that used in the Sandwich Islands," he wrote of other South Sea Island surfers.

Cordington, another 1800s writer, observed and then postulated that, "In the Banks Islands and Torris Islands, and no doubt in other islands, they use the surfboard."

Tahiti suffered the same kind of religious upheaval, population decline and cultural change as Hawai`i and the rest of Polynesia. Wave riding in pre-European Tahiti had been a favorite recreation for children and adults of both sexes. As a major site for Polynesian surfing, it ranked second only to Hawai`i as the center of the sport's refinement. Yet, by 1891, surfing in Tahiti had disappeared completely, a victim clearly of missionary influence. "As for the Tahitians that have come within my acquaintance..." wrote North American historian Henry Adams, openly unimpressed with the Tahitian people he met in those days, "they have been the most commonplace, dreary, spiritless people I have yet seen. If they have amusements or pleasures, they conceal them. Neither dance nor game have I seen or heard of; nor surfing, swimming, nor ball-playing nor anything but the stupid, mechanical himene [hymn-singing]."

Even as late as the mid-Twentieth Century, Tahiti was devoid of a surfboard. Even though surfing had been re-introduced there, it was not readily taken back. "Not a surfboard is seen on the waves that break around this fabled south sea island," wrote Finney and Houston in their book published in 1966. "The changes wrought by western civilization virtually eliminated a once popular recreation. In recent years a few surfers have travelled there with modern boards and have discovered good waves on many beaches. Tahitians are often encouraged to try a board or to build their own, but their reaction is almost always the same. It is a children's pastime, they say. No one seems interested. Any type of ocean recreation, in fact, is considered to be for children only, and modern Tahitians rarely go near the beach unless necessity or livelihood require it."

Tahitian surfing eventually revived after the 1960s and, today, there are Tahitians who rank as some of the world's best surfers.

15. Holua, 1872

It's generally understood that with the passage of time, wave height grows in the retelling of surf legends. This being said, one of the largest -- if not the largest -- waves ever ridden was reported in 1872, by Whitney. "In 1868 a man named Holua of Minole, Hawaii, was washed out to sea in his house as a tidal wave receded," Whitney wrote. "Being a powerful man and one of the most expert swimmers in that region, he succeeded in wrenching off a board or rafter and with this as a 'papa-hee-nalu' (surfboard) he boldly struck out for shore and landed safely with the return wave. When we consider the prodigious height of the breaker on which he rode to shore (perhaps fifty feet), the feat seems almost incredible; were it not that he is now alive to attest it as well as the people on the hillside who saw him."  

16. Mark Twain "Roughs It"

The noted author Samuel Clements (aka Mark Twain) was an influential writer of the 1800s who wrote about his first surfing session -- which also happened to be his last. In chapter 32 of his 1866 book Roughing It, Twain wrote of surfing, referring to it as "sun-bathing." "I tried sun-bathing, subsequently, but made a failure of it. I got the board placed right, and at the right moment, too; but missed the connection myself. The board struck the shore in three-quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck the bottom about the same time, with a couple of barrels of water in me."

Twain/Clements was touring the Kona Coast of Hawai`i when he tried surfing in shallow water. "In one place we came upon a large company of naked natives, of both sexes and all ages, amusing themselves with the national pastime of surf-bathing. Each heathen would paddle three or four hundred yards out to sea (taking a short board with him), then face the shore and wait for a particularly prodigious billow to come along; at the right moment he would fling his board upon its foamy crest and himself upon the board, and here he would come whizzing by like a bombshell! It did not seem that a lightning express train could shoot along at a more hair-lifting speed."    

17. Other Late 1800sOther Late 1800s Observations

Author and adventuress Isabella L. Bird Bishop wrote, in 1874, that she "thoroughly enjoyed" the afternoon she spent watching surfers at Hilo Bay. Surfing, "is really a most exciting pastime, and in a rough sea requires immense nerve," she noted in her 1875 book, The Hawaiian Archipelago, Six Months Among the Palm Groves, Coral Reefs, & Volcanoes of the Sandwich Islands.

Bishop described the surfboards used at Hilo as, "a tough plank shaped like a coffin lid, about two feet broad, and from six to nine feet long, well oiled and cared for. It is usually made of the erythrina, or the breadfruit tree." After paddling out, surfers "reappeared as a number of black heads bobbing about like corks in smooth water half a mile from shore." After paddling into a wave, "they rode in majestically, always just ahead of the breaker, carried shorewards by its mighty impulse as the rate of forty miles an hour, yet seeming to have a volition of their own..."

John Dean Caton also saw surfers on the Big Island and gave his observations on surfing at Hilo, Hawai`i. This volume, published in 1880, "throws light," emphasized Blake, "on the much argued points as to whether the old surfriders rode the waves at an angle, or slid them, and whether they stood upright upon the speeding surfboard."

"One instantly dashed in," wrote Caton in 1880, "in front of, and at the lowest declevity of the advancing wave, and with a few strokes of hands and feet, established his position (on the wave). Then, without further effort, shot along the base of the wave to the eastward with incredible velocity. Naturally, he came towards shore with the body of the wave as he advanced, but his course was along the foot of the wave, and parallel with it, so that we only saw that he was running past with the speed of a swift winged bird. He kept up with the progress of the breaking crest, which moved from west to east, as successive portions of the wave took the ground (broke in shallow water)."

Caton continued, "As the big seas chased each other in from the open ocean, the west end first reached the rocky bed, and the instant the bottom of the wave met this obstruction, its rotary motion was checked, and immediately, the comb on the top was formed, so that the foamy crest seemed to run along the top of the wave from west to east, as successive portions of it reached the rock bottom."

Obviously, the surfriders Caton saw had to "slide the wave," as Tom Blake called it, to get away from the break and keep away from the rocks. As for standing, "As soon as the bather had secured his position," wrote Caton, "he gave a spring, and stood upon his knees upon the board, and just as he was passing us, when about four hundred feet from the little peninsula point where we stood, he gave another spring and stood upon his feet, now folding his arms upon his breast, and now swinging them about in wild ecstasy, in his exhilarating flight."

Caton described the boards he saw as being about 1 1/2-inches thick, seven feet long, coffin shaped, rounded at the ends, "chamfered" (beveled) at the edges; about fifteen inches wide at the widest point near the forward end, and eleven inches wide at the back end.

Blake mentioned that the natives Caton observed, "were certainly of the old school, as he says they stripped to their breach cloths or malos, before going in the water." The only incongruence was in the size of the boards. This was an extremely short board, the kind kids later on in the early 1900s used at Waikiki. The veteran surfers of Old Hawai`i used boards in the 12-16 foot range and in the early Twentieth Century would ride surfboards easily over 10 feet in length. The shortened length of the board may indicate the great decline surfing had fallen to by the later 1800s, as the veterans ostensibly no longer had olo boards.


Surfing had a slight resurgence three-quarters of the way through the 1800s. "It was not until close to the end of the nineteenth century that surfing received anything in the way of a shot in the arm," told Duke Kahanamoku to his biographer. "After a series of kings had held reign, a new king, David Kalakaua, was voted into power. This was February of 1874. Kalakaua was a fun-loving man, and he did much to lighten the many bans which the missionaries had brought on. In an effort to revive the ancient culture of the Hawaiian people, he encouraged all sports. Kalakaua gave the old songs, the hula dance, and other forms of Hawaiian cultural expression back to his people. He was a particularly strong supporter of surfing, and it enjoyed a renaissance during his reign." Unfortunately, "Kalakaua died in 1891 and again surfing went into a steep decline..."

20. Darkest Before the Dawn

Kamehameha the Great had managed to unite the Hawaiian island chain in the 1790s, ending the constant wars that had taken place for political control. The Kamehameha dynasty -- complete with queens, princes and princesses -- thus became the monarchy which ruled Hawai`i throughout most of the Nineteenth Century. "That it should have survived for so long in the age of European expansion," wrote historian I.C. Campbell, "owed much to great power rivalries and the fact that it had been well-served by its missionary advisers; but in the last analysis its survival depended on its fostering the development which would ultimately cause its downfall."

By mid-century, there were already laws in place to foster the importation of foreign labor and the privatization of land holdings. "Much of Hawaiian politics in the second half of the nineteenth century," Campbell continued, "was concerned with... how to make Hawai`i attractive to foreign investment and especially to planter interests; how to maintain the supply of labour without provoking racial animosities or social evils; how to secure and ensure continued access to American markets; and finally, how to maintain the pride and dignity of a native monarchy which too easily became the object of settler ridicule or hostility." Kamehameha III (Kauikeauoli) worked hard on the problems, but his successors were not so inclined.

By 1893, the 88 years of Kamehameha rule ended when the monarch of the time, Queen Lili`uokalani was imprisoned in her own palace and illegally overthrown. The overthrow plot was executed by North Americans in order to install a more stable business-friendly government. In a subsequent stroke of the pen, Lili`uokalani formally relinquished her throne and Hawai`i was soon annexed as a territory of the United States. The monarchy's overthrow, while not directly linked to surfing, indicated how thoroughly Hawaiians had lost control of their own socio-political environment.

A year before the overthrow, in 1892, author and anthropologist Nathaniel Emerson wrote a death knell for surfing in Hawai`i. "The sport of surf-riding possessed a grand fascination," noted Emerson, "and for a time it seemed as if it had the vitality of its own as a national pastime. There are those living... who remember the time when almost the entire population of a village would at certain hours resort to the sea-side to indulge in, or to witness, this magnificent accomplishment. We cannot but mourn its decline. But this too has felt the touch of civilization, and today it is hard to find a surfboard outside of our museums and private collections."

Two years before the overthrow, in 1891, Bolton wrote of "The sport of surfriding, once so universally popular, and now but little seen."

"True Hawaiian culture," summed-up surfing historian C.R. Stecyk, "was essentially wiped out in less than four generations by the diseases, commercial exploitation and moral imperatives of the interlopers. The act of surfing was an essential element of this now obliterated native culture. Far from being a mere diversionary pastime, surf riding was a profoundly significant activity common to most and known to all."

Significantly, despite all the foreign influences to discourage it, surfing refused to die like many other Hawaiian pastimes. As evidence of this, while on the island of Ni`ihau, Bolton observed "Six stalwart men assembled on the beach, bearing with them their precious surfboards. These surfboards... are eight or nine feet long, fifteen to twenty inches wide, rather thin, rounded at each end, and carefully smoothed. The boards are stained black, are frequently rubbed with coconut oil, and are preserved with great solicitude, sometimes wrapped in cloths. Children use similar boards..."

Although virtually ceasing to exist in both Tahiti and New Zealand, surfing in Hawai`i, actually fared better than all the other traditional Hawaiian sports and games. Most of the others had disappeared early in the period of European contact. Importantly, while even on its death bed, surfriding was still practiced in its darkest hour by the very few. For instance, Tom Blake recalls "Dad Center, kamaina and famous surfrider," saying that when he was a boy on the island of Maui in the 1890s, "a native took a long board out in storm surf and rode the swells till they broke near shore." Unfortunately, "That... was about the finish of the long board on that island. They were occasionally used, however, more as a novelty at Waikiki, until around 1900."

mbled on the beach, bearing with them their precious surfboards. These surfboards... are eight or nine feet long, fifteen to twenty inches wide, rather thin, rounded at each end, and carefully smoothed. The boards are stained black, are frequently rubbed with coconut oil, and are preserved with great solicitude, sometimes wrapped in cloths. Children use similar boards..."

Although virtually ceasing to exist in both Tahiti and New Zealand, surfing in Hawai`i, actually fared better than all the other traditional Hawaiian sports and games. Most of the others had disappeared early in the period of European contact. Importantly, while even on its death bed, surfriding was still practiced in its darkest hour by the very few. For instance, Tom Blake recalls "Dad Center, kamaina and famous surfrider," saying that when he was a boy on the island of Maui in the 1890s, "a native took a long board out in storm surf and rode the swells till they broke near shore." Unfortunately, "That... was about the finish of the long board on that island. They were occasionally used, however, more as a novelty at Waikiki, until around 1900."  

21. Santa Cruz, California, 1885

In an isolated but significant case of surfing actually spreading in the 1800s, three young Hawaiian ali'i brothers brought surfing to the Mainland of the United States in 1885. Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana`ole and his brothers David Kawananakoa and Edward Keli`iahonui were nephews of Queen Kapi`olani, David Kalakaua's wife. The three were sent to St. Matthew's Military School in San Mateo. On a visit to Santa Cruz that summer, they exposed Mainlanders to surfing for the first time as they rode boards in the waves off the mouth of the San Lorenzo River. They rode boards that they had milled from local redwood logs.

This Hawaiian surfing influence in Santa Cruz is documented in a Monday, July 20, 1885 newspaper article that mentions that "The young Hawaiian princes were in the water, enjoying it hugely and giving interesting exhibitions of surf board swimming as practiced in their native islands."

Over a decade later, in a July 23, 1896 edition of the Santa Cruz newspaper called The Daily Surf, the impact of the Hawaiians was still noted. "The boys who go in swimming in the surf at Seabright beach use surfboard to ride the breakers like the Hawaiians."

Surfing held on by a thread, but its demise was not to be. Here and there were lone surfers and, unexpectedly, a sudden shaft of light shone through the clouds that had obscured surfing for much of the 1800s. At the end of the Nineteenth and the beginning of the Twentieth Century, when little remained of the old ways and that which did was nearly unrecognizable, surfing's smoldering was fanned into a flame of revival. Native Hawaiians rediscovered their surfing heritage and Hawaiian haoles joined them to bring the sport back to popularity once again.    


copyright © 1996-2000 Malcolm Gault-Williams. All Rights Reserved.