Surfing History is Hawaii History

Surfing History is Hawaii History

The roar of the waves is a constant summons that pulses through the blood of all island peoples. 

Man has answered this call in a variety of ways throughout history, using canoes and coracles, dinghies, scows, and whaleboats, among others. When the Pacific was finally explored, the blue-green bays of the Hawaiian Islands were where surfing - as we know it - was first observed.

The Polynesians there spun their boards with bewildering skill as they hurtled down the faces of breaking waves.

Surfing was the sport of kings there, and over a century later the first white man learned to surf, preserving Hawaii's status as the world's surfing capital to this day.

Hawaii is famous for its surfing.

No one knows when surfing began, as it is such an ancient pastime.

There was no written language in ancient Polynesia, since history and legend were passed down orally from parent to child.

Chants, called meles in Hawaii, usually served as an exchange.

Surf-riding, as described in these chants, was one of the most common Polynesian sports, found in every island in the Pacific, from New Zealand to Hawaii and from Easter Island to New Guinea.

In Hawaii, the sport was found to have reached its greatest development when these places were finally discovered by the Western world.

Hawaiian people are said to have crossed the Pacific in their outrigger canoes, coming from Bora Bora and Tahiti, where they previously lived.

All of their language, customs, and arts corroborate this fact.

Children usually practiced surfing on boards on most of the other Pacific islands, and the sport was not well developed. On Tahiti and Hawaii, the types of surfing practiced were far more skilled than those found elsewhere.

The fact that the Hawaiians are said to have taken their surfing skills with them when they left Tahiti 1,000 years ago appears to support the early development of surfing as expressed in the chants.

According to modern practice, boards used for surfing on the Islands of Oceania were small, less than five feet long, and would not have supported a man other than in a prone position.

Today, body surfing boards are just a grade above what they were.

The significant fact is that boards greater than five feet in length were found only in New Zealand, Tahiti, and Hawaii, and it is in Hawaiian chants alone that we find frequent reference to the positions of sitting, kneeling, and standing on the boards as the surfers rode down the surfaces of the advancing waves.

Prior to the arrival of the white man, Hawaiians placed a high value on sports and dancing.

Polynesians were pleasure-loving, tall, handsome, and athletic people.

The Polynesians have been called the Greeks of the Pacific.

Surfing was the sport of kings.

Everyone, including chiefs and commoners alike, spend much of their time in the water.

Every aspect of Hawaiian life was woven into surfing, according to the chants.

Prior to the early missionaries and Queen Kaahumanu removing tabus, the alii had their own private beaches which were off-limits to other people, a method of discouraging people from using them that was both common and effective in primitive societies. 

At all levels of Hawaiian life, proficiency in surfing was a definite status symbol, in addition to its religious implications. Surfing was the sport of kings, and they were often the best surfers, since besides being a religious symbol, it had a social connotation as well.

Every Hawaiian, whether rich or poor, young or old, owned a surfboard, which was frequently employed for transportation as well as for enjoyment.

The Hawaiians were the only Polynesians who were great gamblers, and thus there was widespread betting on the outcome of surf meets and water festivals.

A man would occasionally gamble everything he owned during a surfing match, risking his life or freedom, in the finest Mississippi riverboat traditions, if he lost.

Surfing is a vigorous sport, and therefore the gesture of wiping out was an appropriate one. It doesn't allow for the weak or timid.

A ride on the same wave as a man and woman might naturally be assumed to provide fulfillment to the senses in the same way that a hula dance and its music might.

First writings of surfing. 

Captain Cook's bones were left in Kealakekua Bay on the Hawaiian island, and his journals were seized by Captain King, to whom the first description of surfing is attributed.

He praises the natives' dignified ease and pleasure in swimming, kayaking, and other water activities, noting with pleasure the arrival at Kealakekua Bay.

He recorded the first historical accounts of surfboard riding in his logbook, in simple English.

There was great interest in surfing, kayaking, and swimming from the time Cook discovered the Islands until 1820, when the first missionary boat from Boston arrived, bearing a cargo of Calvinists bent on converting the happy natives to their own austere way of life.

The legendary warrior Kamehameha was known as a great surfer.

It was lucky for Kamehameha the Great, the most renowned of the Hawaiian monarchs, to reign after Cook's expedition and to die before the missionaries arrived.

He succeeded in uniting all the islands into one throne during his time.

In addition to being a warrior, he was as renowned a surfer as he was athletic.

At the age of a few weeks, he was taught to swim in a mountain stream, and he became an expert in the water before he could walk, adhering to the tradition of the times.

He was taught the varied sports of spear throwing, wrestling, and surfing at a young age, which developed the noble strength and physique that distinguished the alii from the common folk in a land where an armed truce between the factions was the best that could be hoped for, and where the weak rarely survived their allotted lifespan.

According to Hawaiian historian John II, the Holualoa lands on the island of Hawaii were specifically occupied by ancient chiefs because surfing there was excellent.

Kamehameha (Kah-may-hah-may-hah) learned to surf and to skilfully maneuver canoes in these waves, hence he became a master of these skills. Because he was well-trained, he excelled in these pursuits and in sailing canoes.

When the surf rises, the learner lies down on the board to learn to surf, while the experienced surfer holds onto the back end (lemu).

A surfer rode nicely toward the shore when the surf drew near, in accordance with that name, O companions.

Surfing was centered on Waikiki.

Surfing at Waikiki was enjoyable because the waves were of every size and shape, ensuring that every surfer could find something to ride.

A quote from the early part of the century describes Waikiki as a favorite surfing spot - "all the chiefs went to Waikiki to surf on the last day of the lunar month, the day of Muku."

At this point, it is easy to theorize that the widespread practice of surfing on the different islands of Oceania was initiated by kids using banana stalks or bits of driftwood to pull themselves through the waves faster than by swimming or body surfing.

Surfing was banned because of missionaries.

Upon Kamehameha's death, Kaahumanu became the great matriarch of the Hawaiian Islands and controlled the kingdom. 

Many years later, she would unknowingly preside over the demise of surfing. Initially, she rebuffed the missionaries.

She was subsequently persuaded by Hiram Bingham, one of the initial and most inflexible of their members, to write (pala pala) and recount tales.

Bingham, like all the early missionaries depicted in the drawing [above], was opposed to sports, dancing, feasting, music, nudity, gambling, drinking, and adultery, all of which the ancient Hawaiians cherished so much.

The taboos were broken thanks to Kaahumanu and his efforts, but the Calvinists' taboos were worse than the taboos that replaced them.

The missionaries declared that surfing was against the will of God, although they were not specifically opposed to surfing, but rather to its associated vices, such as gambling, sexual freedom, and men and women surfing together in revealing clothing.

Learning and hard manual work could be accomplished faster if time was not wasted.

Kaahumanu converted to the new religion quickly and ordered the destruction of temples, including their wooden images, which were remarkable works of art.

Only one of these carved gods is still in existence today.

Later historians specializing in the early missionary period are convinced that Kaahumanu became, to use the vernacular, Bingham's great and good friend.

The small New Englander with the burning black eyes and the magnificent 400-pound chiefess was often seen together, and she built him a house next door to her own.

Bingham's influence grew, and he gradually banned all the games and sports that had delighted the Hawaiians and kept them fit and strong.

Chants and the hula dance were both forbidden.

People caught cheating were sent to Lanai and Kahoolawe Islands. 

When the white man came to Hawaii, those Hawaiians who survived the diseases died of broken hearts, since everything they once loved was now condemned.

There were few to question Queen Kaahumanu's alii; their loyalty to him was such.

Of course, surfing was included in the list of prohibited games.


The surfing activity in Hawaii experienced a brief revival at the beginning of the reign of Young King Kamehameha III, but apart from this, there was no extensive surfing activity until nearly 50 years later when David Kalakaua, the Merrie Monarch of the Pacific, restored the hula and the songs and other Hawaiian cultural expressions.

During this time, the Hawaiians who had lost their land to missionaries' sons, missionaries, and sugar plantation owners, were broken in spirit by Calvinist demands and in health by the hot clothes and lack of sea and land sports. 

In 1878, 50,000 remained of the once estimated 400,000 population.

Kalakaua for a short time succeeded in reversing these alarming bans.

He was a king to delight the hearts of his life-loving subjects, and he was merry, intelligent, warm-hearted, and musical.

Prior to becoming king, Kalakaua visited the Kona coast along with Sophia Cracroft and Lady Franklyn, the late lamented Arctic explorer's widow.

Miss Cracroft described a surfing competition in her letters home.

The text reveals that Kalakaua had begun a campaign to revive Hawaiian sports and customs before the events described in the story took place.

An interesting footnote to this trip is that several members of my family joined us, some of them walking all the way down three miles of jungle paths, while others rode horseback. We were particularly interested in seeing people surf, because we had been told that it was a custom peculiar to the people of this area.

Mr. Kalakaua had introduced us to a native house belonging to a lower-ranking chief, a fine-looking man, the previous day. We alighted there today.

A large group of villagers gathered around the house to watch him succeed at the subsequent sports, which were surfing.

' My attempt to describe surf-riding is probably not very accurate, but I will try.'

A man or woman goes out to the line of breakers, carrying before him a thin board about 4 to 6 feet long and 15 inches wide; he swims with one arm while the other propels him forward.

"These swimmers either dive beneath the curling waves or ride the face of the liquid wall to the top or back, ignoring them entirely."

"The surfers choose their wave based on its height and direction, then turn around and position their surfboard in front of it, rising to its peak and gliding on it with outstretched limbs until it has run out of steam. The waves are not faced head-on. Instead, they are ridden upon until they dissipate on the beach."

They turn around if they realize that it is headed for the rocks. "It's a fantastic sight, and some people are so skilled that they can stand up on the surfboard and come in erect during their flying progress! We saw one man do this."

A child of four or five may swim as well as walk. All who live on the coast seem to enjoy it as much as on land.

When the young people run into the water and back out again, they go farther and play in the edge of the receding waves, throwing themselves down so that the water may wash over them - when they are even older, they have small surfboards, being already good swimmers.

During the morning and afternoon, you may see as many as a dozen of them in the water, shouting, playing, diving straight into the water headfirst or standing on their heads, dashing their legs in the air, and engaging in any number of other antics."

During Kalakaua's actual reign, Waikiki once again became prominent, and surfing parties were frequently held outside his beach house.

In addition to being the site of numerous luaus, the valley was the scene of the revival of the ancient hula dance.

During Kalakaua's reign, Waikiki once more became the center of Hawaiian cultural life. However, his reign was short, and therefore his reign was merry to the end.

Surfing was on its way out, and the halcyon days were also on their way out when he died.

The Boom Came Suddenly After a Short Lived Decline.

In 1891, sugar planters overthrew Queen Liliuokalani and established a republic, using the tax money from sugar to run the government.

The Hawaiian islands suffered a serious setback in surfing and other Hawaiian activities when the monarchy was overthrown and the islands were reluctantly annexed by America at the turn of the century because one writer lamented that it was difficult to find a surfboard outside a museum.

Caucasians began surfing at Waikiki for the first time in recorded history in the early 1900s, when surfing there again dropped in popularity.

After that, surfing and other water sports experienced a surge in popularity throughout the Islands.