Who among us doesn't dream of being the sun-bronzed envy of all who watch the surfers riding their waves, wishing they had that enviable ability? Here is a brief overview of Hawaiian surfing, as it came to us from the ancient royalty of the Hawaiian islands.
A BRIEF HISTORY
OF ANCIENT HAWAIIAN SURFING
Despite all my protestations about the vile aspects of materialism and modern consumerism, I will admit a recidivist streak that expresses itself in a tendency I have to ‘collect’ certain things. Let me assure you that the rationalization I use to justify this contradictory behavior to myself is that usually these ‘collectibles’ serve the purpose of being convenient-to-hand examples of objects I am writing about. That was certainly the case for the 500 or so specimens of flight helmets and oxygen masks (now long gone) I managed to acquire over the years in the course of my aerospace history researches, and it also applied to the 30 or so specimens of aircraft rocket ejection seats that used to fill up my garage (no longer). It even applied to all 106 of the antique mountaineering ice axes I have (still) in my collection (the French call them ‘piolets’ and the Swiss ‘espickels’).
You’ll recall that we have the English Victorians to thank for the ‘collector’ mania that now obtains across the entire United States, since those stout spirited and inquisitive members of higher English society of the late 1700s & 1800s kept some of the finest private collections of just about anything you can imagine. From those beginnings of the amateur tyro collector, aided and abetted by researches done by scholarly notables such as Darwin, Cook, and many, many others of that period who gathered specimens of flora, fauna, and geological diversity from around the world, we now have an American tradition of collecting in which just about anything goes (ranging from women’s knicker collections to unused condoms, and everything in between).
The usual reason for collections, back in those early days, was to categorise and identify for research—a favorite avocational undertaking of the English gentleman and amateur scientist of Victoria’s era. Today, most people engage in this sort of activity merely for diversion and the ‘fun’ of it (although it typically turns rather quickly into a sort of rabid mania, judging by the success of eBay). In so far as I collected aeronautical life support gear, ejection seats, ice axes, and so forth, my motives were largely the same, for I would find myself in need of a suitable image of something to accompany an article I was writing about and instead of having to hunt one down, I could merely snap a few images of a suitable specimen in my personal reference collection. Aside from their value as illustrative material to accompany papers, the collection of these artifacts turned out to be a very fascinating preoccupation in its own right. However, the above is all merely context and background for what follows. Stay tuned and I shall explain…
As you know from my frequent references to surfing and surf culture here and elsewhere, I have long pursued an enthusiasm for that sport. It should come as no surprise, therefore, to hear that I also collect surfboards. Some time back, in the course of searching for more interesting old ‘longboards’ (a term generally used for the longer surfboards of from 8 to 12 feet in length that were popular prior to the advent of newer, shorter board in the 1970s) to add to my collection, I came across a considerably battered old longboard (measuring about 10 feet and a few odd inches) that was red on its upper and lower surfaces, with a big yellow spot on the nose and a very much faded ‘Duke Kahanamoku’ label on it. Most people who know the story about Duke Kahanamoku, generally regarded as one of the most famous of all ‘modern’ Hawaiian surfers (modern in this case refers to anything post-1910), also know that despite all of his Olympic swimming fame, celebrity status, good natured promotion of water sports, and winning personality, the ‘Duke’ ran afoul of some callous surfing promoters of the late 60s who subtly exploited his reputation in order to make money. Duke lent his name to a number of products at that time in agreements that were intended to return royalties to him for sales of water sports products bearing the Duke’s personal cachet (such as surfboards, etc.), but due to marketing and profit sharing complications, Duke never made much money from these business liaisons.
I should here clarify, for those who aren’t up on the history of surfing that back in the 60s there were generally two main commercial types of surfboard being produced—those that were skillfully hand-shaped and carefully custom-made, one by one, and those that were mass-produced by the thousands, in the same manner automobile tires are manufactured. The derisive term for these latter boards was ‘pop-outs’, for obvious enough reasons.
The old longboard I stumbled across turned out to be a ‘pop-out’ and one of a great many foam-cored, fiberglass-covered boards that were produced by the new mechanized process involving pre-shaped foam blanks, thermal ovens, and glass-fibre compression processes. Still, the old board had the Duke’s name on it and also strangely enough had a ‘signature’ device that was once used by the Kahanamoku brothers to identify their personal boards (an overall red color scheme embellished with a large yellow spot), so despite its battered condition (it had dings and slices here and there on its surfaces and some of the exterior fiberglass was even delaminating on its tail) there was something quite appealing about it. The board’s skeg (now called a ‘fin’) was laminated wood covered in clear fiberglass, a favorite technique used back in the 60s, and permanently attached to the tail (today’s fins are generally removable and are produced in many different styles and shapes). There was no question about its NOT being a valuable, one-of-a-kind custom Kahanamoku board, but I bought it anyway. It reminded me of many things, not least of which were the frequently unhappy outcomes of occasionally severe wipeouts experienced while surfing, and it constitutes a sort of favorite personal icon for recollective reflections about surfing’s past. And that is what I shall do here: meditate a bit about the early Hawaiian history of surfing, or “He’e Nalu” in Hawaiian (which more or less literally means ‘wave sliding’ or ‘gliding on waves’).
Surfing as we now know it, the sport of riding boards on coastal waves, is surmised to have originated as an offshoot of skills deemed important to the Polynesian ‘waterman’. The term waterman purposely differentiates the status of someone who is familiar with coastal waters from that of the deep water sailor. The tradition of the waterman appears to have come originally from the Pacific Islands, where such individuals in Polynesian culture functioned in a multitude of roles important to islanders that included paddling, fishing, rowing, fishing (both above and below the surface), diving, swimming, and canoeing. Although the actual sport of wave riding (literally, in Hawaiian, he’e nalu) is reckoned to be so old that it is impossible to determine where the very first instance of surfboard riding originated, it is safe enough to guess that the technique of surfing waves on a board stemmed from acquired knowledge of how to reach the shore through surf, either by swimming or in outrigger canoes.
In all likelihood, the thrilling rush of excitement that such canoe landings through surf entailed provoked some astute waterman to conceive of doing the same thing on a board for pure pleasure. It doesn’t take much of a leap of the imagination to carve a flat plank of wood from a nearby tree and paddle it out through the surf,to ride it back in again. It is further very likely that the first surfing (with a board) was actually what we today call ‘Bogie Board surfing’, in which a short length of board is held in front of one and ridden by lying flat upon it. Perhaps ‘body surfing’ with a short board was itself inspired by the need to reach shore from beyond the surf, in the event one fell from a canoe and was unable to get back in. The exact origins will forever remain uncertain, but the fact that ‘surfing’ was a logical development of a water-based culture would probably be accepted as true by anyone who looked at the matter carefully.
Whatever the original inspiration, it wasn’t long before a body surfer decided to use a larger wooden board that would support his entire weight out of water and try to stand up on it while riding the waves in to shore. Thus, surfing seems to have been born several hundred of years ago as just a logical extension of the Polynesian waterman’s familiarity with the coastal environment that provided his livelihood, and that of his community. Certainly, ancient petroglyphs found in many parts of the Polynesian world (notably in Hawaii, Tahiti, Rapa Nui or Easter Island) seem to evidence the fact that surfing has been an important part of Polynesian culture for a considerable period of time.
While Hawaii is today most widely regarded as the traditional ‘home’ of surfing, it is worth noting in passing that evidence exists to indicate that a form of wave-riding apparently also existed at one time on the African coast, since documents show that African boys were observed riding planks of wood through the waves back in the early 1800s. Another document records the use of small bundles of reeds by Indians to ride waves on the coast of Peru, several hundred years ago. Wave riding therefore seems to have occurred independently in several parts of the world, although nowhere as much taken into the culture as in Polynesia.
Curiously, the ancient regard for surfing in Hawaii seems to be largely responsible for the survival of this very old form of water sport, since in Tahiti and other parts of Polynesia, surfing was regarded as merely a recreational activity for children. Only in Hawaii was surfing traditionally looked upon as a challenging and enjoyable sport for both adults and children (but principally for adults). This fact assured that surfing would continue to be enjoyed by the ancient Hawaiian culture well into the time when the first Christian evangelical protestants landed in Hawaii (early 1800s). Thus, despite evidence showing other instances of wave riding in various parts of the world and at various times, it is in Hawaii that surfing most vigorously developed and remains identified with as a sport.
Since the Hawaiians lacked a written language, most of what we know about ancient Hawaiian surfing practices comes to us today, ironically enough, thanks to the recording of historical events by those same missionaries, whose puritanical obsessiveness with modesty eventually succeeded in almost completely eradicating surfing as a widespread and popular sport in Hawaii.
What is known about the ancient sport of Hawaiian surfing is that it was enjoyed by both men and women, and by both the commoners and the royalty almost equally. The royalty, known as the ‘Ali’i’, prided themselves as skilled wave riders and due to the fact that they had far more time to practice the sport, generally excelled at it. The commoners, with family and community responsibilities, had far less time for such recreations, but enjoyed wave riding none the less for it.
There was another important reason for Ali’i surfing expertise and that was that it helped them cultivate their image of class superiority. As rulers, it was deemed necessary to maintain an affect of those attributes that would set one off as being of a superior, ruling class. These included physical prowess and strength, royal bearing, ‘command authority’, and all of the qualities that one would normally expect in any leader. A mastery of all things was expected, including canoeing and wave riding. Such was their prerogative in this area of activity that certain beaches were reserved exclusively for royal use (including the particular wave sets and surfing conditions those beaches offered).
For both commoners and royalty, surfing was an activity wherein both sexes could usually participate equally, and there were a number of the ancient Hawaiian women whose surfing skills were supposedly excellent. Surfing was also an activity in which interested young men and women could mingle, interact, and develop sexual attraction for each other. Reportedly, many individuals met their mates in this manner, although ‘marriage’ as an institution did not exist until the Christians established it. Most often a couple who were interested in each other simply lived together, having obtained the blessings of both sets of parents, and the bond was more or less sealed by a sexual coupling performed in front of those parents, acting as witnesses (hard for modest westerners to imagine, but yes…that was the equivalent of as much ‘ceremony’ as there was). As is apparent, the ancient Hawaiians were completely uninhibited about having casual sex with anyone in whom they were interested (as foreign sailors were soon to discover), but this is a tangential fact.
At the Bernice Bishop Museum in Honolulu are a number of specimens of old surfboards, most all from before 1930, and many from before 1900. The fact that Hawaiians had tremendous regard for their papa he’e nalu (surfboards) is recorded in missionary accounts that detail how after each use of a board, the owner would carefully dry it, clean it, wipe it with kukui or other natural oils, and after wrapping it in tapa cloth, place it high up in the rafters of the hale where it would be safe from natural elements. Boards could and often were loaned, but rarely given away. In this context, the Hawaiian phrase ‘Ha’awi papa he’e nalu’ could be translated as meaning ‘loaning a board with the understanding that it would be returned’.
In terms of the boards themselves, there was a distinction in both types and who used what. Of the four main types of ancient Hawaiian board, the largest or longest boards, usually made from light weight Willi-Willi wood (very similar to Balsa in density), were called Olo and could range as long as 24 feet or more. These were reserved for royalty, probably as much for the fact that lightweight Willi-Willi wood was much scarcer than heavier Koa or Ula wood. The next largest size was known as the Kiko’o and these were generally between 12 to 18 feet in length, carved from Koa wood and good for big surf, but hard to maneuver. Third in relative size was the Alaia, which was a mid-sized board usually longer than 8 feet; it was easier to handle, but being carved from Koa wood, it was still somewhat heavy. Finally, there was the Paipo board, from 2 to 4 feet long and usually preferred by children who rode it in the prone position as one would use a modern belly board. One of the beautiful specimens in the Bishop Museum in Honolulu is an Alaia board that was the possession of Princess Kaiulani, an exquisitely beautiful and bright young ‘hapa’ Hawaiian woman (the niece of Queen Liliuokalani) who was the last Heir Apparent to the Royal Throne of Hawaii (tragically, she died prematurely in 1899 at a very early age).
Surfing contests were common among both classes of people, with much wagering and betting on the competition. It is thought that the ancient Hawaiian passion for gambling originated from contacts with shipwrecked Chinese sailors as far back as a century or more prior to Captain Cook’s ‘official’ discovery of the islands in 1778, for although Cook is credited with having documented his contact with the ancient Hawaiians in that year, there is much circumstantial evidence to suggest that the ‘Sandwich Islands’ (as Cook named the Hawaiian group, in honor of his sponsor the Earl of Sandwich) had been visited by several nations from as early as the late 1500s (Spain, China, Japan, to name a few). Thus, not just the pastime of gambling, but knowledge of iron tools (the Hawaiians had no metals), venereal disease, and even leprosy were almost certainly introduced to the islands long before Cook’s visit.
Betting on surfing competition was taken very seriously by the ancient Hawaiians and much family hardship resulted from the losses that could occur. Hales (homes), surfboards, personal items of wealth, weapons, and even family members (wives or children) could and would be used as betting collateral.
The lure of big surf exerted such a powerful influence on Hawaiian life that everything could come to a complete standstill when the large waves of winter came rolling in. Men, children, and women would often abruptly leave off whatever they were doing (farming taro, making tapa cloth, etc.) and go down to the ocean and spend the entire day riding the huge waves. This fact was documented fairly consistently in several instances from about 1815 onwards by visiting English and American ships. The passion that the Hawaiians evidenced in their great love for wave riding was very clear to any westerner who watched them on those early visits to the islands, although it took some foreigners a while to truly understand what the riding of waves was all about (so alien was it to European and American culture).
As might be imagined, the object of all this passionate water activity was held in extremely high regard and the creation of an ancient Hawaiian surfboard was no simple thing. Around the creation of a surfboard, as with anything else made from wood (such as statuettes of gods, canoes, etc.), a very elaborate series of religious ceremonies developed. The right tree had first to be found, a process involving kahunas who would search for the correct wood, invoking the spirits for success in their task. Ceremonies were then conducted (even with relation to cutting the selected tree down) and then much subsequent ceremony would attend the actual shaping and finishing of the wood into the desired board by master craftsmen and artisans who specialized in wood products. The religious significance of the process ranked almost on a par with that attending the creation of a new, seaworthy double-hulled outrigger canoe, the creating of which commanded the utmost respect and religious ceremonial regard from the Hawaiians.
Of course, no matter how auspicious the ceremonies surrounding the creation of a new surfboard were, a masterfully created board was useless without surf. Such was the keenly integrated enthusiasm for surfing in Hawaiian life that in the event that there was no surf worth riding on a particular day, special ocean-wise kahunas (skilled shamen or priests) were called upon to ask the sea to provide waves. This could take the form of using specific chants while lashing the waters with entwined strands of the ‘Beach Morning Glory’ (Ipomoea Pescaprae). One such surviving chant that was frequently employed went like this:
(‘Ina’a ‘ohe nalu, a laila aku i kai, Penei e hea ai:)
“Kumai! Kumai! Ka nalu nui mai Kahiki mai,
Alo po, i pu! Ku mai ka pohuehue,
Hu! Ka ko, o loa!“’
(If there is no surf, invoke seaward in the following manner:)
“Arise! Arise, you great surfs from Kahiki!
The powerful curling waves,
Arise with pohuehue!
Well up, long raging surf!”
There are more instances in which these invocations produced significant surf than not, but it has been noted that the ancient Hawaiian kahunas who were responsible for such matters had little else to do than study the waves, surf conditions, and ocean weather, so that they were highly intuitive masters of these interpretative feats. This same quality has been noted and remarked upon concerning the astounding feats of seamanship and celestial navigation that the ancient Polynesians employed to effectively sail thousands of miles across the Pacific oceans in their seagoing outrigger canoes. In today’s modern, highly mechanized world, very few supremely intuitive understandings of such complex subtleties on this level are presently encountered, thus making them appear to be almost impossible (or inexplicable magic) to the casual observer. In today’s Waikiki Beach vacation center, beachboys will occasionally put on a show for tourists involving these chants and the ritual lashing of the water to produce surf (characteristically with poor results), but such things are mere displays of ‘local color’ for mainlanders and do not pretend to connect with those infinitely deeper levels of mana (spirit) that were the familiar venues of the kahunas of old Hawaii.
Of course, due to the problems associated with oral histories that have no ancient recorded written counterparts, most knowledge and understanding of ancient Hawaiian culture comes to us as a mixture of truth, fact, fable, and legend. Separating the fact from the legend in such a convoluted subject area as ancient Hawaiian history is often a very formidable undertaking, as may well be imagined. I mention this here in reference to the fact that there were a great number of legendary ancient Hawaiian wave riders, accounts of which survive only in the oral history tradition passed along from generation to generation. Due to this fact, I have selected one only as an example to recount here, a legendary woman surfer of the old Hawaiian culture named Mamala.
Off of Waikiki lies the ocean stretch west of the coast of Honolulu that is named Ke Kai o Mamala. In ancient times, the mouth of Honolulu harbor was known as Kou, and there were to be found a number of excellent patterns of wave breaks in several parts of it. Mamala was a prominent Oahu Chiefess and an excellent wave rider. She was also reputed to be a Kupua, a semi-godlike Hawaiian hero with spiritual power who could assume several distinct forms, including that of a giant lizard, a great shark, or a beautiful woman (also known as a mo’o).
The legend records that Mamala was at first mated to another Kupua, a shark-man named Ouha. They would share Awa (we know it as Kava, certain chemical components of which stimulate the brain into a sense of pleasant hyper-awareness) and play Konane (a form of checkers using pebbles much like Go—more evidence of early Japanese contact perhaps!) on the smooth rocks at Kou.
Mamala, being an excellent surfer, often preferred to surf well off shore, at such times when the incoming waves were large and the rough, white-capped waters demanded great skills to ride. Whenever the water was the most challenging and the immense waves most daunting, she would be observed by those on shore and greatly admired by all who saw her.
One of those who regularly watched was Honoka’upu, a local chief who lived in a coconut grove near the beach at Kou. Taken with her great skill as a wave rider and also smitten by her beauty, Honoku’upu desired Mamala as his mate and approached her. She agreed to his proposal and thereafter left Ouha, the shark-man, to live on shore with her new mate. This left Ouha feeling disgraced and dishonored, so he attempted to kill Honoku’upu several times, but always without success. Further efforts to defeat Honoku’upu also failed, leaving him ridiculed by the women of that area. Finally, suffering greatly from the shame and disgrace he felt had been brought upon him by Mamala’s departure, he cast off his human form forever and became the great shark god (a manoakua) that inhabits the waters off of Waikiki and Koko Head.
Today, a song (mele) handed down orally memorializes Mamala and her ancient ménage a trois. Two parts of it follow here, combined into one.
The surf rises at Koolau,
Blowing the waves into mist,
Into little drops,
Spray falling along the inner harbor.
There is my dear lover Ouha,
There is the shaking sea, the running sea of Kou,
The crablike, moving sea of Kou.
Prepare the Awa to drink, the crabmeat to eat,
The small Konane board is at Hono-kau-pu,
My friend on the highest point of the surf.
There is a good surf for us,
My love has gone away.
Smooth is the floor of Kou,
Fine is the breeze from the mountains…
By the path to Nuumehalani,
Will that lover return?
I belong to Honoku’upu
From the top of the tossing sea waves,
The eyes of the day and the night are forgotten.
Kou is the day, and tonight
The eyes meet at Kou.
The surf rises at Ko’olau,
Blowing the waves into mists,
Into little drops,
Spray falling along the hidden harbor.
There is my dear lover Ouha,
There is the shaking sea, the running sea of Kou,
The crablike sea of Kou.
My love has gone away…
Fine is the breeze from the mountain.
I wait for you to return…
Will the lover return?
I belong to Honoku’upu,
From the top of the tossing sea waves…
It helps to remember that due to their lack of a written language, the ancient Hawaiians greatly prized allegory, allusiveness, and a wide ranging number of subtleties found in their oral language. They also had a very clever sense of humor that frequently included punning and other forms of indirect reference. Only someone who understands this well and has some familiarity with the ancient Hawaiian styles of prose is liable to fully appreciate the content of this mele (and many others) with its rich suggestions of passionate love, sensual desire, and longing.
Thus, when the first Christian missionaries landed in groups on Hawaiian soil, this was the status of wave-riding on the islands: a very strongly interwoven part of island culture that culminated as perhaps the finest and broadest expression of the ancient Hawaiians’ great respect for and appreciation of the ocean that surrounded them, as the life force of their culture.
Shortly before that arrival, as is generally known (and for reasons that are too complex to discuss simply here), the Hawaiians threw off the traditional constraints of the ‘Kapu’ system (we know this word as ‘Taboo’, from Polynesian derivation) and along with it the ancient religion of animistic spiritualism they had hewed to for centuries. The Kapu system prescribed rules of life and conduct for both commoners and royalty alike and was woven into their entire structure of their religious spirituality in such a manner that the Kapu system was essentially inseparable from their most basic religious beliefs. [The fact that this important event happen when it did, with the missionaries coming upon the scene at such a juncture as they did, would have profound influence on the subsequent development of Hawaiian culture over the next 100 years.]
Upon arrival in the early 1800s, the Christian Calvinist missionaries (protestant evangelicals) were amazed and gratified to find that the Hawaiian natives were perfectly ideal subjects for conversion to their Christian beliefs. Over a period of time (the ensuing decades), they succeeded not just in converting most ordinary Hawaiians to Christianity, but in also gaining the support of certain key members of the Hawaiian royalty, who then exerted even more substantial influence on their subjects to openly embrace the new religion en masse.
Regrettably, the new Christian misionaries found the innocent natural Hawaiian customs scandalous in their general disregard for clothing, sexual proprieties, and what the westerners considered ‘normal standards of basic modesty’. Since ‘marriage’ was unknown and Hawaiian mating practices, sexual liaisons, and procreative unions were all carried out informally and without much contentious agonizing over any implicit questions of morality, the missionaries devoted much of their time and attention to establishing and enforcing an extremely rigorous requirement of extreme modesty among the natives.
Since surfing had always been enjoyed without clothing, and also as much perhaps due to the sexual desires that often developed between men and women in such a hedonistic and sensually explicit environment, surfing gradually began to die out in Hawaii. Clearly, from a practical standpoint, one could not dress in the sort of full-cut and heavy neck-to-ankle bathing costume required of ‘good Christian ladies’ in that era and expect to remain alive (and afloat) in the surf! The end result was that Hawaiians’ fondness for surfing became impossible to socially integrate into the new faith’s ethical dictums and moral constraints. As a consequence, both surfing and another very important ancient Hawaiian custom, the Hula, began a steady decline that continued until all surfing nearly came to a complete end. It was not until well after the turn of the new century that surfing (and the hula) came back into fashion, largely thanks to a few holdouts that resisted the new religious ways, but I’ll discuss that in another segment, covering the rebirth of wave riding.
Aloha kokou, Kalikiano
“Hu’ea pau ‘ia e ka wai" (“All scooped up by rushing water”) [Everything is told, no secrets are kept!]