Volume 69 1960 > Volume 69, No. 4 > The development and diffusion of modern Hawaiian surfing, by Ben R. Finney, p 314-331
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Photo courtesy Hawaiian Visitors Bureau, Surfers sliding down a large winter wave at Makaka, Oahu
A young Hawaiian surfer with one of the modern plastic surfboards equipped with a skeg, or tail-fin
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In this article, based on work which he undertook for the degree of M.A. at the University of Hawaii, Mr. Finney traces the decline and subsequent revival of surfing in modern Hawaii and discusses the diffusion of the sport to other countries in and bordering the Pacific. In the December 1959 issue of this Journal Mr. Finney published an account of surfing in ancient Hawaii.

AFTER RECONSTRUCTING the salient features of some activity or institution of a culture long since modified or transformed by European influence, the subsequent history of that institution is often treated in terms of a somewhat melancholy narrative of decline and disappearance, or, at best, in terms of a “native survival” in the modern world. Continuing from a reconstruction of surfing as practised in Ancient Hawaii, 1 I hope to offer here not just a narrative of decline, or a description of survival, but an outline of the transformation of the traditional Hawaiian sport of he'e nalu into the equally vigorous and dynamic sport of modern surfing as known in Hawaii today. Furthermore, and by way of introduction, it might be added that while most studies involving acculturation have been largely concerned with the impact of influences from Western culture on non-European cultures, the European impact of surfing is only one dimension of the story presented here. The other dimension is concerned with how a non-European cultural form, the sport of Hawaiian surfing, has been adopted by Europeans and others to become an international sport practised today at beaches throughout the world.


To begin with, however, this narrative must necessarily be concerned with the rapid decline and near disappearance of surfing in Hawaii during the nineteenth century. Even as early as the 1840's surfing had become a rare sight in the Hawaiian Islands, 2 and in the following decade it was observed that Lahaina, Maui, was one of the few places where surfing was maintained with any degree of enthusiasm, and that even there it was rapidly passing out of existence. 3 - 316 Twenty years later at Hilo, one of the last strongholds of the sport on the island of Hawaii, it was reported that although one could still see the grand spectacle of surfing there, few of the younger generation of Hawaiians had learned the sport, and those who had were not considered to be distinguished surfers. 4 Surfing, however, fared better than other traditional Hawaiian games and sports, most of which, such as ulu maika (disk-rolling), kukini (foot-racing), and holua (land-sledding), had by this time entirely disappeared. Concern that the sport of surfing was likewise disappearing prompted the following statement in the last decade of the century: “The sport of surfriding 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.” 5

The actual case, of course, is that surfing did not disappear. Nevertheless, an examination of the state of the sport around 1900 when its practice was at a low point, and before any trend for revival had begun, will present a striking contrast to the sport as known in Ancient Hawaii. First of all, as far as I have been able to ascertain from published and informant accounts, the sport had virtually been forgotten in the Hawaiian Islands, except for a few places on Oahu, Maui, and possibly Kauai. Surfing had even disappeared from the Kona coast of Hawaii where it had formerly been so popular. Luckily, for the course of surfing as we shall see, most of the surfing done in this period occurred at or near Waikiki Beach on Oahu.

Furthermore, this remnant of surfing could no longer be considered in terms of a highly elaborated cultural peak, as was used to characterize traditional Hawaiian surfing. For instance, the associated ritual practices, the gambling, the chiefly privileges, and other facets of the traditional sport were now no longer integral parts of this remnant of surfing. In addition, it appears that the manufacture of certain kinds of surfboards had ceased and that important techniques of riding were no longer well known. By 1900 it seems that the large 16-foot olo boards of the chiefs were not being made, and that most, if not all, of the surfing was being done with alaia surfboards, or crude copies of them. It appears that these were all rather short, perhaps not over 8 feet in length; in fact, one report from 1905 states that the surfers at Waikiki were using any plank or board to ride the waves, and that these averaged only about 6 feet in length. 6 Also, in terms of riding skills, there is some evidence that the expert technique of riding along a wave at an angle was no longer practised, the surfers at this time riding straight in on the broken waves. 7 It is evident then that not only was - 317 there a tremendous decrease in the amount of surfing activity in Hawaii, but also that in terms of the quality of the sport, surfing by the beginning of this century was an impoverished remnant of a once highly elaborated pastime.

What happened in Hawaii to cause this decline and impoverishment of Hawaiian surfing? This question, often asked in Hawaii by those acquainted with the history of surfing, and almost as often answered by pointing an accusing finger at the missionaries or some single entity, is really part of the larger question of the rapid cultural transformation which took place in Hawaii during the nineteenth century. This transformation, which has been documented by Kuykendall 8 in its political and economic aspects, and reviewed by Handy 9 in terms of the cultural manifestations more familiar to anthropological analysis, will not, however, be treated here. Instead, only those particular facets of the general cultural transformation which are of particular pertinence to surfing will be discussed.

The most obvious, though sometimes overlooked, factor to consider in relation to the course of Hawaiian culture in the last century is that of population decline. By 1900 the number of Hawaiians had dropped from an estimated 300,000 in 1778 to less than 40,000 (including part-Hawaiians), and then comprised only 25.7% of the total population of the Hawaiian Islands. 10 Aside from merely the decreased number of Hawaiians left to pursue any pastimes whatsoever, the social and cultural disorganization implied in such a sharp drop in population cannot be overlooked in considering the diminution in surfing activity.

Of internal cultural events that may be singled out as affecting surfing and other traditional activities, the formal “breaking,” or abandonment of the tabu (kapu) system in 1819 looms large. Using the analogy that the tabu system had been the keystone of the arch supporting the traditional culture of Hawaii, 11 this event has been treated in terms of a cultural revolution in which, with the abandonment of the regulatory powers of the tabus, and hence the traditional religion, disorganization soon followed in family life, the class structure, in everyday economic life, and so on. 12 While many may be critical of this concept of cultural revolution, and the implication that it happened or was initiated overnight with the breaking of the tabus, as far as the decline of surfing is concerned, this abandonment can be seen as crucial. Aside from the immediate effect of removing the formal basis for deities in sports, surfing ritual, and the like, the most striking effect of this event was the lapsing of the Makahiki festival, celebrated for the last time in 1819 just prior to the abandonment of the tabu system. The Makahiki, a harvest festival of three-months duration in which all sports, including surfing, 13 were formally celebrated in great tournaments, had been one of the most significant factors providing for - 318 a formal integration of sports into Hawaiian society. However, with the lapse of the Makahiki, the great sports tournaments were never again celebrated; never again was there to be such public enthusiasm for the games and sports of Hawaii.

The breakdown of the integration of Hawaiian society with the dislocation of the reciprocal relations between commoners and chiefs is also discussed by Handy 14 and is of relevance to our discussion here. During the first decades of the nineteenth century, the ali'i, or chiefs, eager to possess the luxuries introduced by the foreigners, contracted for more and more foreign goods, thus going deeply into debt to the traders. Then, under pressure to pay, the chiefs, utilizing their traditionally sanctioned right to command labour and tribute from the commoners, forced their subjects to pay heavy taxes and to perform such labours as scouring the mountains for the scented sandalwood, a most valuable trade item. So, instead of the traditional system whereby ideally the commoners provided the goods and services to the chiefs who in turn redistributed much back to the people, or at least used it for the public good, the system shifted to one of an exploitative character; e.g., the traders leading the chiefs into debt, and the chiefs forcing the commoners to provide the trade goods to pay off those debts. In this situation the overworked commoners had little time for even their subsistence activities, not to mention their recreations, and their chiefs, formerly the leaders in sports, now were more occupied with copying the habits of the foreigners than pursuing their traditional pastimes.

Aside from the whole range of new activities offered by the advent of the European discovery of long-isolated Hawaii, it can be specifically pointed out that many newly introduced pastimes interested the Hawaiians and served as substitutes for many of their traditional amusements. For instance, the introduction of playing cards probably caused the early disappearance of konane (a game similar to checkers) and puhenehene (a guessing game in which objects are concealed on a player's body). 15 The introduction of the horse is said to have meant the end of kukini (foot racing), 16 and one contemporary observer noted that riding and racing competed in popularity with surfing and swimming. 17

Worth some consideration here is the question of what effect the policy of the missionaries had on the sport of surfing, especially since they are so often charged with the suppression of the traditional Hawaiian amusements.

A visitor to the Hawaiian Islands during the first years of missionary influence, Ruschenberger, noted that “A change has taken place in certain customs . . . I allude to the variety of athletic exercises, such as swimming, with or without a surfboard, dancing, wrestling, throwing the javelin, etc., all of which games, being in opposition to the strict tenets of Calvinism, have been suppressed . . .” 18 - 319 This charge is expanded when he writes: “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 chiefs and others, the idea that all who practise them secure themselves the displeasure of offended heaven. Then the chiefs, from a spontaneous benevolence, at once interrupt customs so hazardous to their vassals.” 19

On the defensive at that time was the early missionary, Hiram Bingham, who protested that the missionaries were innocent of suppressing Hawaiian pastimes. Specifically concerning surfing he wrote: “The decline and discontinuance of the use of the surfboard, as civilization advances, may be acounted for by the increase in modesty, industry or religion, without supposing, as some have affected to believe, that missionaries caused oppressive enactments against it.” 20 By “modesty” Bingham apparently meant the adoption of European clothing, which was much less convenient for surfing than the tapa loincloth or simple lack of clothing. For “industry” he singles out the time-consuming process of earning or making a cloth garment, and a factor we have mentioned, the demands made by the chiefs for the commoner's labour for buying European luxuries. As for “religion” he apparently meant that the demands of the new Christian religion left little time for leisurely pursuits.

My own opinion on this question is that although the missionaries played a definite role in the decline of surfing, it is a misstatement to charge the missionaries with being the sole cause for the decline of surfing, as is often done in Hawaii today. We have already outlined some of the other specific factors involved in surfing's decline, and have introduced our thesis that this decline was just one facet of the cultural transformation of nineteenth-century Hawaii. In this perspective we can deal with the missionary question most coherently by considering that in acting as a vanguard of Europeanization the missionaries' role at this time was that of being active agents in the general cultural transformation. With this viewpoint in mind, avoiding the implications of sole causation, we can examine some of the evidence of the effect of missionary policy on surfing.

In the consideration of attitudes in reference to recreations alone, perhaps no greater contrast could be imagined than between the austere and ascetic outlook of the New England Calvinists towards sensual pleasures, and Hawaiian emphasis on physical grace and vigorous athletic amusements. An insight into missionary values in this regard can be gained from the statements of one of the first missionaries, Sheldon Dibble. In criticising the evils of the rough sports of the Hawaiians, and the associated gambling and sexual freedom, Dibble writes: “The evils resulting from all these sports and amusements have in part been named. Some lost their lives thereby, some were severely - 320 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 . . .” 21

And, as an example of how missionary influence might intercede with the practice of surfing, a letter, written by the missionary Levi Chamberlain, may be cited. Writing in 1825, Chamberlain discusses the edict from the chiefs of Honolulu, which sent a crier through the streets telling the people to give up their sports and amusements and turn to the Christian teaching. 22

In other contexts it would appear that surfing did not always incur the disfavour of the missionaries. In fact, many of them expressly admired the sport as a healthy diversion, 23 However, it would appear that these men, and all other missionaries, did disapprove of the activities that were associated with the sport, such as betting, the “immorality” (e.g., sexual freedom among men and women surfers and bathing together in “scanty costumes”), and whatever ritual practices might have been left over after the formal abandonment of the traditional religion. From the missionaries themselves we find the admission that when the associated activities were forbidden to the Hawaiians their interest in surfing waned. For instance, N. B. Emerson noted that “. . . as the zest of the sport was enhanced by the fact that both sexes engaged in it, when this practise was found to be discountenanced by the new morality, it was felt that the interest in it had passed—and this game too went the way of its fellows.” 24 Bingham noted that when gambling was forbidden to the Hawaiians the effect on their pastimes was immediate; the life seemed to go out of those sports, such as surfing, in which gambling had been important, and their practice became then dull and unexciting. 25 So, even if any active participation in suppressing surfing might be denied, it would appear that missionary policies surely had a decided effect on the Hawaiian sport of surfing.

However, lest we overemphasize the role of the missionaries in this matter, it should be added that the attitudes of the Hawaiians played a large part in the abandonment of many traditional practices. For instance, Kenneth Emory makes the point that 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. 26 The new learning brought by the foreigners was an imposing challenge for the Hawaiians. Motivated by curiosity about the secrets of reading and writing, and the power that seemed to be attached to them, the Hawaiians, often prodded or ordered by their chiefs, engaged in the time-consuming task of mastering the new arts. In - 321 particular reference to surfing, it would appear that at least in some instances the Hawaiians placed learning above this sport, for in one of the new schoolhouses on the island of Kauai surfboards were used to make seats and writing tables. 27

The near disappearance of Hawaiian surfing is not without analogues in other parts of Polynesia. Tahitian surfing, which was second in elaboration only to Hawaiian surfing in pre-European times, has apparently completely disappeared. Observers in the late nineteenth century and in recent times have failed to note its existence, and when I visited the island in 1956 I looked in vain for any evidence of the sport. 28 From what I have been able to gather from talking with New Zealand residents and surfers it would appear that riding a surfboard, once popular among the Polynesians there, 29 is no longer actively practised by the Maori today. Information gathered from less acculturated areas in Polynesia, like Kapingamarangi, Easter Island, American Samoa, Marquesas, and the Tuamotus, indicates that the sport is still practised in these areas, but less so than in earlier times. 30

Actually, we need not consider the decline of surfing in Hawaii, or in Polynesia as a whole, as a purely unique phenomenson. It would appear rather to be part of a general trend, as noted by Keesing, 31 for the recreational activities of the Pacific Islanders to suffer with acculturation and be largely replaced with European sports and amusements.


Developing from this remnant of the traditional form of the Hawaiian sport, surfing in this century has experienced a remarkable revival. This revival, however, has not been an exclusively Hawaiian affair. From the beginning, Haole (European-American) 32 participation has been significant, and many non-Polynesian elements have been conspicuous in the revived version of the sport. Furthermore, this new form of Hawaiian surfing has spread far outside the confines of the Hawaiian Islands, and even Polynesia itself.

A definite trend for revival manifested itself in the first years of this century. Aside from the few Hawaiians who still surfed, at this time a number of young Haole boys began to take up the sport at Waikiki Beach, marking the first time that non-Hawaiians had ever taken up the sport to any extent. 33 The most conspicuous sign of revival - 322 came later, in 1908, when hotels and private residences which were then being built along the beach front threatened to close off the beach to these young surfers. A group of businessmen, wishing to provide a place on the beach for these surfers, as well as to revive the sport for its tourist appeal, then founded the Hawaiian Outrigger Canoe Club for the purpose of “. . . Preserving surfing on boards and in Hawaiian outrigger canoes.” 34 With the formation of this club, which offered facilities of dressing and board storage right on the shore of Waikiki Beach, the sport soon became popular with many of the residents of Honolulu, and by 1911 as many as a hundred surfboards could be seen on a week-end at Waikiki, a striking contrast to the situation of a few years earlier.

This club, however, was primarily for the Haole residents of Honolulu, which meant that most of these new enthusiasts were non-Hawaiians. However, with the formation of a Hawaiian surfing organization, the Hui Nalu (lit., surf-club) in 1911, the Hawaiians gained similar facilities on the beach, and with the increased participation and rivalry between the two clubs the sport was on its way to become once again a principal amusement in Hawaii.

Worth mentioning, along with this regained popularity of surfing, is the improvement of riding techniques and surfboards over the simplified forms left over from traditional surfing. For instance, surfboards were soon lengthened to 10 feet or more with much care and experimentation going into the manufacture of the new boards. Also, riding techniques appear to have rapidly improved, the technique of sliding across the wave at an angle quickly becoming popular again. 35

Although in a paper of this length there is no space to recount the details of the growth of modern Hawaiian surfing, it can be mentioned that these trends of increased participation in surfing by the populace of Hawaii, and improvement in riding techniques and surfboards have continued up to the present day. Later, in the last section of this paper, there will be a discussion of contemporary Hawaiian surfing directed especially towards demonstrating how the modern form of the sport differs from its traditional ancestor.

However, before going on to describe the modern form of surfing, and the spread of modern surfing from Hawaii to many overseas areas, some comments on the nature of the revival of surfing bear mentioning.

First, although this revival was in part an overt promotion of a lagging Polynesian activity, modern surfing has not been significantly associated with any “nativistic” movement to restore its traditional Hawaiian form. Although, and largely for the benefit of tourism, reference is often made to surfing as the traditional sport of Ancient Hawaii, or the “sport of the Hawaiian kings,” there have been no significant attempts to recreate all the activities of the ancient sport, and the particular developments in modern surfing have followed somewhat spontaneously after the initial revival.

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Secondly, since foreign influence was a dominant factor in the decline of traditional surfing, we should also consider the revival of the sport in terms of the continuing effect of the dominant non-Hawaiian portion of Hawaiian society, the American Haoles. Here our comments can be best phrased in terms of the changing values of the Haole community in regard to recreation in general, and water sports in particular. The missionary viewpoint toward the sensual Hawaiian pastimes has already been noted. To this we might also add the comments of a traveller, who, while discussing the foreign community, largely of American origin, at Lahaina, Maui, in 1841, noted that the foreign residents “. . . Who have resided any time, seldom or never bathe, appearing to entertain even an aversion to the sea, through a dread of catching cold and so on . . .” 36 That a change in, values, at least in regard to sea-bathing, had taken place by the beginning of the nineteenth century is evident from the revival and immediate enthusiasm with which the Haole community of Honolulu greeted this newly invigorated sport. Furthermore, one need only to look at the beaches of contemporary Hawaii with their throngs of surfers and swimmers of all ethnic groups to complete this contrast.

However, rather than thinking of this contrast solely in terms of the difference between the Calvinist morality of the New England missionaries and the more secular morality of modern Hawaii, this matter can be viewed in larger perspective as part of the shift in the values of American society, wherein once discouraged or prohibited recreations such as sea-bathing are now permitted and encouraged. An analogous situation, involving a like shift in values, has been treated by Maxwell in reference to Australian body-surfing. 37 Having learned this sport from a Pacific Islander, a group of enthusiastic young surfers attempted to surf along the beaches of Sydney in the 1880's, only to find that not only was public bathing discouraged by the morality of the day, but that it was also illegal. The story of the struggles of these young surfers in avoiding the police, then the gradual acceptance of surf-bathing by Australian society, and finally the present-day enthusiasm for swimming and surfing in modern Australia, in many respects parallels the Hawaiian situation.


The revived form of Hawaiian surfing was not long contained within the Hawaiian Islands, for the sport has found ready acceptance among swimming enthusiasts the world over. Modern Hawaiian surfing spread first to California and Australia, then to places along the Atlantic coastline of the United States, to Peru and Brazil in South America, to South Africa and New Zealand, and most recently to England, France and Israel. This spread is continuing today, and the sport has probably been taken up in several new areas since the time of this research (1959).

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With the exception of a focus of African surfing reported by Rouch along the West Coast of Africa, 38 all surfing done today on full-length surfboards appears to have been derived directly or indirectly from the revived form of Hawaiian surfing. This diffusion has come about by various means, ranging from the importation by Hawaiians and others of the sport and surfboards into a new area, to cases of “stimulus-diffusion” whereby, following from a second-hand knowledge of the Hawaiian sport, attempts were made to duplicate the surfboards and riding techniques without directly borrowing these.

Examples of the direct importation of Hawaiian surfing are provided by data from California and Peru. Soon after the revival of surfing an Irish-Hawaiian, George Freeth, was brought to Los Angeles to introduce surfing and other water sports to the Southern California public, which was by that time becoming increasingly interested in ocean sports. 39 With additional encouragement given by Duke Kahanamoku, the Hawaiian swimmer who surfed there in 1912 while on his way to his swimming victories in the Olympic Games of 1912, the sport became well established in California. Another example of such direct diffusion is to be found in South America where a Peruvian who had learned the sport at Waikiki in the 1930's introduced surfing to the Peruvian coastline and founded the “Club Waikiki” for enthusiasts.

The spread of Hawaiian surfing actually provides an example of both stimulus-diffusion and direct borrowing. As mentioned, the Australians first learned body-surfing from a Pacific Islander in the last century. Later, after the revival of Hawaiian surfing, the Australians began hearing about riding the surf with a board and then attempted to fashion their own surfboards and teach themselves how to ride them. 40 They had, however, little success, and even a surfboard imported from Hawaii in 1912 proved a mystery to ride, eventually ending up as a ironing board. Finally, in 1915, when Duke Kahanamoku, a modern-day “culture-bearer”visited Australia and demonstrated the sport on a hastily hewn board, the Australians learned the art of riding and have been surfboard enthusiasts ever since. More recently, however, a group of Frenchmen near Biarritz have, with the aid of photographs, been more successful in initiating surfing without a direct diffusion of boards and techniques.

As a secondary centre of diffusion, Australia has served to spread Hawaiian surfing to many areas within the British Commonwealth. Aside from England and South Africa, a most interesting example in this phase of the development of international surfing has occurred in reference to New Zealand. As we have noted, while surfing had once been popular among the Maoris in pre-European times, the Maoris of - 325 contemporary New Zealand apparently no longer practise the sport. 41 I have been informed, however, that modern surfing, including Hawaiian-derived surfboarding, has spread from Australia to New Zealand where it is now becoming popular among some of the Pakeha residents. Little interest, I have been told, has been evinced among the Maoris for modern surfing, although in the case of surfboarding at least, the sport is ultimately of Polynesian-Hawaiian derivation.

From my own experience I can cite another case in which this modern form of Hawaiian surfing has little interested contemporary Polynesians whose immediate ancestors formerly practised Polynesian surfing. The area in question is Tahiti, where surfing had been second alone in elaboration to Hawaiian surfing, but has now apparently completely disappeared. In 1956 when I visited Tahiti and used a surfboard imported from California to ride the waves at various places along the coast, I attempted without success to interest some of my Tahitian friends in the sport. Their lack of interest, and their protestations that such activity was for children only, was in striking contrast to the enthusiastic practise of the sport by Tahitians of all ages in former times, as reported by the first explorers and visitors. 42 This apparent rejection of practices once familiar to a culture, as exhibited in this brief discussion of Polynesian surfing, should be of interest to those studying the dynamics of diffusion.

California surfing merits special attention because: (1) there are more surfers using surfboards there than in any other area; and (2) the California and Hawaiian surfers have maintained close contact, with an interesting interchange of ideas and innovations about surfing. First, in comparison to approximately 1,000 or 2,000 surfers in Hawaii today, it is estimated that there are about 20,000 active surfers using surfboards in California. 43 Secondly, since surfing was first introduced from Hawaii, with the close contact between the two groups of surfers, the two areas have shared the same innovations in surfing techniques and surfboard manufacturing. Lately, with the expansion of economical airline facilities in the last decade, this exchange has been accelerated and has become more one-sided, involving a marked influx into Hawaii of California surfers as well as surfing innovations originating there.

Of these innovations the modern plastic surfboard is most prominent. From the time of the revival of the sport until about 1949 the surfboards used in California and Hawaii were mostly made from heavy woods in large, bulky designs. Because they were so large and heavy, averaging around 11 feet in length and between 60 and 100 pounds in weight, they were difficult to handle which in effect limited the sport to the hardiest of athletes. Then, starting after World War II, several - 326 California surfers began experimenting with light balsa wood surfboards, covered with fibreglass. And just recently a surfboard, weighing a scant 20 to 30 pounds but able to support an adult in the water, has been developed. This “foam-board”, as it is known, is made of extremely light plastic polyurethene foam covered with fibreglass and plastic resin. This light board, which incorporates many advances in design, the most prominent of which is the skeg, or tail-fin for stability, is extremely easy to manage in the water and surfs well, qualities which have led to a rapid popularization of the sport in recent years. 44 These new boards in turn have lent themselves to mass-production, with about a dozen or more surfboard shops and factories in California turning out at least 7,000 boards yearly at an average price of 100 dollars each. Most interesting in this development is the fact that these post-war California innovations have been accepted in Hawaii to such an extent that most of the new surfboards bought in Hawaii today are plastic boards manufactured in California.


Today surfing is once again a leading sport in Hawaii. In fact, it may be said that just as traditional surfing stood out as a cultural peak in Ancient Hawaii, so is modern surfing a highly elaborated sport deserving the same characterization as a cultural peak in contemporary Hawaii. To be sure, however, the content of the sport, the specific elements that form the elaborated complex in each case, are not identical. In this section there is no attempt to describe Hawaiian surfing in all of its minutiae; instead the discussion will be centred on the significant contrasts between the modern and traditional forms of the sport.

To begin with, compared to pre-European times when surfing activities were spread over all the Hawaiian Islands, surfing is now strikingly concentrated on the island of Oahu. We have already noted that at the time of the revival surfing was practised in only a few areas outside of Oahu, and it seems that these enclaves of the traditional sport have since disappeared or have been replaced by the modern form of surfing originating from Waikiki. But, even though Oahu surfers have ample opportunity to travel to the other islands, where good surf does exist, there seems to have been only minor diffusion of this new form of surfing throughout the Hawaiian chain. For instance, in making a survey of the surfing areas in use throughout the islands in 1959, compared to the fifty or more areas frequented on Oahu, only seven were found to be in use on the other islands (Hawaii: 1; Maui: 4; Kauai: 2). Rather than attempting to list the variety of reasons that might be put forward to explain this localization of surfing on Oahu, I would prefer only to comment that many of the activities of modern Hawaiian society are concentrated on Oahu, which is of course the centre of the Hawaiian Islands, in terms of population and many other aspects of the society.

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The surfing areas on Oahu may be roughly divided into those which take the “north swell”, and those which take the “south swell”. Although the island is pounded by waves originating from local wind conditions, and from storms in every corner of the Pacific, most of the actual surfing is done on the smooth, evenly-spaced waves which result from ground swells arising thousands of miles away in the winter storm belts of the North and South Pacific, respectively. For instance, Oahu receives the “north swell” usually in the months of October through March from the winter storms of the northern latitudes of the Pacific. Coming from the north, these swells strike mainly the northern shores where surfing waves as high as twenty to thirty feet are produced. Then, during Oahu's summer months of June through September, when the north Pacific storms are stilled and the surf on the northern shore quiets down, along the southern shore large surfing waves are produced by the “south swell” coming from the storm centres in the Southern Hemisphere where it is then winter. These southern storm centres, the most violent of which lie in the “roaring forties” latitudes and off the coast of Antarctica, generate the long, smooth waves for which Waikiki, facing almost directly south, is noted.

A visitor to Waikiki on a mid-summer's day when the waves are running high is witness to a panorama of surfing activity. Aside from the outrigger canoes which are used in surfing, and an occasional double-hulled sailing canoe, the waters are usually crowded with between 100 and 200 surfers and their surfboards. However, if one were to imagine that most, if not all, of these surfers would be Polynesian Hawaiians, it might be a surprise to discover that approximately equal numbers of Polynesian Hawaiians and Haoles would be surfing, with a minority of surfers of Asian ancestry present. As a rough estimate, it might be said that of the between 1,000 and 2,000 surfers estimated to be in Hawaii today, 40% are Hawaiian (and part-Hawaiian), 40% are Haole, with the remaining 20% being from other ethnic groups, of which the Japanese and Chinese would be most prominent. To be sure, the Hawaiians still maintain a unique and somewhat privileged position in the sport through their identification with traditional Hawaiian surfing. However, the sport is no longer their exclusive domain, as a fair sample of the youthful populace, including men and women, as well as of the tourists, now practise it.

The pastel-tinted plastic surfboards from California, which now dominate the surfing scene, are a striking sign of the divergence of modern surfing from its traditional source. Aside from the obvious—that the Hawaiian surfboard is now a mass-produced product of modern technology imported from California—there are a number of other features in the boards and their use which serve to point up the divergence. First, instead of having two contrasting types of boards as in Ancient Hawaii, a 16-foot long olo board for the chiefs and a shorter alaia board for common use, 45 the great majority of the new boards are in great measure standardized as to design, and vary in size usually only between about 9 feet and 11 feet in length, the dimensions - 328 being determined by the weight of the owner. And, of course there are no longer any Hawaiian chiefs around to exercise their privileges of surfing the olo boards, which, except for one or two copies, exist only in the Bishop Museum of Honolulu. In addition, these light, manageable boards, with their refined design and skeg for stability, have meant that modern surfers can manoeuvre along a wave more easily and quickly than ever before. Thus, we can probably safely say that contemporary surfers are more accomplished at manoeuvring and turning on the waves than their counterparts in Ancient Hawaii with their heavier and bulkier boards.

This divergence and discontinuity in the development of modern surfing from the remnant of traditional surfing can be shown in a number of other ways. For instance, in considering the names given to the surfs at Waikiki today it would appear that the old surfing names have been forgotten and replaced by new, mostly English terms. For instance, in place of the old names for the surfing reefs at Waikiki like 'Ai-wohi, Ka-lehua-wehe, Ka-pua, Ka-puni, and Mai-hiwa, we have such modern names as Castles, Publics, Populars, Queens, Canoes, First Break, and Papa-nui. Not only have none of the traditional names carried over into modern times, but the one Hawaiian term, Papa-nui (big board), is of modern derivation, having been named by Duke Kahanamoku in honour of the big olo boards which once were surfed there. 46

Another way in which modern surfing's break with the past may be illustrated is with a consideration of the special vocabulary employed by surfers in Hawaii. In listening to conversations among surfers, both Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian, I was especially interested in discovering whether any of the terms characteristic of traditional surfing 47 continue in use in modern times. However, in these conversations, which even among Hawaiian surfers were carried on in English, only two Hawaiian terms were heard, nalu nui (big surf or wave) and puka (referring to a puncture in a surfboard's plastic covering), and these only rarely. Hawaiian informants, all young surfers in their twenties and thirties, 48 could only recall a few Hawaiian terms like hoe (to paddle), or loli (lit., sea-cucumber ; to slide down a wave uncontrolled). Furthermore, it would appear that the basic terms of traditional surfing, he'e nalu and papa he'e nalu, have been superceded by their English counterparts, surfing and surfboard.

In addition to these changes in the language and equipment of surfing there has been no reappearance of the many features of the traditional sport which disappeared during the cultural transformation of Hawaiian life in the nineteenth century. For instance, The surfing chants, the surfboard maker's ritual, the special boards and privileges for the chiefs, have all lapsed, and except for an occasional attempt to - 329 recreate some of them for the benefit of the tourists, they can not be considered as being part of contemporary surfing. The picture presented by modern surfing is then less one of a Polynesian survival, and more of a Polynesian-derived pastime. Although the sport certainly has an exotic flavour, most of the peripheral features of surfing, such as surfboard rental and instruction, surfing clubs, surfboard manufacture and sales, etc., are thoroughly modern, and to some, distressingly commercial. In short, we might simply say that modern surfing is a part of the American culture of contemporary Hawaii, just as the traditional sport was a part of Ancient Hawaiian culture.

To illustrate this let us imagine that a visitor at Waikiki wishes to take up surfing. In order to obtain a surfboard he may go to any of a number of surfboard sales and rental shops along the beach and either rent or buy a board. Expert surfing instruction in the initially difficult technique of riding the waves can be had from the professional surfing instructors, or “beachboys” as they are known. 49 Then, once the novice has learned the rudiments and is fully committted to the sport, he may wish to join one of the surfing clubs on the beach which offer facilities and board storage, dressing, and social gatherings. Here the choice is between the Outrigger Canoe Club, the organization so instrumental in the revival of the sport, and the newly-founded (1947) Waikiki Surf Club. The former club, now very much like any expensive athletic club in a large American city, appeals and caters to those more interested in the social aspects of membership, while the latter club draws its following more from the active surfers and functions primarily to promote surfing at a minimum cost to any prospective member. In addition, for those sufficiently interested in the sport, there is a newspaper devoted entirely to surfing now published in California and distributed in Hawaii, along with pictorial magazines featuring the best of the season's surfing photographs. For a still wider audience there are several full-length films, made by professional surfing photographers, which depict surfing activities in Hawaii, Australia, and California, and which are shown each year in Hawaii.

Finally, in our discussion of modern Hawaiian surfing, some consideration of Hawaii's position vis-à-vis the rest of the surfing world is of significance. Historically, we have traced the development of international surfing, with the exception of the West African sport, from a Hawaiian centre. Hawaii, and specifically Oahu, can claim to be the centre of modern surfing not only on the basis of historical priority, but also because the area is renowned for the “biggest and best” surf ridden by surfers anywhere in the world. With its unique location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, open to ground swells from any end of the Pacific Basin, Hawaii features smooth surfing waves which occasionally reach heights of 20 to 30 feet. Such surfs as Sunset, Waimea Bay, and Makaha on Oahu's northern shores, are known for their huge surf and each winter there arrive pilgrimages of surfers from California and - 330 other surfing areas who come to ride the famous winter surf. In addition, an event which serves to reaffirm Hawaii's status as the centre of world surfing, the International Surfing Championships are held at Makaha where surfers from the world over compete for honours in Hawaii's surf.


The course of Hawaiian surfing from its status as a traditional Polynesian pastime to an international sport has been traced. During the nineteenth century, an era of rapid cultural transformation for Hawaii, surfing declined in practice and almost disappeared from the Hawaiian Islands. Then, following an overt revival of the sport, surfing during this century has experienced a renaissance in Hawaii where it is once again one of the most popular sports in the island. However, although modern surfing is derived from the traditional Hawaiian pastime, the content of the contemporary sport differs from its predecessors and it has the general character of a sport of modern America rather than one of ancient Hawaii. The international spread of Hawaiian surfing, which continues today, is one of the most significant developments in the modern sport and provides an interesting example of the diffusion of a Polynesian cultural form, albeit changed in modern times, over the world.

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1   Finney 1959c. As in this article on the sport in Ancient Hawaii, surfing is here used in the restricted sense of riding the waves with a full-sized surfboard capable of supporting a man. The modern developments of the other forms of surfing (body-, bodyboard-, and canoe-surfing) has somewhat paralleled that of surfboarding, although not attaining such a complex or widespread elaboration as the latter.
2   Jarves 1844:122.
3   Bates 1854:298.
4   Boddam-Whettham 1876: 120, Nordhoff 1874:52.
5   Emerson 1892:59.
6   Blake 1935:50.
7   Thurston 1915:321.
8   Kuykendall 1953; 1957.
9   Handy 1931.
10   Lind 1955:15-28.
11   First suggested by Alexander 1891:169.
12   Handy 1931.
13   Finney 1959c:339.
14   Handy 1931.
15   Emerson 1892:59.
16   Emerson 1892:59.11 Bishop 1900:102.
17   Bishop 1900:102.
18   Ruschenberger 1838:11:375.
19   Ruschenberger 1838:II:375.
20   Bingham 1847:136-137.
21   Dibble 1909:102.
22   Kuykendall 1957:122.
23   Bingham 1847:136-137; Ellis 1831, IV:370-371; Stewart 1839:196.
24   Emerson 1892:59.
25   Bingham 1847:213.
26   Emory 1933:141.
27   Kuykendall 1957:107.
28   Finney 1959b.
29   Best 1925:21; Finney 1959a:30-31.
30   Information on the Marquesas and the Tuamotus was gathered by the author in 1956 while travelling through French Oceania; information from other areas came from residents or visitors to these areas.
31   Keesing 1945:197.
32   Haole, a term comparable to Pakeha in New Zealand, refers to Caucasians in Hawaii, and is in contemporary usage.
33   One of these surfers, now Dr. Kenneth P. Emory of the Bernice P. Bishop Museum, has been extremely helpful to me in this study of Hawaiian surfing. Among the others who have aided this study I would like to express my gratitude to Dr. K. Luomala, who guided my researches in their original form as a M.A. Thesis at the University of Hawaii, and also to E. H. Bryan, Jr., R. Kekai, J. Kelly, L. Nakai and M. Pukui.
34   Ford 1911:143-144.
35   Blake 1935:61.
36   Simpson 1847:11:68.
37   Maxwell 1949.
38   African surfing, as reported by Rouch 1949, appears in the three forms of body-, bodyboard-, and canoe-surfing as well as surfing with full-length surfboards. Although at first glance this report and one other (Béart 1955:330-331) would seem to indicate that the sport is independent of Oceanian and Hawaiian surfing, I would like to reserve judgement until a thorough comparison can be made.
39   Ball 1946:1.
40   Maxwell 1949:234-235.
41   Any information which New Zealand readers could supply on modern Maori surfing, or lack thereof, would be appreciated. Please address any communications to B. Finney, Peabody Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
42   See Finney 1959b.
43   Surfing, June 1960, 1, 1:1.
44   Plate 2 shows one of these modern boards equipped with a skeg.
45   See Finney 1959c: Plate1.
46   Blake 1935:15.
47   See Finney 1959c: Appendix 1.
48   Older Hawaiian surfers, especially those in their fifties and sixties, would of course know more of the traditional Hawaiian surfing terminology. However, their knowledge would not be characteristic of contemporary surfing.
49   As the majority of these surfing instructors are of Hawaiian descent, this is one field of modern surfing where an active Polynesian influence is present.