It’s hard to imagine a time when surfers were deemed lazy beach bums, especially now that traces of the culture have been co-opted and accepted by the mainstream.
From its unique fashion, to the music it inspires, its jargon, and even the emergence of boardsports, it’s easy to see the influence of surfing but where did it all begin?
Surfing history can be traced back to the days before the Europeans first made contact with the New World. One of the earliest records pertaining to surfing was made by Joseph Banks onboard the HMS Discovery commanded by James Cook. Edward Treager, on the other hand, made a few notes on the terminologies used by Samoan surfers. As European missionaries arrived in Polynesia, they banned many traditions and cultural practices, including surfing. This resulted in the near extinction of surfing.
Not a mere Sport, it’s a Culture
In Hawaii, surfing was not considered as merely a sport or a form of recreation. Instead, the Hawaiians viewed it as an integral part of their culture. Surfing, or he’e nalu as the locals called it, involved praying to the gods. Hawaiian surfers often turned to priests known as kahunas to pray for suitable surfing conditions.
Another integral part of the ancient Hawaiian surfing culture is the process of selecting suitable materials and crafting these into surfboards. Hawaiians made boards out of the ko, ‘ulu and wiliwili. Once a suitable tree has been chosen, the surfer will place a fish offering for the gods where the tree was planted. Local craftsmen were then enlisted to transform the timber into the shape chosen by the surfer – ‘olo, kiko’o or alaia.
During those times, the best surfing areas were designated to the upper class of the community consisting of the best warriors and chieftains.
Mainland America first witnessed surfing when teenage Hawaiian princes on vacation in California surfed at the San Lorenzo River using custom boards. In Australia, the history of surfing in the country can be traced to the time when Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku demonstrated the sport in 1915 to spectators in New South Wales.
Surfing gained wide exposure when Hawaii earned its reputation as a premier tourist destination. Duke Kahanamoku is also credited for his major role in exposing the sport and educating the greater public. But apart from Hawaii, surfing culture also gained prominence in Australia and California. During the ‘60s, the sport finally caught worldwide attention and began exerting its influence on popular culture.