Polynesia and Hawaii (through the 18th century)
For thousands of years, ancient Polynesians rode the waves of the Pacific Ocean—first, lying flat on their bellies atop short, flat, wooden boards. But by the eighteenth century, as oral histories, a unique tradition of song stories, and the written records of foreign visitors tell, Hawaiians had lengthened the boards—which could extend up to eighteen feet and weigh over 150 pounds—stood upon them, and incorporated wave riding into the fabric of their culture and society. Practiced by men, women, old and young, royal families and commoners, surfing in Hawai‘i was highly ritualized—including, for instance, elaborate rules that dictated how to construct surfboards and prohibit commoners from sharing the waves with royalty. Mele (Hawaiian chants or song-stories) reveal the significance of surfing to eighteenth and nineteenth-century Hawaiians as well as the ritual and ceremony entailed. While surfing and “surf music” do not share the same histories, surfing and song were nonetheless interconnected from the start.
The first written descriptions of surfing appear with Captain Cook’s travels to the Islands in 1779 and then with other foreign visitors throughout the nineteenth century. Interestingly, these records document surfing just as it began its precipitous decline—a decline that resulted from a range of factors, not the least of which included disease, first brought by Captain Cook and his crew, and led to the decimation of Hawaiian population and culture. The increasing influence of foreign interests, from the United States in particular, also took its toll. Business interests shifted the local economy toward mono-crop, large-scale agriculture, placing high demands on Hawaiian labor, and Protestant missionaries, aiming to Christianize indigenous Hawaiians, discouraged surfing along with most elements of traditional Hawaiian culture.