Late 18th to late 19th century

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, California and Hawai‘i, as well as much of the Pacific from China to Peru, were linked by commerce, environment and culture.  Goods, labor, culture and disease traveled the sea on sailing vessels, and, not surprisingly then, surfing crossed the Pacific to California’s shore during this era.  Documenting his travels on board a trade ship to California in 1885, later published in Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana described a boat crew of Hawaiians gliding through the waves along the coast of Santa Barbara. Though not riding surfboards, these Hawaiians were clearly adept at navigating waves, even harnessing their power to propel their boats.  Also in 1885, three brothers and members of the Hawaiian royal family (nephews of the then Queen of Hawai‘i) surfed on redwood boards in Santa Cruz while attending St. Matthew’s Military School in San Mateo. They are the first recorded surfers on California’s shore.

In 1893, the United States engineered the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, and in 1898, annexed the territory outright.  American missionaries and business interests (in sugar and pineapple agribusiness) already secured, new arrivals began the process of building a tourist industry—extolling the lands as a tropical paradise and appealing to the newly found leisure time of an emergent middle and upper-class industrialized United States and Europe.  Tourist industry developers incorporated the sport of surfing into their promotions.  Re-packaged as an ancient, noble and primitive sport, Euro-American settlers (called ha’ole by Hawaiians, meaning without the breath of life, foreigner, white man) re-claimed surfing as an elite test of manhood and positioned themselves as saviors of the sport.

Early 20th century

Key figures in the popularization of surfing vis-à-vis this burgeoning tourist industry, Alexander Hume Ford, world traveler and businessman, and author Jack London, watched and learned the craft from local riders, fell in love with the sport and became tireless advocates for its revival.  An instant convert when he and his wife, Charmian, visited the islands in 1907, London published the widely read account of surfing, “A Royal Sport: Surfing at Waikiki,” in the Woman’s Home Companion and introduced Americans to the sport.  In 1908, Ford formed the Outrigger Canoe Club, a surf club exclusive to Euro-American members, an organization that simultaneously lent elite status to sportsmen brave enough to try their skills in the water and promoted Hawaiian tourism.  Ford’s effort, along with the broader efforts of the hotel industry, proclaimed Waikiki Beach (headquarters of the Outrigger Club) a must-see tourist destination and home of the surf rider.

Sunday morning at Long Beach, California, U.S.A. ©1908 by H.C. White Co.

Interestingly, the rise of modern surfing emerged in tandem with yet another beach resort development effort in southern California. Just as London alerted elite Americans to the recreation
of surfing, real estate and railway magnate, Henry Huntington was building up the Los Angeles area and had just purchased a tract of undeveloped land around Redondo Beach, including the Redondo-Los Angeles Railway, and began promoting this real estate as a beach resort.  In 1907, to help this effort, he invited Irish-Hawaiian George Freeth to give a series of surfing demonstrations on the local beach.  Thousands of onlookers, and presumably buyers of Huntington’s enormously successful venture, came to watch Freeth’s talent. Thus, promoters like Huntington, London and Ford helped revive, export, and re-invent surfing—infusing it with a strong masculine identity, competitive value and pioneer sport adventurism—as part and parcel of the Euro-American claiming and development of a “modern” California and Hawai‘i.

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