02

July

2014

1

Surf’s Up in Rare Books

by Julia Blakely

Ellis 1831 v4.FullPgWhile cataloging Polynesian Researches during a Residence of Nearly Eight Years in the Society and Sandwich Islands (London: 1831-1833; DU510 .E47 1831 SCNHRB), a transfer from the Department of State’s library to the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History, I was intrigued by the title page vignette in the fourth volume of the set. Depicted in this little engraved scene is a group of surfers riding a break on narrow planks. Wondering if it was an early representation of the sport, I naturally turned to Google, where a search turned up the information that it is often cited as the first illustration of surfing, at least in the Western Hemisphere.

The very good printed reference work, The Hill Collection of Pacific Voyages at the University of California, San Diego, provided more background of this publication by the British missionary William Ellis (1794-1872). The first edition of Polynesian Researches, also in the Cullman Library, has a slightly different title (DU510 .E47 1829 SCNHRB). The surfing illustration, showing riders in various stances including a wipe-out, appears only in the second edition, “enlarged and improved.” The last three chapters of the third and all of the fourth volumes contain the author’s account of his later voyage to Hawaii. This additional material does not appear in the first edition.

I thought this would be a great topic to delve into further using both the Cullman’s and the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology’s collections: surfboard paddling, canoe surfing, surf swimming, and other images of surfing in addition to Ellis’ account. There are earlier European descriptions of the activity in the many volumes of travel literature or voyages of discovery on the shelves, such as Francois Péron, Voyage de Découvertes aux Terres Australes (Paris, 1807-1816; DU99 .P45 1807 SCNHRB).

Hawkesworth's, An Account of the Voyages undertaken ... in the Southern Hemisphere, 1774.

Hawkesworth’s, An Account of the Voyages undertaken … in the Southern Hemisphere, 1774.

Various boats in Tahiti, including what looks like a paddleboard, appear in an engraving from John Hawkesworth, An Account of the Voyages undertaken by the Order of His Present Majesty for Making Discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere. The first edition was published in London in 1773, with volumes two and three devoted to Captain James Cook’s first voyage of circumnavigation. The illustration here is from the French version (G420 C77h F1774 SCNHRB).

Apparently, the first written account of surfing on boards appears from another circumnavigation in search of the Northwest Passage, the third voyage of Captain Cook, in A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean … in His Majesty’s ships the Resolution and Discovery; in the years 1776, 1777, 1778, 1779, and 1780. After Cook’s death in 1779 in Hawaii, First Lieutenant James King described surf riding in the Kealakekua Bay, in finishing portions of the Captain’s log.

From vol. 3 of Captain Cook's A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean (1785)

From vol. 3 of Captain Cook’s A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean (1785)

 

There are two pages on canoe surfing at Matavai Point in Tahiti in 1777 by the ship’s surgeon, William Anderson of Captain Cook’s Resolution. And then there is John Webber’s etchings in volume three of A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean of the expedition (G420 .C77v 1784 SCNHRB and, in a larger format, G420 .C77v 1785 SCDIRB). “A View of Karakakooa, in Owyhee” shows a busy harbor scene around Cook’s two ships (Whitby colliers, to be exact) at anchor. It appears that there is a lone surfer in the foreground, paddling out on a wide board.

 

Lone surfer in the illustration of

Detail: lone surfer in “A View of Karakakooa, in Owyhee”

The European and American accounts show a fascination and admiration for the locals’ ease in the waves, if not their happiness in leisure upon the ocean. In the great Narrative of the U.S. Exploring Expedition during the years 1833-1842 of Charles Wilkes, U.S.N. (Q115 .W68 1845 SCDIRB), there are reports of surfing throughout the Pacific Ocean area: “They are quite fearless on the water; all swim, and have little fear of loss of life by drowning. They appear quite as much at home in the water as on land, and many of them more so.” (v. 4, p. 44)

Will Sabin. Hawaii, U.S.A.: a souvenir of “The crossroads of the Pacific” (Honolulu, 1921; DU623 .S12 1921 SCNHRB). The binding of this book is printed tapa cloth, made from bark. Captain Cook was the first European who introduced tapa from Polynesian to the rest of the world.

Will Sabin. Hawaii, U.S.A.: a souvenir of “The crossroads of the Pacific” (Honolulu, 1921; DU623 .S12 1921 SCNHRB). The binding of this book is printed tapa cloth, made from bark. Captain Cook was the European who first introduced tapa from Polynesian to the rest of the world.

What was the context and meaning of this communal activity long before its 20th-century revival and marketing? Was surfing sport or art or did it have a place in the hierarchy of the society? Just how and why did surfing almost entirely disappear, only to lead to the surge in popularity the sport enjoys today along with stand-up paddle boarding? I’ve only skimmed the surface of an involved and complex subject, with support from the other research libraries of the Smithsonian Institution and with the few titles on the history of surfing.

Finding out it is harder than it looks: the author’s attempt at surfing.

Discovering it is harder than it looks: the author’s attempt, wiping-out in the surf.

Diane Shaw, Kirsten van der Veen and Daria Wingreen-Mason helped with this post.

One thought on “Surf’s Up in Rare Books

  1. Geoff

    Ellis (1831) is often cited as the first illustration of surfing, at least in the Western Hemisphere.
    It is (marginally) preceded by Rev. Isaac Taylor’s Surf Swimmers, (Sandwich Islands), 1830.
    - The Ship, London (1830) facing page 29.

    The first illustration of surfing in the Eastern Hemisphere is some 30 years earlier.
    Charles Gold: Catamaran surfer, Madras, India, 1800.
    http://emuseum.anmm.gov.au/code/emuseum.asp?id=19944

    Various boats in Tahiti, including what looks like a paddleboard, appear in an engraving from John Hawkesworth.
    This is a raft.

    Apparently, the first written account of surfing on boards appears … in … the third voyage of Captain Cook.
    Weber’s illustration (1785) only shows a paddling surfer, as recorded by Cook’s mariners on their first stay in Hawaii (1778), and not surf riding.
    The accounts of surf riding were not reported until the return in 1789, after unsuccessfully searching for the NW Passage.

    However, the first account of Polynesian surfing was by Joseph Banks in Tahiti in 1769.
    - Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks (1962) Volume 1, pages 258-259.

    Reply

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