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