In August of 2020, surfing will be given its biggest platform in modern history when surfers take to the waters off Japan to compete for gold in the Tokyo Olympics. It could be argued, however, that the Sport of Kings reached peak prominence in the early 1700s in the Hawaiian Islands. As many surfers as there are today, in 18th Century Hawaii, virtually everyone surfed. Young, old. Male, female. Royalty and commoners.
It’s a historical point made abundantly clear by a new, original exhibit at Honolulu’s Bernice Paul Bishop Museum, “Mai Kinohi Mai: Surfing in Hawai’i”. Drawing from the museum’s rich collection, “Mai Kinohi Mai” will display the oldest surfboards known to exist, including some owned by Hawaiian royalty, as well as archival photos and manuscripts, all of which serve to chronicle surfing’s past as the sport prepares for a brighter global spotlight.
“‘Mai Kinohi Mai’ will have arguably the greatest collection of historic and storied surfboards ever assembled in one place,” said DeSoto Brown, Bishop Museum historian and exhibit curator. “With the sport being confirmed for the 2020 Summer Olympics and continuing technical advancements, there’s no better time to offer this comprehensive look at surfing’s past and its direction for the future.”
With the exhibit set to open during this year’s Hawaiian winter season, we asked DeSoto about some of the famous sleds the museum has assembled and what the boards can teach us about the history of surfing.
So “Mai Kinohi Mai: Surfing in Hawai‘i” will feature the oldest surfboards known to exist. Can you tell me a bit about the boards? When were they being ridden and by whom?
Most of the oldest boards lack attributions (or what we call provenance) as to their previous owners, or other history. However we will be exhibiting a board that was owned and ridden by Abner Paki, and high-ranking chief who was the father of Bernice Pauahi Bishop, for whom Bishop Museum is named. He probably used this board in the 1830s, based on his lifespan.
We also will be showing a surfboard owned by Princess Kaiulani. While this is not as old as the others, dating probably from the 1890s, it is still significant not only for its age but for who possessed it. Kaiulani had a short life which had too much disappointment in it, which makes her an iconic figure. But the interesting thing is that while she was a proper and well-brought-up young lady who followed social rules, she also loved the ocean. So she was active in the water at Waikiki, and rode in canoes along with surfing. This was not the usual activity for a female of her status at that time.
What about the construction of the boards included in the exhibit? What are the dimensions? Any interesting features that modern surfers may not recognize?
Surfing reached its most prominent, culturally important role among the Hawaiians. For those who don’t know, can you talk about what surfing meant to the people of Hawaii before contact with Europeans?
While there’s no way to ever know how or where or when humans first rode on waves, we can say with assurance that by the late 1700s, surfing had reached its peak development here in the Hawaiian Islands. Everyone participated in it, too: young to old, and both male and female. The latter is particularly important since traditional Hawaiian society was very controlled as to what men and women were permitted to do, and surfing did not follow that schism. There are many stories of accomplished female surfers, some of whom could out-surf men.
Hawaiians recognized and named different styles of surfing, based on locations and conditions. They also developed multiple sizes and shapes of boards. They named their surf breaks. They were the pioneers of what’s well-known today, all over the world, in the sport of surfing. The first Europeans arrived in Hawaii in 1778, and they (and the others who followed) were astonished at how comfortable Hawaiians were in the water in general, and how accomplished they were at this heretofore unknown activity of surfing. It’s from this time period onwards that we have written records of surfing, and that’s how we know for sure how evolved it was here. In the 19th century, both Hawaiians themselves as well as outside observers documented this evolution in writing.
In 2020, surfing will be given probably its biggest platform ever when it’s included in the Olympics. The timing of this exhibit then, seems fitting. What does this exhibit say about surfing’s past that you hope folks who watch it in the Olympics could know?
Hawaii’s role in the creation and dissemination of worldwide surfing is known and acknowledged, but I personally hope that further knowledge about this can continue to be spread. And I always want the world to know where surfing came from. This exhibit will be a part of spreading that knowledge, in a way that will be engaging but also instructive and informative.
And there are some boards from contemporary surfers, too, right? Why was it important to include boards from John John Florence and Carissa Moore?
Yes, there are modern boards, and that’s because surfing is so alive and so vibrant and so growing that we must show that off. It never died completely but it did shrink and diminish a great deal in the 19thcentury. Ever since it began to grow again, it’s never stopped, and that’s the heartening and uplifting thing about the story. Surfing isn’t static and it cannot be. The boards continue to change, the abilities of the surfers will always be shifting and moving, and there is probably no limit to where surfing can go, all over the world. Technology has allowed it to be performed by people of all physical sizes and shapes–even in frigid, freezing conditions–so it’s just going to keep happening. It’s an uplifting concept that this sport Hawaiians influenced still celebrates their traditional accomplishments and will continue to do so.