When Polynesians brought surfing to Hawaii in the fourth century, they mostly played in the surf on belly boards, only occasionally standing up on them. Hawaiians are recognized for developing the modern sport of stand-up surfing we know today. Peter Westwick and Peter Neushul, authors of The World in the Curl: An Unconventional History of Surfing, also credit the productive taro fields that allowed Hawaiians the leisure time to surf.
There was a period when surfing nearly drowned in Hawaii. In the early 1800s, missionaries who came to the islands considered the sport to be against Christianity, or at the very least a waste of time, and preached against it. In addition, the introduction of a cash economy to Hawaii meant a loss of leisure time to dedicate to surfing. The sport was revived late that century, during the reign of King Kalākaua (r. 1874-1891), who also reversed the ban on hula and revitalized the Hawaiian martial art of kapu kuʻialua.
There were a couple of important Hawaiians in the early twentieth century who are credited with popularizing surfing in the United States and the rest of the world.
George Freeth was born in Oahu in 1883. Though he had some Hawaiian ancestry, his blue eyes and fair skin highlighted his Irish roots, and locals considered him to be haole, white. "The native boys laughed at me when I made my first efforts [at standing]," Freeth wrote, according to the Encyclopedia of Surfing, as most locals at the time surfed prone, on their bellies. "Now they hailed me as the revivier [sic] of the lost art."
In 1907, famed author Jack London visited Hawaii and reviewed Freeth’s surfing prowess. "I saw him tearing in on the back of [a wave] standing upright with his board, carelessly poised," London wrote, "a young god bronzed with sunburn."
Freeth went to California to perform surfing exhibitions there. According to the San Diego Reader, he performed tricks while he surfed, like a headstand or a "surfboard dive", as reported by a San Diego newspaper in 1918. Apparently he "[rode] on the crest of the wave in the usual manner, [then] leaped, clearing the board by at least three feet, turned a somersault, regained his balance on the board again, then completed his stunt with a dive."
But it is Duke Kahanamoku, born in Waikiki in 1890, who is widely recognized as the person who brought the sport from Hawaii to the mainland. Besides being a swimmer on the American Olympic team and the world’s fastest swimmer, Duke was also a Hollywood actor. According to Surfing For Life, he would take his Hollywood friends surfing with him to help introduce the world to his sport. In 1915, Duke was invited to swim and surf in Australia, and his demonstrations catapulted the presence of the sport there.
With its warm waters and constant waves, Hawaii is the ultimate place for surfing. Hawaiians are so proud of their home state, in fact, that Hawaii is considered its own nation in the world of surfing; in a tradition that predates Hawaii’s annexation, winners in surfing competitions hoist the Hawaiian flag (eight horizontal stripes alternating white, red, and blue, with a Union Jack in the top-left corner) instead of the American flag.
Some of the world’s best surfers today still come from Hawaii. Thanks to groundbreaking surfers like Freeth and Kahanamoku, talented surfers now come from around the world, like Australia, the USA, and Brazil. But the heart of surfing will always be Hawaii.