Born in 1890, Duke Paoa Kahinu Makoe Hulikohoa Kahanamoku was one of nine children of a Honolulu policeman. He was born at Haleʻākala, the “pink house” (home of Bernice Pauahi Bishop) located near ʻIolani Palace (near where Bank of Hawaiʻi now stands on King Street.)
With respect to his name “Duke,” he was named after his father. The elder Kahanamoku was born during the Duke of Edinburgh’s visit to the islands in 1869.
The elder Duke explains his naming as “after I was washed by Mrs. Bishop she gave me the name “The Duke of Edinburgh.” The Duke heard and was glad and came to house and I was presented to him and tooke [sic] me in his arms. And that is how I got this name.” (Nendel)
Duke lived in interesting times in Hawaiʻi; in his lifetime, Hawaiʻi moved from an independent monarchy to full statehood in the United States of America.
Kahanamoku’s family lived in a small house on the beach at Waikiki where the present day Hawaiian Hilton Village now stands. He would never graduate from High School due to the need to help his family earn enough money to live.
Duke Kahanamoku had a very normal upbringing for a young boy his age in Waikiki. He swam, surfed, fished, did odd jobs such as selling newspapers and went to school at Waikiki grammar school.
For fun and extra money he and others would greet the boatloads of tourists coming to and from Honolulu Harbor. They would dive for coins tossed into the water by the visitors, perform acrobatic displays of diving from towers on boat days, and explore the crop of newcomers for potential students to teach surfing and canoeing lessons to on the beach.
He earned his living as a beachboy and stevedore at the Honolulu Harbor docks. Growing up on the beach in Waikiki, Duke surfed with his brothers and entertained tourists with tandem rides.
By the time that Kahanamoku burst upon the world scene in 1911 (at the age of 21,) shattering American and world records in the one hundred and fifty yard freestyle swimming races at an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) sanctioned meet in Honolulu Harbor, sport had become a tool of nationalism used by countries around the world to demonstrate modern manliness and vigor. (Nendel)
He later won an Olympic gold medal in 1912 – a feat he repeated eight years later at the age of 30. In 1924, he won the silver. Overall he won five medals at the various Olympic Games.
Returning to Hawaiʻi as a hero, yet unable to find a suitable job, Duke took his swimming ability abroad through exhibition swimming competitions – he also used every opportunity to introduce the world to surfing (he even appeared in 28-films as a bit-part actor, with such stars as John Wayne.)
However, fame brought him into politics and he served as Sheriff for thirteen consecutive 2-year terms. He initially ran as a democrat, but later switched and served as a Republican. After the office was eliminated, he became the city’s official greeter.
However impressive these feats are, it was his love of surfing that Duke is most remembered. He used surfing to promote Hawaiian culture to visitors who wanted to fully experience the islands.
Through his many travels, Duke Kahanamoku introduced surfing to the rest of the world and was regarded as the father of international surfing. On one trip to Australia in 1914-15, Kahanamoku demonstrated surfing and made such an impression that the Australians erected a statue of him. (Nendel)
British royal, Prince Edward asked Kahanamoku to teach him to surf. Duke heartily agreed.
Focusing surfing at home – and at Waikiki – the Outrigger Canoe and Surfboard Club was formed in 1908 in order “to give an added and permanent attraction to Hawaii and make Waikiki always the Home of the Surfer.” (Nendel) Duke joined the club in 1917.
Duke is credited for writing an article “Riding the Surfboard” in the January, 1911 edition of ‘The Mid-Pacific Magazine.’ It notes, “How would you like to stand like a god before the crest of a monster billow, always rushing to the bottom of a hill and never reaching its base, and to come rushing in for half a mile at express speed, in graceful attitude, of course, until you reach the beach and step easily from the wave to the sand? “
“Find the locality, as we Hawaiians did, here the rollers are long in forming, slow to break, and then run for a great distance over a flat, level bottom, and the rest is possible. Perhaps the ideal surfing stretch in all the world is at Waikiki beach, near Honolulu, Hawaii.”
On August 2, 1940, he married, Nadine Alexander, a girl from the mainland.
At the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame, Kahanamoku was the first ‘Surf Pioneer’ inductee in 1994. In 1999, Surfer magazine honored Duke as the century’s most influential surfer and placed his portrait on the cover of its annual collector’s edition.
In its December 27, 1999 issue, Sports Illustrated named Duke Kahanamoku the top athlete in the list of the top 50 greatest 20th-century athletes in Hawaiʻi.
On August 24, 2002, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in honor of the man whom Robert Rider, Chairman of the Postal Service Board of Governors, called “a hero in every sense of the word.” The stamp honored Duke Kahanamoku, a man regarded with the reverence bestowed upon a legendary figure in his home State of Hawaiʻi.
“Kahanamoku represented a link to old Hawai`i and its monarchy and proud people as well as serving as the emerging image of modern Hawaiʻi as depicted in travelogues and television advertisements. There is no question that Kahanamoku is a symbol of the old and new Hawaiʻi.” (Nendel)
At his funeral services in 1968, Reverend Abraham Akaka said, “Duke Kahanamoku represented the aliʻi nobility in the highest and truest sense – concern for others, humility in victory, courage in adversity, good sportsmanship in defeat. He had a quality of life we are all challenged and inspired to emulate.”