Did the Missionaries really stop Surfing in Hawaiʻi, as we are most often led to believe?
Invariably there are definitive statements that the missionaries “banned” and/or “abolished” surfing, hula, even speaking the Hawaiian language.
However, in taking a closer look into the matter, most would likely come to a different conclusion.
First of all, the missionaries were guests in the Hawaiian Kingdom; they didn’t have the power to ban or abolish anything – that was the right of the King and Chiefs.
Most will agree the missionaries despised the fact that Hawaiians typically surfed in the nude and that hula dancers were typically topless; they also didn’t like the commingling between the sexes.
So, before we go on, we need to agree, the issue at hand is surfing and hula – not nudity and interactions between the sexes. In keeping this discussion on the actual activity and not sexuality, let’s see what the missionaries had to say about surfing.
Let’s look at surfing …
Here is what Hiram Bingham had to say about surfing (Bingham was leader of the Pioneer Company of missionaries to Hawaiʻi, he was in the Islands from 1820 to 1840 – these are his words):
“On a calm and bright summer’s day, the wide ocean and foaming surf, the peaceful river, with verdant banks, the bold cliff, and forest covered mountains, the level and fertile vale, the pleasant shade-trees, the green tufts of elegant fronds on the tall cocoanut trunks, nodding and waving, like graceful plumes, in the refreshing breeze …”
“… birds flitting, chirping, and singing among them, goats grazing and bleating, and their kids frisking on the rocky cliff, the natives at their work, carrying burdens, or sailing up and down the river, or along the sea-shore, in their canoes, propelled by their polished paddles that glitter in the sun-beam, or by a small sail well trimmed, or riding more rapidly and proudly on their surf-boards, on the front of foaming surges, as they hasten to the sandy shore, all give life and interest to the scenery.” (Bingham – pages 217-218)
“(T)hey resorted to the favorite amusement of all classes – sporting on the surf, in which they distinguish themselves from most other nations. In this exercise, they generally avail themselves of the surf-board, an instrument manufactured by themselves for the purpose.” (Bingham – page 136)
“The inhabitants of these islands, both male and female, are distinguished by their fondness for the water, their powers of diving and swimming, and the dexterity and ease with which they manage themselves, their surf-boards and canoes, in that element.” (Bingham – pages 136-137)
“The adoption of our costume greatly diminishes their practice of swimming and sporting in the surf, for it is less convenient to wear it in the water than the native girdle, and less decorous and safe to lay it entirely off on every occasion they find for a plunge or swim or surf-board race.” (Bingham – page 137)
Missionaries also Surfed
Another of the missionary group at the time was Levi Chamberlain, the mission quartermaster in the 1830s;) here is what he had to say:
“The situation of Waititi (Waikīkī) is pleasant, & enjoys the shade of a large number of cocoanut & kou trees. The kou has large spreading branches & affords a very beautiful shade. There is a considerable extension of beach and when the surf comes in high the natives amuse themselves in riding on the surf-board.” (Chamberlain – Vol 2, page 18)
“The Chiefs amused themselves by playing on surfboards in the heart of Lahaina.” (Chamberlain – Vol 5, page 36)
Another set of Journals, belonging to Amos S. Cooke, also notes references to surfing (Cooke was in the 8th Company of missionaries arriving in 1837:)
“After dinner Auhea went with me, & the boys to bathe in the sea, & I tried riding on the surf. To day I have felt quite lame from it.” (Cooke – Vol 6, page 237)
“This evening I have been reading to the smaller children from “Rollo at Play”–“The Freshet”. The older children are still reading “Robinson Crusoe”. Since school the boys have been to Waikiki to swim in the surf & on surf boards. They reached home at 7 o’clk. Last evening they went to Diamond Point – & did not return till 7 1/2 o’clock.” (Cooke – Vol 7, page 385)
“After dinner about three o’clock we went to bathe & to play in the surf. After we returned from this we paid a visit to the church which has lately been repaired with a new belfry & roof.” (Cooke – Vol 8, page 120)
James J Jarvis, in 1847, notes “Sliding down steep hills, on a smooth board, was a common amusement; but no sport afforded more delight than bathing in the surf. Young and old high and low, of both sexes, engaged in it, and in no other way could they show greater dexterity in their aquatic exercises.”
“Multitudes could be seen when the surf was highest, pushing boldly seaward, with their surf-board in advance, diving beneath the huge combers, as they broke in succession over them, until they reached the outer line of breakers …”
“… then laying flat upon their boards, using their arms and legs as guides, they boldly mounted the loftiest, and, borne upon its crest, rushed with the speed of a race-horse towards the shore; from being dashed upon which, seemed to a spectator impossible to be avoided.” (Jarvis – page 39)
Even Mark Twain notes surfing during his visit in 1866, “In one place we came upon a large company of naked natives, of both sexes and all ages, amusing themselves with the national pastime of surf-bathing. Each heathen would paddle three or four hundred yards out to sea, (taking a short board with him), then face the shore and wait for a particularly prodigious billow to come along …”
“… at the right moment he would fling his board upon its foamy crest and himself upon the board, and here he would come whizzing by like a bombshell! It did not seem that a lightning express train could shoot along at a more hair-lifting speed. I tried surf-bathing once, subsequently, but made a failure of it. I got the board placed right, and at the right moment, too; but missed the connection myself.–The board struck the shore in three quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck the bottom about the same time, with a couple of barrels of water in me..” (Mark Twain, Roughing It, 1880)
As you can see, there were foreigner reports on surfing throughout the decades. Obviously, surfing was never “banned” or “abolished” in Hawaiʻi. These words from prominent missionaries and other observers note on-going surfing throughout the decades the missionaries were in Hawaiʻi (1820 – 1863.)
Likewise, their comments sound supportive of surfing, at least they were comfortable with it and they admired the Hawaiians for their surfing prowess (they are certainly not in opposition to its continued practice) – and Bingham seems to acknowledge that he realizes others may believe the missionaries curtailed/stopped it.
So, Bingham, who was in Hawaiʻi from 1820 to 1840, makes surprisingly favorable remarks by noting that Hawaiians were “sporting on the surf, in which they distinguish themselves from most other nations”. Likewise, Chamberlain notes they “amuse themselves in riding on the surf-board.”
Missionary Amos Cooke, who arrived in Hawaiʻi in 1837 – and was later appointed by King Kamehameha III to teach the young royalty in the Chiefs’ Children’s School – surfed himself (with his sons) and enjoyed going to the beach in the afternoon.
In the late-1840s, Jarvis notes, “Multitudes could be seen when the surf was highest, pushing boldly seaward, with their surf-board in advance”.
In the 1850s, Reverend Cheever notes, surfing “is so attractive and full of wild excitement to the Hawaiians, and withal so healthy”.
In the mid-1860s Mark Twain notes, the Hawaiians were “amusing themselves with the national pastime of surf-bathing. Each heathen would paddle three or four hundred yards out to sea, (taking a short board with him), then face the shore and wait for a particularly prodigious billow to come along; at the right moment he would fling his board upon its foamy crest and himself upon the board, and here he would come whizzing by like a bombshell!”
Throughout the decades, Hawaiians continued to surf and, if anything, the missionaries and others at least appreciated surfing (although they vehemently opposed nudity – likewise, today, nudity is frowned upon.)
Planning ahead … the Hawaiian Mission Bicentennial – Reflection and Rejuvenation – 1820 – 2020 – is approaching (it starts in about a year)
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