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  polynesian surfriding : other islands

 polynesian surfriding : other islands

5.1. Introduction.
These brief notes illustrate that surf riding was wide spread across Polynesia.

5.2 Pitcairn Island, 1821.
Following an extended stay at Matavai Bay in Tahiti in 1788-1789, Midshipman Fletcher Christian led the
infamous mutiny on the Bounty, setting Captain Bligh adrift in a longboat.
After returning to Tahiti, Christian was desperate to find a sanctuary from punishment by the Royal Navy and
eventually settled the then uninhabited and remote Pitcairn Island with some of the mutineers and a number of,
mostly female, native Tahitians.
As the mutineers progressively eliminated themselves by misadventure or murder, Pitcairn became a integrated
culture of English and Tahitian influences.

The island settlement was discovered in 1808 by Captain Folger in the Topaz, who reported his surprising find
to the British Admiralty.
However there was little official interest in pursuing what was now merely remnants of the mutiny.
Whereas European influence on Pitcairn was principally evident in a resurgent Christianity, Polynesian culture
maintained a strong bond with the ocean, most notably a continuation of surfboard riding in relatively difficult
A number of vessels visited the island before the Surry in 1821, when the inhabitants were observed surfing on
small boards.
Crew member, Dr. Ramsay reported:

"The Capt returned and told me that after loading the boats which was done by swimming through the
surf with the fruit, they to his great astonishment amused themselves by taking a flat board about 3
feet long, on the upper side smooth and on the under a ridge like a keel, and went out on a rock and
waited till a large breaker came and when the top of it was close on them, away they went with the
piece of wood under their belly on the top of this breaker and directed themselves by their feet into
the little channel formed by the rocks, so that men the surf left them they were only up to their knees
in water.
They are very dexterous in keeping off the rocks which to us would be inevitable death."
- page 7.

While the Pitcairn surfboards were built of local timber, the incorporation of a "ridge like a keel" appears to be
unique and is not recorded in any of the reports of traditional surfboards of Tahiti or the Hawaiian Islands.
It appears to be a design feature intended to give the board directional stability (commonly known as a fin and
usually accredited to Tom Blake in 1935), developed by a combination of the Tahitian native design and the
European seaman's knowledge of boat building.
Alternatively, there is a very remote possibility that it was added to give board structural strength.

In 1823, a British whaler, Cyrus, left two of her crew on Pitcairn, John Buffett and John Evans, who provided an
injection of European influence, but this was minor in comparison to the significant social dislocation resulting
from the arrival of Joshua Hill in 1831.
Due to the pressure of an increasing population on the small island, several attempts were made to relocate the
inhabitants before there was a major relocation to Norfolk Island in 1856, where the descents of the Bounty
mutineers' continued their enjoyment of surfriding. 

Ramsey, Dr. David: The Scrapbook of the Log of the Ship "Surry", Pitcairn Island April 1821.
Acquired from The Pitcairn Islands Study Center : Historic Papers

5.3 Rapanui (Easter Island), 1827-1985.
Initially discovered by Jacob Roggeveen in 1722, Rapanui is the most eastern of the islands of the Polynesian triangle.
Its location off the coast of South America led some anthropologists, notably Thor Heyerdahl, to doubt the islanders' Polynesian ancestry.
Early European visitors immediately recognised the island had passed its cultural apex, evidenced by the desecration of the famous stone statues, and extreme enviromental devastation with the complete eradication of the native timbers.
The lack of timber severely limited the islanders ability to construct canoes and restricted their access to fishing resources.

Dutchman Jacob Roggeveen, in command of three vessels, was the first European to sight Rapanui on Easter Day in 1722.
He is said to have reported the islanders "swam out to the visitors by the thousands, accompanied by small reed skiffs."

- Heyerdahl: Easter Island- The Mystery Solved, London, 1989, page 21.

Page 8.

The weather was very variable, with thunder, sheet lightning and showers.
The wind unsteady from the North West, and occasional calms* so that our shore expedition could not be undertaken with any prospect of success.
During the forenoon Captain BOUMAN brought an Easter Islander on board, together with his craft, in which he had come off close to the Ship from the land ; he was quite nude, without the slightest covering for that which modesty shrinks from revealing.
This hapless creature seemed to be very glad to behold us, and showed the greatest wonder at the build of our Ship.
He took special notice of the tautness of our spars, the stoutness of our rigging and running gear, the sails, the guns — which he felt all over with minute attention — and with everything else that he saw ; especially when the image of his own features was displayed before him in a mirror, seeing the which, he started suddenly back and then looked towards

Page 9

the back of the glass, apparently in the expectation of discovering there the cause of the apparition.
After we had sufficiently beguiled ourselves with him, and he with us, we started him off again in his canoe towards the shore, having presented him with two strings of blue beads (1) round his neck, a small mirror, a pair of scissors, and other like trifles, which seemed to have a special attraction for him.

1. The original has coraelen, meaning beads.

Page 11

 9.[th ]

A great many canoes came off to the ships : these people showed us at that time their great cupidity for every thing they saw ; and were so daring that they took the seamen's hats and caps from off their heads, and sprang overboard with the spoil (1) ; for they are surpassingly good swimmers, as would seem from the great numbers of them who came swimming off from the shore to the ships.

1 The edited Journal here has a footnote to the effect that "the posterity of this generation were not less thievishly disposed than their fathers," and refers to Cook's, De la PeVouse's, and Kotzebue's accounts of their respective experiences with them in this respect.

page 19

 Finally, as to their seagoing craft, they are of poor and flimsy construction ; for their canoes are fitted together of a number of small boards and light frames, which they skilfully lace together with very fine laid twine made from the above-mentioned vegetable product Piet But as they lack the knowledge, and especially the material, for caulking the great number of seams of their canoes, and making them tight, they consequently leak a great deal ; on account of which they are necessitated to spend half their time in baling.
Their canoes are about ten feet long, not counting the high and pointed stem and stern pieces.
Their width is such that, with their legs packed close together, they can just sit in them so as to paddle ahead.


At 8 o'clock in the morning we came to an anchor in this bay in 18 fathoms, gravel, coral, small shells, and fine sand. We moored East and West with one anchor to the E. and a kedge to the W.
We saw some natives swim off and pass on board of the Commodore; the rest remained on the sea beach, in loose cloaks, shouting with delight and giving other signs, all intended to make us aware of their docility and of their desire to come on board or to see us on shore.


Sunday, 18th. The natives continued to gather on board in greater number than on the preceding days, so that on this day there have been more than 400 in the frigate. What with men and women they collected in such crowds that it became necessary to send away some in order to make room for others, as we could not contain them on board.


On the 17th of the said [month], day dawned with the horizon clear, and a moderate breeze from the Eastward.
At five in the morning we got under way in both launches and made sail towards the Cape of San Antonio.
Half a league before reaching the cape we came abreast of a point, off which were a quantity of rocks or boulders sticking up out of the water; and saw that two little canoes were coming out from among them with two men in each, making for the Santa Rosalia's launch ; so we waited for them in order that they might join our party.
They gave the people of the said launch plantains, Chili peppers, sweet potatoes and fowls; and in return our men gave them hats, chamorretas, &c, and they went off contentedly with these to the shore.
These canoes are constructed of five extremely narrow boards (on account of there being no thick timber in the country) about a cuarta 1 in width; they are consequently so crank that they are provided with an outrigger to prevent them from capsizing ; and I think that these are the only ones in the whole of the island.
They are fitted tpgether with wooden pegs in place of nails.


Next day we stood in with our ships to look for a harbour, whereupon one of the natives came off in a small skiff [schiffgeri] to meet us some two miles off the land.
We took him aboard our vessel and gave him a piece of linen cloth to wrap about his body, for he was quite naked; and we offered him beads and other trinkets, all of which he hung round his neck together with a dried fish.

Visiting Rapanui in 1827, Hugh Cuming noted the islanders swimming out to the vessel with supplies for the visitors, principally plantains (bananas), a practice reported on many other Polynesian islands.:

“On standing into the Bay on the West side of the Island which appears to be the most highly
cultivated, we saw the Natives collected in great numbers on the Rocks and on nearing the shore
they took to the Water and swam onboard each person having a small Net or Basket or a Bunch of
plantians on his Back for Sale or barter."

These goods were exchanged for fish hooks (made from metal) and timber, indicative of the lack of local resources:

"they where [were] particularly partial to Wood and Fish hooks for one only the[y] gave a Net or Basket full of Fruit or Vegetables."

The islanders' skill at swimming is common to many reports of early European contact across the Polynesian triangle:

"Swimming at which the[y] are very expert as I ever witness'd,"

Without acces to canoes, the Rapanui's had constructed diminutive craft made from small shrubs to assist their swimming in difficult conditions:

"when the Sea becomes rough which occurd in the afternoon some of them made use of small Balsas or Bundle of Flags about 2 Feet long, Six Inches thick at one End and tapering to a point at the other.
this the[y] place betwixt their legs to assist them in Swimming"

While the small "Balsas or Bundle of Flags" were not surfboards, they were certainly an elementary floatation device of considerable assistance.
Fischer comments in his notes on the text:

"Cuming further notes (MS pp.7-8) how the Rapanui make use of “small Balsas or Bundle of Flags
about 2 Feet long” that taper to a point at each end to assist them in swimming out to the Discoverer,
this pora (type of raft) was first mentioned by Lisiansky (1814:1:58). (Footnote) 9.

In footnote 9, Steven Roger Fischer suugests the craft were of Polynesian origin and are not diretly related to the reed boats (pora) as used by ancient Peruvians:

"9. For a physical description of this raft, see Métraux (1940:208).
Pora were also used for surf-riding.
Their use most likely originated uniquely on Rapanui for want of appropriate wood to construct
proper vaka; i.e., they would probably not represent an importation of similar Peruvian craft, as
Heyerdahl has repeatedly suggested."

- Fischer, Steven Roger:Hugh Cuming's Acount of an Anchorage at Rapanui (Easter Island) November 27-8, 1827.
Journal of Polynesian Society, Volume 100, Number 3, 1991, pages 303 - 316.
Above quotations page 304.

1838: Admiral du Petit-Thouars reached Easter Island from Mexico. He was still a great distance from shore when shouts were heard from two Easter Island­ers they thought to be swimming, "... but we were much surprised to perceive that these natives were each riding astride a reed roller in the form of a sheaf of corn.

To be sure of a favourable reception they brought us bananas, sweet pota­toes and yams enveloped in their reeds."
The swimmers also brought Petit-Thouars a most peculiar wooden image representing a double head without body.
The eyes were inlaid with black obsidian inserted as pupils into white bone.
Although he did not land, Petit-Thouars sailed close enough along the coast to notice two types of dwellings.
He described the boat-shaped reed houses as large and bright when seen from the sea, and added: "One could also distinguish a very great number of small houses, black and round like ovens."

Heyerdahl: Easter Island (1989) page 61.

   Metraux (who visited in 1934) mentions the pora or tusk-shaped reed boats that played such an
important part in the ceremonial bird-man swimming competitions.
He does not trace their origins, since neither the reeds, the type of craft, nor the custom of competing for the election of a sacred man were native to Polynesia.
The craft was of a type characteristic of the Peruvian coast.

The largest pora, according to Metraux, could carry two men, and thus had the same capacity as the tiny local canoes.
The wooden canoes had an outrigger, and thus were definitely of Polynesian origin, but they were so poorly con­structed that Metraux made no attempt to track down their exact prototype in any specific area within Polynesia.

- Heyerdahl: Easter Island (1989) pages 167-169.

In 1989, following his several ocean crossings on rafts and a reed boat, Thor Heyerdahl
examined the ancient legends of the Easter Islanders:

The texts cited by the two old men included a description of the original fatherland:

"Hotu Matua and his followers came from a group of islands lying towards the rising sun, and the name of the land was
Marae-toe-hau, the literal meaning of which is 'the burial place.'
 In this land, the climate was so intensely hot that the people sometimes died from the effects of the heat, and at certain seasons plants and growing things were scorched and shrivelled by the sun."

Thomson says: "It is difficult to account for the statement, so frequently repeated throughout the legends, that Hotu Matua came from the eastward and discovered the land by steering towards the setting sun, because the chart shows no islands in that direction which would answer the description of 'Marae-toe-hau.

- Heyerdahl: Easter Island (1989) page 111.

He then concludes:

Hotu Matua had fled in search of one island he knew had been settled by his own kin.
Yet the early settlers' were no longer there when Hotu Matua arrived.
Nothing is said about the time span between the voyages of Machaa and Hotu Matua.
Perhaps Easter Island was known to both as a secure place of refuge, too far away from their common homeland for the arms of revenge to reach them.
The humble description of the first king as a refugee makes the beginning of the island's history sound more like a realistic tribal memory than an invented hero-myth.

The two ships of Hotu Matua were described as ninety feet long and six feet deep, each carrying one hundred and fifty people.
No seaworthy canoe or log raft could have been built to such measurements, but a reed ship could.
The Easter Islanders use the term vaka-paepae, "boat-rafts," for these vessels.
This could very well have been a boat-shaped reed raft structurally related to the little totora floats that survived on the island until the Europeans arrived.
A landing from the east in such ships would make sense, as they were made of the totora reeds cultivated in vast quantities for boat- and house-building in every river valley on the continent east of Easter Island.
If we accept that the flimsy Easter Island mini-canoes were the modest survivors of proper Polynesian dug-out canoes, then the tiny local reed floats could be correspondingly modest vestiges of former South American reed ships.
Neither type could have carried men to Easter Island if they had only been of the size seen by the Europeans.
Only large reed bundles could have been combined to make vessels of the impressive size cited for Hotu Matua's "boat-rafts."
And the peculiar Easter Island reed huts would match the length, depth, and shape of such watercraft turned upside down.
Perhaps the first arrivals lived in their overturned boats after landing? If so, this would explain the curious boat-shaped design of the Easter Island reed-houses.


- Heyerdahl: Easter Island (1989) page 115.
Amongst a plethora of divergent theories as to the origin of the Easter islanders, Hyderdahl noted:

Thompson (1906) considered the Polynesians as one of the purest of all known people, and suggested they were Caucasians of the Alpine branch who had learnt the art of seamanship from the Phoenicians before they reached the Persian Gulf and pushed on to Polynesia by way of Sumatra.
- Heyerdahl: Easter Island (1989) page 135.

Also note:

Métraux, Alfred:Ethnology of Easter Island.
Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 160, Honolulu, 1940, page 208.

Lisyansky, Yuri: Voyage round the world in the Ship Neva.
Lisiansky, London, 1814.

A man holding a small pora on Easter Island was shown in an illustration by Radiguet.
Published in du Dupetit-Thouars: Voyage around the World on the Frigate Venus, Paris, 1841.

Rapanui islander padles a replica pora, circa 1985.
HeyerdahlEaster Island (1989) page 21.

Construction of replica pora, Rapanui, circa 1985
Heyerdahl: Easter Island (1989) page 21.

5.4 Samoa
1861 George Turner : Surf Riding in Somoa.
1866 W. T. Pritchard : Surf Riding in Somoa.

William Brown Churchward:
My Consulate in Samoa: A Record of Four Years' Sojourn in the Navigators Islands.

R. Bentley and Son, 1887.
Reprinted by Southern Reprints, 1987.
This work follows the travels of William Brown Churchward who, in 1882, became the British Consul in Apia, Samoa, and deputy commissioner for the western Pacific.
It covers much of the history of Samoa over the period as well as covering a range of tropics from pigeon hunting and oratory, to religious rituals and tattooing.

Pages 137: On the water, surf riding is greatly in vogue when the sea is in a fit condition ...
Page 139: the line of white surf appears to be closely dotted with brown spots, the heads of the bathers;
Noted by Bob Green with thanks, 2020.

Also note
Dr. Augustin Kraemer: Die Samoa-Inseln
Unfortunately the text is in German, the title translates as The Samoa Islands - Draft monograph with special reference to German-Samoa.
However, it does include one photograph of surf riding in Samoa on page 401, right.
Das Wellenengleitspiel roughly translates as wave play, the term in parentheses
(Fa'ase'e) presumably the Samoa name.
The image shows a large number of participants, some of whom have short body boards.

No. 43 Das Wellenengleitspiel
- cropped.

5.5 Niue, 1902.
Located about 1500 miles to the north east of New Zealand, to the east of Fiji and about half way between Samoa and Tonga, it was first sighted by Captain James Cook in 1774..
Cook recorded the natives were distrustful of strangers and he was refused permission to land, describing the region as the "Savage Islands".
Christianity was brought o the island by Peniamina in 1846, after he was converted during his stay at
The islanders were completely converted to Christianity by the end of the 19th century.
Colonization took place thereafter and the island was declared as a part of the British Empire.

In an article for the Journal of Polynesian Society (1902, page 215), S. Percy Smith, detailed the canoes and fishing practices of the Nuie islanders, drawing parallels with other Polynesian craft:

Like all Polynesians, the Niue people are expert canoe men.
Even to this day they go in their little canoes right round the island on fishing expeditions, on the weather side of which rough seas are experienced.
Every dark night fleets of canoes are to be seen along the leeward coast with their bright torches ('hulu') engaged in catching flying or other kinds of fish,—it is a very pretty sight to see them.
A canoe is a 'vaka', as it is in all other parts in some form of that word; but 'foulua' is also a
canoe, now applied to ships, which are also called 'tonga'.
The canoes have outriggers, which are fastened by two arms to the canoe itself.
The hull is dug out of a log, with a topside lashed on and enclosed for a space both fore and aft.
The seams are caulked with a hard gum called 'pili', and are often ornamented with shells and a little very rough carving.
The Niue canoes are more like the 'va'a-alo-atu' or Bonito canoes of Samoa than any others I have seen, but they are not so well-finished nor so long.
A Niue canoe is from 12 feet to 25 feet in length, about 18 inches or 2 feet deep, and somewhat less in width.
They carry from one to three or four people.
The outrigger is called a 'hama'; a double canoe is 'vaka-hai-ua', but not now in use.
The paddles are termed 'fohe', and are shaped as seen in Plate 6.
With these the canoes can be propelled at a considerable pace, and they sometimes sail, the sail being a 'la', the mast a 'fane'.
The natives manage their craft very adroitly in coming onto the reef in rough weather, for at that time the little chasms ('ava') in the reef are not available for landing purposes.

The final comment, "manage their craft very adroitly in coming onto the reef in rough weather", probably indicates some form of canoe surf riding, a familiar practice across Polynesia.

In a section on Amusements (page 217), Smith notes:

"Surf-riding was another amusement, called 'Fakatu-lapa' or 'Fakatu-peau', which again is common to the race everywhere, but seems to have been practised more in Hawaii than elsewhere."

Smith, S. Percy: Nuie Island and Its People.
Journal of Polynesian Society, Volume 11, Number 4, 1902, pages 195-218.

5.6 Marquesas Islands
E. S. Craighill Handy notes:
Surf riding (hoko) was a sport for men, women, and children, where there were beaches that made it possible.
Surf riders never stood, erect as in Hawaii.
The surfboard was called papa a'a tai.
Presumably referring to body-surfing, he also notes:
Dordillon gives pakoao as a term used for an amusement participated in by two people, one being borne inshore on the crest of a breaker while another person, coming from the shore, passed under him.

Handy, E. S. Craighill:
The Native Culture in the Marquesas, 1923.

5.7 Ellice Islands
The Ellice Islands, now known as Tuvalu, are located in Oceania.
The island group consists of nine coral atolls in the South Pacific Ocean, about one-half of the way from Hawaii to Australia.
Donald Gilbert Kennedy in his index to Field Notes on the Culture of Vaitupu Ellice Islands (1932) indicates a reference to surf-riding on page 112.

Kennedy, Donald Gilbert: Memoir No. 9. Supplement to the Journal of the Polynesian Society.
Field notes on the culture of Vaitupu Ellice Islands.
Journal of the Polynesian Society, Volume 41, Number 9, 1932, pages 321 to 328.

In 1912, a goup of Ellice islanders demonstrated their surfing skill, and some native traditions, at a Sdydney surf carnival:

A successful surf carnival was held at North Steyne, Manly on Saturday afternoon, 28 December 1912.
The display was witnessed by 15,000 spectators.
One of the prinipal attractions was the presence of a team of native swimmers from the Ellice Islands.
They entertained the crowd with their quaint songs and war dances, combined with clever exhibitions of surf and boat displays in the breakers.
139. Sydney Morning Herald 30 December 1913, Daily Telegraph 30 December 1913.

- S&G Champion: Drowning, Bathing and Life Saving (2000) page 177.

polynesian surfriding :  chapter 6

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