surfriding in west africa
Surfriding, Canoes, and
Swimming in West Africa, 1600-1940.
publication of several articles in academic journals on
surfboard riding in Oceania, Dr. Ben Finney (1962), examined accounts of surfboarding on
the coast of West Africa.
Rouch (1949) and Beart
(1955), he raised the question of whether surfboard riding
developed as an "independent invention" in both locations, or by
"invention in one and then diffusion to the other."
and rejected the possibility of a recent diffusion from Hawaii,
citing the early nineteenth century report by James Alexander (1835);
and, noting the surfboard-like craft of Lake Bosumtwi identified
by Rattray (1923), concluded that
surfboarding in West Africa and Oceania was invented and evolved
review ranges beyond Ben Finney's focus on "the most distinctive
form of surfing, surfboarding."
It takes a wider
perspective, suggesting that the origin and evolution of
surfriding lies in the integrated relationship between the
surfboards, swimming, fishing, and the sea-going craft of the
ancient beachcombers of the tropics.
Sincere thanks to Herve Manificat, who
has done extensive research and made numerous contributions to the
Kevin Dawson: Swimming in Atlantic Africa, 7 Jun 2012.
Prof. Kevin Dawson presents Swimming,
Surfing and underwater Diving in Atlantic Africa at the
International Aquatic History Symposium & Film Festival,
organised by the International Swimming
Hall of Fame (Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, USA, May 9-12, 2012).
Kevin Dawson : Undercurrents of Power
- Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019.
Thanks to Bob Green, September 2020.
In one of the earliest European reports from
West Africa, Johann von Lubelfing
(1600) relates how, when absconding with stolen goods from his
ship, two Africans were able to "swim below the water like a
fish" to escape.
de Marees (1602)
describes the fishermen of Guinea as excellent swimmers, "easily
outdoing people of our nation in swimming and diving."
He observed that
the young, "girls as well as boys," swim daily, and that some
women were equal to men in swimming, but not in diving.
On the day after
the Ambtsforth fired upon a fleet of sixty African
canoes, in response to a preceived attack, Andreas Joshua Ulsheimer
(1604) reports that the ship was cautiously approached by two
One natve was
"repeatedly dipping a finger in the water and holding this wet
finger over their right eye," the sign used along the West Coast
to ask "do you come in peace and to trade?"
strangers at sea, the immediate assumption by indigenous sailors
was that the newcomer's motives were either trade.or conquest.
sometimes also preceded by initial confict, was continually
re-enacted as the Europeans expanded their exploration of the
world's oceans; in Polynesia the equivalent sign was holding up
a branch of green leaves.
On the Quaqua
coast, Samuel: Brun
(1620) notes that the local inhabitants use "a little raft
of three or four pieces of wood, ' on which "they travel from
the land out to sea, where there are such big waves that it is
remarkable how these people can come through them."
Michael: Hemmersam (1645)
recounts an occasion when, after the canoes of two visiting
Moors drifted away, the skipper threw them "a board (on which)
they laid and swam ashore with it."
"We were all quite amazed at this great feat of daring."
In a chapter on
child rearing, Hemmersam records that the mothers "tie the
children (when 2-3 years of age) to boards and throw them into
the water, and so they learn to swim."
considering this parental instruction effective, he concludes
"Thus they are brought up with little trouble."
possibly describes a similar practise, perhaps confirming
Hemmersam, in his later account of West Africa, 1678-1712.
At Cape Corso,
Wilhelm Johann Muller
(1669) notes that the children are taught to swim an early age
and observes "an enormous crowd' in their daily ritual of
bathing in the harbour, accompanied with considerable youthful
The report from
the coast of West Africa by Jean: Barbot (1712) predates the
first European accounts of Polynesian surfriding by fifty years.
He wrote "the
young have no other occupation than to play in the sea,
thousands playing on the large waves of the surf on the coast,
carried on little boards, until the sea casts them ashore on the
sand of its beaches." (edited)
Hemmersam (1645), he also notes " the swimmers also use "small
bundles of rushes, fasten'd under their stomachs."
The surf skills
of the canoemen of the Gold Coast were praised by Henry Meredith
(1812); when returning to the beach they position "the canoe on
the summit of the sea," and keeping. "as straight a course as
possible ... conduct (it) on shore with surprising velocity."
For the European
passengers, this standard method of landing was a considerable
thrill, mixed with a certain apprehension, and was later
recorded by, among others, Paul B Du Chaillu (1867),
Hugh Dyer (1876),
and illustrated in London's The Graphic
(1891) and several French publications, the most dramatic of which
is shown below.
wipe-out on a large curling right-hander,
Senegal - Nigeria, circa
Image contributed by Herve
Manificat, July 2013, publishing details to be confirmed.
In the most
detailed account of African surfriding, John Adams (1823)
writes of Fantee children amusing themselves in the
ocean using terminology reminiscent of many reports from
On "pieces of
broken canoes, which they launch, and paddle outside of the
surf, when, watching a proper opportunity, they place their
frail barks (boards) on the tops of high waves, which, in
their progress to the shore, carry them along with great
surfboards are described as "pieces of broken canoes,"
In an episode of
the BBC documentary, South
Pacific (2009), Bob Green observed
juveniles surfing prone with canoe paddles on Anuta, in the Solomon Islands.
In his seminal
account of surfriding in Tahiti, Joseph Banks (1769)
describes the craft, perhaps a little inaccurately, as "the
stern of an old canoe."
most likely splitting longitudinally with the grain and with
the timber already finished, would have been readily recycled,
and one possible option was as a surfboard.
In the Ellice
Islands, Kennedy (1930)
notes that the puke (the shaped bow covering of the
canoe) is often used as a surfboard, and Bligh (1788) reported the
Tahitians, on one occasion, were surfriding on the blades of
their canoe paddles.
(This last case
was probably an aberration given the extreme surf conditions
at the time- during this week every surfboard in Matavai Bay
would have been in high demand).
Released as Wild Pacific in the USA, the title music is a ukulele
medley of Over the Rainbow performed by Israel
Kamakawiwo'ole. and the series was promoted with slow motion footage of big wave surfer
In 2018, Bob generously forwarded a number of screen shots
(approximately at 48:16) and a1988 photograph
illustrating a Solomon Islands paddle.
identifies the essential skill in a successful ride following
the take-off; that is, maintaining the board's position in
curl of the wave.
In his own
words, "the principal art of these young canoe men consists in
preserving their seats while thus hurried along, and which
they can only do by steering the planks with such precision,
as to prevent them broaching to ; for when that occurs, they
are washed off, and have to swim to regain them."
to Polynesian accounts, the children, "not more than six or
seven years of age," swim expertly, and surfriding is
community event, the best rides receiving " the plaudits of
the spectators, who are assembled on the beach to witness
by native canoe through "two or three lines of heavy rollers"
at Accra in modern day Ghana, James Alexander (1835),
like Adams, also observed juvenile surfboard riding.
In a brief
account he wrote of "boys swimming into the sea, with light
boards under their stomachs.
They waited for
a surf (wave); and then came rolling in like a cloud on the
top of it."
later conversation, he was told that the local
surfriders were occasionally threatened by sharks.
(Cameroon), Thomas J. Hutchinson
(1861) observed the local fisherman surfriding in their canoes
where the waves broke on an extensive reef.
conditions on this day were unfavourable for serious fishing,
or particularly suited to canoe surfriding, or a combination
He writes of a
group of the four or six riders in small light-weight one-man
describes the paddle-out, take-off, steering with a trailing
paddle at speed, and the inconvenience of the wipe-out,
somewhat mitigated by their being "capital swimmers – indeed,
like the majority of the coastal negroes, they may be reckoned
Sharks are an
occasional hazard; Hutchinson was told that, shortly before he
arrived, a fisherman died after losing a leg to "a prowling
are numerous accounts of (adult) West Africans riding waves in
canoes, in those instances they are invariably in pursuit of
their livelihood, either in transporting freight or
passengers, or in returning from fishing.
In this case,
the Batanga canoe riders are clearly riding the waves for
simple pleasure, and in this sense, as noted by Kevin Dawson(2009),
is "the only (account from West Africa) that describes adults
In the second of two books of her
travels to West Africa, a photograph by Mary H. Kingsley (1899)
shows six Batanga men and their canoes, possibly identical to
those observed surfriding by Hutchinson forty years earlier..
Mary H. Kingsley: Batanga
Canoes, West Africa, c1899.
When visiting the coast of the
Batanga people, C. S. Smith
(1895) observed and detailed their very light cork wood single
canoes; going so far as to weigh one, at an impressive
Too narrow to seat an ordinarily
sized person, a narrow "saddle" laid across the gunwales was
used as a seat, and with very light paddles, they "scud over the
roughest sea without danger and with almost incredible
Paddling predominantly with left
hand, the right is occasionally used to bail, and one foot is
trailed as balance, and presumably to assist in manoeuvring
Thus, "when they would rest their
arms, one leg is thrown out on either side of the canoe, and it
is propelled almost as fast with their feet as with the
While employed to lay undersea
cables On a Surf-bound Coast (the title of his book),
Archer P. Crouch
(1887) had many experiences in landing and launching in
surf-boats and canoes.
However it is his rare account of
swimming in considerable sized surf and taking instruction in
the art of body surfing from his African assistant, Su, that is
In his ethnographic study of the
Tshi-speaking peoples of the Gold Coast, Alfred Burdon Ellis (1887) wrote
that "every portion of the shore where the surf breaks unusually
heavily, or rocks cause the water to become broken, and ...
dangerous for canoes, has its local spirit."
Capt. T. C. Hincks:
Surf-Boats comming of from Cape Coast Castle,
(Gold Coast), 1910.
Johnston, Harry Hamilton, Sir :
Britain across the Seas:
Africa ... the British Empire in Africa, 1910, page
1600 von Lubelfing : Swimming and
Canoes, West Africa.
1602 de Marees : Swimming, Canoes and Fishing,
1604 Ulsheimer : Canoes and
Whaling, West Africa.
1620 Samuel Brun : Canoes, Rafts, and
Fishing, West Africa.
1645 Hemmersam : Float Boards
and Canoes, West Africa.
1669 Muller : Swimming, Canoes and
Fishing, West Africa.
1712 Jean Barbot : Canoes and Fishing, Guinea.
1735 John Atkins : Canoes and
Fishing, Guinea and Brazil.
Meredith : Canoe
Surfing on Gold Coast, Africa.
Adams : Surfboard
Riding on the West Coast, Africa.
Edward Alexander : West
1861 Thomas J.
Hutchinson : Canoe
Surfing in Gabon, Africa.
1874 W.H.G. Kingston: Great
1876 Hugh Dyer : Surf Boats in West
Whitford : Surf
Canoes and Boats, West Africa.
1881 David Greig Rutherford : Batanga
Canoes, West Africa.
1887 Archer Crouch :
Body Surfing, West Africa.
1887 Alfred Burton Ellis : Surf Dieties of West
1891 The Graphic : Surf
1895 C. S. Smith : Batanga
Canoes, West Africa.
1899 Mary H. Kingsley : Canoes and
Fishing, West Africa.
Hamilton : Surfriding
at Muizenberg, South Africa.
1922 Agatha Christie : Torquay,
Muizenberg, and Waikiki.
1923 Robert Rattray : Padua
at Lake Bosumtwi, Africa.
1932 George Bernard Shaw : First Surfboard,
Rouch : Surf Riding
at Dakar, Senegal.
1955 C.Beart :
Jeux et Jouets de l'Ouest Africain. Memoires de
l'Institut Francais d' Afrique, Noire No. 42, Dakar,
1962 Ben Finney : Surfboarding in West
Dawson : Swimming,
and Underwater Diving in Early Modern Africa and the African
(2000-2018) : History : Surfing in West Africa, 1600-1940.