While Melville no
doubt observed surfriding in Hawaii, if not on other Polynesian islands,
his fictional account is of slight historical importance.
The use of ficticous characters (Uhia) and locations (Ohonoo) disguises the possible location.
Geograhically, Ohonoo is a composite of common coral island features but the "three mountain terraces" does not appear to characterise either Ohau or Maui.
Furthermore, the report of surfriding activity closely resembles Rev. William Ellis' widely quoted or parahrased account from Waimanu, Hawai'i first published in 1826.
See Ellis: Polynesian Surfriding (c1824)
edition published in three volumes on March 16, 1849 by Richard Bentley,
First American edition published in two volumes on April 14, 1849 by Harper & Brothers, New York.
'Mardi' was originally intended as a fictional South Seas adventure story, an idea Melville claimed was inspired by the many attacks upon the veracity of Typee and Omoo.
As the story progressed, however, he began to slide increasingly into satire and metaphysical speculation, eventually displacing his customary first-person narrator in favor of three external characters representing philosophical, narrative, and poetic voices, with a fourth to mediate between them.
The resulting book revealed the first blossoming of the intellectual growth and spiritual searching that would shape Melville's later works, but it sold poorly and most readers were annoyed by its confused construction and continual 'rhapsodising'."
The Life and Works
of Herman Melville
CHAPTER XC (Chapter 90)
Rare Sport At Ohonoo
the northward, Ohonoo, midway cloven down to the sea, one half a level
plain; the other, three mountain terraces - Ohonoo looks like the first
steps of a gigantic way to the sun.
And such, if Braid-Beard spoke truth, it had formerly been.
"Ere Mardi was
made," said that true old chronicler, "Vivo, one of the genii, built a
ladder of mountains whereby to go up and go down.
And of this ladder, the island of Ohonoo was the base.
But wandering here and there, incognito in a vapor, so much wickedness did Vivo spy out, that in high dudgeon he hurried up his ladder, knocking the mountains from under him as he went.
These here and there fell into the lagoon, forming many isles, now green and luxuriant; which, with
those sprouting from seeds dropped by a bird from the moon, comprise all the groups in the reef."
Surely, oh, surely, if I live till Mardi be forgotten by Mardi, I shall not forget the sight that greeted us, as we drew nigh the shores of this same island of Ohonoo; for was not all Ohonoo bathing in the surf of the sea?
But let the picture
Where eastward the ocean rolls surging against the outer reef of Mardi, there, facing a flood-gate in the barrier, stands cloven Ohonoo; her plains sloping outward to the sea, her mountains a bulwark behind.
As at Juam, where the wild billows from seaward roll in upon its cliffs; much more at Ohonoo, in billowy battalions charge they hotly into the lagoon, and fall on the isle like an army from the deep.
But charge they never so boldly, and charge they forever, old Ohonoo gallantly throws them back till all before her is one scud and rack.
So charged the bright billows of cuirassiers at Waterloo: so hurled them off the long line of living walls, whose base was as the sea-beach, wreck-strown, in a gale.
Without the break
in the reef wide banks of coral shelve off, creating the bar, where the
waves muster for the onset, thundering in water-bolts, that shake the whole
reef, till its very spray trembles.
And then is it, that the swimmers of Ohonoo most delight to gambol in the surf.
For this sport,
a surf-board is indispensable: some five feet in length; the width of a
man's body; convex on both sides; highly polished; and rounded at the ends.
It is held in high estimation; invariably oiled after use; and hung up conspicuously in the dwelling
of the owner.
Ranged on the
beach, the bathers, by hundreds dash in; and diving under the swells, make
straight for the outer sea, pausing not till the comparatively smooth expanse
beyond has been gained.
Here, throwing themselves upon their boards, tranquilly they wait for a billow that suits.
Snatching them up, it hurries them landward, volume and speed both increasing, till it races along a watery wall, like the smooth, awful verge of Niagara.
Hanging over this scroll, looking down from it as from a precipice, the bathers halloo; every limb in motion to preserve their place on the very crest of the wave.
Should they fall behind, the squadrons that follow would whelm them; dismounted, and thrown forward, as certainly would they be run over by the steed they ride.
'Tis like charging at the head of cavalry: you must on.
An expert swimmer shifts his position on his plank; now half striding it; and anon, like a rider in the ring, poising himself upright in the scud, coming on like a man in the air.
At last all is
lost in scud and vapor, as the overgrown billow bursts ike a bomb.
Adroitly emerging, the swimmers thread their way out; and like seals at the Orkneys, stand dripping upon the shore.
Landing in smooth
water, some distance from the scene, we strolled forward; and meeting a
group resting, inquired for Uhia, their king.
He was pointed out in the foam.
But presently drawing nigh, he embraced Media, bidding all welcome.
The bathing over, and evening at hand, Uhia and his subjects repaired to their canoes; and we to ours.