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hill : keauhua, hawaii, 1856 
S. S. Hill : Surfing at Keauhua, Hawaii, 1856.

Extracts from
Hill, .S. S.: Travels in the Sandwich and Society Islands.
Chapman and Hall, London, 1856, pages 193 to 202.

Hill's detailed account takes place on the coast of the large island (Hawaii) and he reports that the activity is a communal event for both participants and spectators.
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Page 194

About mid-day we reached the village of Keauhua, where I had the satisfaction of witnessing, for the first time, the famous ancient sport of the country played in the water, upon what is termed by Europeans the surf-board.

Page 195

This is truly a famous and animating diversion, but, for what reason I know not, now discouraged by the missionaries, and no longer played with the same spirit among the islanders whereever the Europeans are mingled among them.
But as we are now so far removed from the seats of innovation upon former customs, the occasion may be as favourable to describe, as the opportunity we then had was of witnessing this sport.
I shall, therefore, note all we observed from the best possible position for the purpose, with as much minuteness as the novelty of the diversion to an European, with the character of the sport and the place together, may seem to demand.

We had remarked as we approached the village, that the country was, within the vale in which it is seated, more fertile than any we had before met with; and we found the mere eight or ten huts of which it consisted, placed apart from one another in a grove of palms, cocoa-nuts, and plantains, through which the rays of the sun were at intervals seen sparkling upon the gently agitated surface of the ocean.
There seemed also to have been some little more attention paid here to the style of construction, and to the position of the huts, than we had before seen.
They had large shady porticos of trelliswork covered with trained vines, which we now ...

Page 196

... saw for the first time ; and several had orangeries planted about them.

After passing by one or two huts which had not an inhabitant within them, we met some women, who told us that all the men, women, and children of the place, save themselves, were sporting with their surf-boards in the water, and that the Government agent, for whom they supposed we were in search, had gone to the seat of government of the island.
Upon hearing this, we determined to witness the national sport, and our new friends readily volunteered to conduct us to the most convenient spot for the purpose.

Upon issuing from the grove, we came opposite to a small bay formed by two promontories, and cliffs of no great elevation, and with a low beach at the bottom.
Our guide led us on the left side of the bay, more than half the distance to the point of the promontory on that side, where we found five or six other women and some children seated upon the rocks, all contemplating the spectacle in the water, which thus affords at the same time a diversion for those who engage in it, and for those who witness the feats of agility and courage that are performed.

Had I not known that we were to see what I had heard much about since my arrival in the ...

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... islands, or had we come accidentally upon this promontory without being prepared for what we were to see, I could scarcely have believed at the first sight of the natives, engaged as we now saw them, that we were looking upon creatures that were not absolute habitants of the sea, or at least amphibious.
Three or four and twenty men, women, and children of all ages above seven or eight, were distributed over the bay and beyond the promontories, acting such a part amidst the turmoil of the breaking seas, as we might only suppose the beings of poets' imaginations to be capable of performing.
Nature seemed to have formed this little bay for the express purpose of giving the natives the opportunity of carrying their feats in the water to the utmost verge of possibility, as well as for the spectators to witness the exhibition with the greatest advantage.
The form of the bay, combined with the inequality in the depth of the water within and without, owing, doubtless, to the presence of two coral reefs, caused the sea to break, first with terrible turmoil, half a quarter of a mile beyond the promontories, and again with less force within them, at something more than that distance from the bottom of the bay; and these two lines of broken water were each chosen for the basis of the performances of one of the two distinct parties into which these semi-amphibious ...

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... beings were divided—that beyond the bay for the men, and that within for the women and children, the feats of both of which could be perfectly seen from the cliffs upon which we were now seated.

The surf-board, from which this sport derives its name, consists merely of a thin plank, on the average about a foot in breadth, and from four to five feet in length.
The party engaging in the sport, upon entering the water lies flat upon this, and swims out from the shore towards the breakers upon which he intends to play.
Some of the breakers which form the two bars, leave a smooth surface of foam after breaking, while others roll on from the outer bar to the inner, or from the inner to the shore at the bottom of the bay.
If the swimmer meet one of the rolling and broken seas before reaching the line upon which it broke, he slips off his board, and dexterously dives under its curling head, and appears again when it has passed over him, with his surfboard in hand.
Then he again places himself as before, to continue swimming in the same direction, until he reaches the bar upon which the sea broke, or that which it is his aim to attain.
Arrived here, he is now seen floating between two of the three breakers which usually burst successively upon every narrow bar, diving under these severally as they pass on, till one ...

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... of them bids fair to roll on in the manner the white-topped waves are sometimes wont to do, to a great distance, without exhausting themselves or falling quite over and leaving nothing but the carpet of foam upon the smooth surface of succeeding swells.
Upon observing this, he turns from the broken water, and swims slowly onward, until overtaken by the running swell, on the slope of which he now places himself, lying flat on his surf-board with his feet upwards, and strikes out, or so maintains his position, that he continues sliding down the wave, with the broken water behind him, at the same rapid rate that the wave rolls, till it exhausts itself, if from the outer bar, or till it arrives within a few yards' distance from the shore, if from the inner.
In the latter case he is subjected to the danger of being thrown upon the shore with great violence, and to the risk of bruises and even broken bones where there happen to be rocks, all which he escapes by slipping from his board in the same manner as when among the breakers, and diving to appear again in the rear of the rolling wave before it tumbles over on the shore.
The great difficulty, and therein the chief merit of the performance, consists in keeping upon the steepest part of the rolling sea, which brings the swimmer so near its foam, that he is sometimes lying in almost a perpendicular position, with his head ...

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... downwards, upon the advanced side of the white-topped swell, as it sweeps on towards its goal. By this he is exposed to the effects of the crash of the broken water before he has time to dive, and, after making a summerset (sic), with the temporary loss of his board, to the laughter of the rest of the swimmers as well as the spectators on shore.

While we sat watching them, the parties were distributed between the two lines of breakers, and within the inner line, in the act of rolling onward, or returning to the bars, or lying between the breaking seas, diving and reappearing, till the time seemed favourable for their long roll towards the shore.
The women, whom we could distinguish by their long hair, and also the girls and boys, appeared to us to perform their part amidst the turmoil of the minor line of breakers as dexterously as the men along the outer line.
That they do not generally trust themselves farther from the shore, is rather on account of the sharks, which the men are prepared for, and seek to contend with, than from any distrust of their capabilities in the water.
The sole weapon used by the men in combating the shark is a dagger or knife, which on other occasions, when fishing, they stick in their maro, to be used merely when, as it frequently happens, their canoe is upset, and they are attacked by the voracious ...

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... fish before they can put their little craft again upon her bottom and resume their seats.
But when they are engaged in this sport, the weapon is attached to the surf-board.
If now attacked, the shark has no chance with them.
At the approach of their enemy, they feign fear and swim away from him, at the same time exhibiting all sorts of awkwardness, until they give the equally cautious as voracious animal, sufficient confidence to approach them.
Then they dive under him, for he is not an active fish in the water, and thrust their dagger into the under part of his body ; upon which, even the stoutest of the species will turn and retreat, sometimes to escape, but often in such a condition as to be easily pursued and vanquished, and after the action triumphantly towed on shore.

It is the custom of the islanders, more especially when they have no other means of showing their hospitality, to make themselves as agreeable as possible to strangers, by placing by their side, one or two of the younger women, who, if a common language be wanting, will, at all events, laugh the most weary traveller out of the most sullen humour that ever accompanied fatigue.
But on the present occasion we had in our good company, only several old men and women, and some children, and they seated by our side, the two elder among the girls, whose intelligence and quickness in answering ...

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... questions put to them about the diversion we were witnessing, were as useful, to myself at least, as their merriment was refreshing to us both.
We frequently expressed our admiration at what we saw, to the great delight of all the party ; but upon asking the little girls near us, whose ages were probably between seven and nine, whether they intended, when a little older, to join in the sport, they declared it to be their daily amusement; and, without waiting to be asked to display their dexterity, they ran and picked up two small surf-boards that were lying near us, and set off in great haste to join one of the parties in the water.

Arrived at the beach, the girls slipped off their sole robe, and after leaping into the sea, soon reached and mingled with the rest in the exciting sport; and I confess, when I saw these little creatures sliding down the side of the swell which runs with such rapidity before the rolling surf, and diving to avoid its crash, when the curling wave was about to break over them, there seemed to me to be something absolutely superhuman in the feats they accomplished, so far were they above anything I had deemed it possible for any creatures whatsoever to perform in an element not their own.

This bay, indeed, as before said, possesses peculiar advantages for the sport ; and we, probably, saw the performances of the most expert ...

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swimmers in the islands.
The healthful diversion is still the favourite of the few remaining national exercises of the natives throughout the group.
I was informed by the missionaries and by others, in proof of its popularity, and of the constancy with which it must have been practised for ages, that many of the natives spend whole days in enjoying themselves in this manner in the water.
I was informed also, that Kamehameha III., then the reigning king, was known thus to divert himself even from sunrise to sunset, taking his meals of poi during the day without ever coming on shore. This was not, however, at the seat of innovation, and of the present government, but at or near Lahaina, in Mawhee, which his majesty made the place of his sojourn when disposed to quit the scenes which continually reminded him of the decrease of nationality among his subjects, and the loss of independence, of his race.

Hill, .S. S.: Travels in the Sandwich and Society Islands.
Chapman and Hall, London, 1856, pages 193 to 202.

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Geoff Cater (2007) : S.S. Hill : Keauhua, Hawaii, 1856.