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fredrick o'brien : surf-riding in the marquesas, 1914 

Frederick O'Brien :  Surf-riding in the Marquesas, 1914.

Extracts from
 O'Brien, Frederick: White Shadows in the South Seas
Garden City Publishing, New York, 1919
  Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1919.
Internet Archive

Fredrick O'Brien was a popular author in the early 20th century, writing many books with Pacific themes.
However, i
t is not always clear to what extent his stories are based on personal observation, and what has been influenced by other authors
Such is the case of
this extended account of native surfboard riding, and O'Brien's attempts at the sport, in the Marquesas Islands in Chapter 34
It is unclear if the bay of Atuona would provide the conditions as suggested, and the lid of a box that had enclosed an ornate coffin, used in his first attempts on a large board, appears fanciful.
Like a coffin lid was a commonly used in early descriptions of the shape of Hawaiian surfboards, and many elements iof O'Brien's account echo the widely read articles by Mark Twain
(1872) and Jack London.(1907).
Incidentally, Jeffrey Geiger (2007) notes that he had a brief, but intense affair, with Jack London's widow, Charmian.

Assuming this is an embellished account of what O'Brien actually observed, it illustrates the extent of surf-riding and its enduring appeal, surviving the European influences that decimated much of the indigenous cultures of the Pacific.

The Marquesas were discovered in1595 by the Spanish explorer Álvaro de Mendaña, where his Portuguese navigator De Quiros reported the use of paddle-boards, their use similar to that recorded by Cook's mariners in the Hawaiian Islands.
See 1595 De Quiros: Marquesas.

In 1813, Capt. David Porter
also reported that the natives of Madison's Island employ a kind of surf board, similar to that of the natives of the Sandwich Islands, however, they are used chiefly by the boys and girls, and are intended solely for paddling about the harbour. 
See 1813 Capt. David Porter: Madison's Island, Marquesas.
After working in California as a newspaper editor between 1909-1913, Frederick O'Brien had spent a year (1913-1914) on the island of Hiva Oa living amongst native Marquesan islanders.
Completed on his return to California, the book was not embraced by publishers, perhaps due to the overriding concerns about the war in Europe.
The book was finally published in 1919 by Garden City Publishing, The Century Co., and Grosset & Dunlap in New York and by Hodder & Stoughton of London.

Geiger, Jeffrey: Facing the Pacific: Polynesia and the U.S. imperial imagination, University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 2007
Note on Charmian London page 74, publishing history pages 80-81.
Charmian London: Surfriding at Waikiki 1907-1917

In 1921, O'Brien commented on the demise of surfing in Tahiti in Mystic Isles of the South Seas (see below) and the next year he again wrote about surf-riding in the Marquesas, with some of the same characters, in Atolls of the Sun.
This work includes and account of.
canoe-leaping and a rare photograph of:a canoe in the surf at Oomoa, page 377
See 1922 Fredrick O'Brien : Surf Riding in the Marquesas.

Hiva Oa
At 320 sq.klms, Hiva Oa is the second largest island in the Marquesas Islands, in French Polynesia,
The island is famous as the final home of French painter Paul Gauguin and Belgian singer Jacques Brel, both of whom are buried in Calvary Cemetery, overlooking Atuona.
It is also home to the largest tiki sculptures in French Polynesia.

Wikipedia: Hiva Oa
Surfing at Atuona - Marquesas - August 2010
Hiva Oa, Enjoy to Ride in Hanaiapa.

White Shadows in the South Seas- Film, 1928.
White Shadows in the South Seas is a 1928 American silent film adventure romance produced by Cosmopolitan Productions in association with MGM and distributed by MGM.
The movie was directed by W.S. Van Dyke and starred Monte Blue and Raquel Torres.
Loosely based on the travel book of the same name by Frederick O'Brien, the film is known for being the first MGM picture to be released with a pre-recorded soundtrack,
one of the first non-fiction works made as a film, and also the first time Leo the Lion (MGM) roars in the introduction.
Clyde De Vinna won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography.
Although outrigger canoes appear regularly throughout the film, perhaps not surprisingly, there is no surfing.

Wikipedia: White Shadows in the South Seas
Youtube: White Shadows in the South Seas

This page was revised in 2017 following significant assistance from Gary Lynch.

Chapter VIII
Page 75.
To be busy about anything not necessary to living is, in Marquesan wisdom, to be idle.

Swimming in the surf, lolhng at the via puna, angling from rock or canoe or fishing with line and spear outside the bay, searching for shell-fish, and riding or walking over the hills to other valleys, filled their peaceful, pleasant days.
A dream-like, carefree life, lived by a people sweet to know, handsome and generous and loving.

Page 79
We arrived at a merry scene upon the beach.
Women and children were in the surf, or on rocks under the cliffs, fishing for popo, the young of uua.
With bamboo poles twenty feet long and lines of even greater length, we stood up to our necks in the sea and threw out the hook baited with a morsel of shrimp.

The breakers tumbled us about, the lines became tangled, amid gales of laughter and a medley of joyous shouts.
Tiring of fishing, Vanquished Often and I would breast the creaming waves side by side, to turn far out and dash in on the breakers, overturning all but the wary.
Or a group of us, climbing high on the cliffs, would fling ourselves again and again into the sea, turning in mid-air, life and delight quickening every muscle.

Chapter XXXIV
Page 400
As the old routine closed around me pleasantly; mornings in the shade of my palms and breadfruit, eating the breakfasts prepared for me by Exploding Eggs over the fire of cocoanut husks, baths in the clear pool of the river with my neighbors, afternoons spent in the cocoanut-groves or with merry companions on the beach.

Exploding Eggs directed the surf board with a sure hand, lying flat, kneeling or even standing on the long

Page 401

plank as he came in on the crest of the breakers.
I had now and again succeeded in being carried along while flat on my stomach on the board, but failed many-times oftener than I succeeded.
Now I set myself in earnest to learn the art of mastering the surf.

Three or four o'clock in the afternoon was the time I usually chose for the sport, and once I had made it a practice, all the boys and girls of the village accompanied me, or waited for me at the shore, sure of hilarious hours.
I must make children my companions here, for my older friends were so oppressed by the gloom of race extinction that save for SIalicious Gossip and one or two others, there was no capacity for joyousness left in them.
Exploding Eggs was my chum, paid as forager and firemaker, but giving from friendliness his services as a wise and admirable teacher of the unknown to one unmade by civilization.

The bay of Atuona, narrow between high cliffs covered with cocoanut-trees, was the scene of my lessons.
The tide came booming into this cove from the Bay of Traitors, often with bewildering force, and a day or two a month as gently as the waves at Waikiki.
The river spread a broad mouth to drink the brine, and the white sand was over-run by the flowered vines that crept seaward to taste the salt.
No house was in sight, no man-made structure to mar the primitive, as our merry crew of boys and girls sported naked in the surf, fished from the rocks, or lay upon the shining beach.

For my first essay I used the lid of a box that had enclosed an ornate coffin ordered from Tahiti by a chief who anticipated dying.
It was large, and weighty to drag or push through the surf to the proper distance.

Page 402

Laboring valiantly with it, I reached some distance from the shore, and prepared a triumphal return.
The waves were big, curving above me in sheets of clearest emerald, crested with spray breaking into foam and rising again, endlessly reshaping, repeating themselves.

Awaiting my opportunity, I chose one as it rose behind me, and flung myself upon it.
Up and up and still higher I went, carried by resistless momentum, and suddenly like a chip in a hurricane I was flung forward at a fearsome speed, through rushing chaos of wind and water, seeing the beach dashing toward me, shouting with exultation.

At the next instant my trusty board turned traitor.
Its prow sank, the end beneath me rose, and like a stone discharged from a sling I was thrown under the waves, head over heels, banging my head and body on the sand, leaped upon by following waves that piled me into shallow water, rolling me over and over, striking me a blow with the coffin-lid at every roll.

I lay high and dry, panting and aching, while from all the beach rose shouts of laughter.
Exploding Eggs rolled on the sand in his delight, holding his gasping sides, scarcely able to remind me of the necessity, which in my excitement I had forgotten, of keeping the prow of the board pointed upward as I rode.

Often as I repeated this instruction in my mind, firmly as I determined to remember it while I toiled  sea-ward again with the coffin-lid, the result was always the same.
A moment of rest in the unresting waves, a quick, agile stiring (?), a moment of mad, intoxicating joy,  and then - disaster.
I became a mass of bruises, the skin scraped inch by inch from my chest by contact

Page 403

with the rough wood.
I would not give up until I had to, and then for a week I was convalescing.

One stiff ache from head to foot, I lay ignominiously on the sand, and watched Exploding Eggs, with a piece of box not bigger than a fat man's shirt-front, take wave after wave, standing on the board, dashing far across the breakers to the shore, with never a failure, while Gedge's little half-breed daughter, a beautiful fairy-like creature, darted upon the sea as a butterfly upon a zephyr.

After several weeks of effort and mishap, one day the secret came to me like a flash, and the trick was learned.
I had been using the great board and was weary.
I exchanged with Exploding Eggs for a plank three feet long and fourteen inches wide.
Almost exhausted, I waited as usual with the butt of the board against my stomach for the incoming breaker to be just behind and above me, and then leaped forward to kick out vigorously, the board pressed against me and my hands extended along its sides, to get in time with the wave.

But the wave was upon me before I had thought to execute these instructions, I straightened myself out rigidly, and lo! I shot in like a torpedo on the very top of the billow, holding the point of the board up, yelling like a Comanche Indian.
So fast, so straight did I go, that it was all I could do to swerve in the shallow water and not be hurled with force on the sand.

"Metai! Me metair" (?) cried my friends in excited congratulation, while like all men who succeed by accident, I stood proudly, taking the plaudits as my due.

From that afternoon I had most exhilarating sport,

Page 404.

and indeed, this is the very king of amusements for fun and exercise.
Skeeing (sic?), tobogganing, skating, all land sports fade before the thrills of this; nor will anything give such abounding health and joy in living as surfriding in sunny seas.

A hundred afternoons on Atuona Bay I spent in this exhilarating pastime.
To it we added embellishments, multiplying excitements.
A score of us would start at the same moment from the same line and race to shore; we would carry two on a board; we would stand and kneel and direct our course so that we could touch a marked spot on the beach or curve about and swerve and jostle each other.
Exploding Eggs was the king of us all, and Teata was queen.
She advanced as effortlessly as a mermaid, her superb figure shining on the shining water, tossing her long black hair, and shrieking with delight.

Occasionally we varied these sports by a much more dangerous and arduous game.
We would push our boards far out in the bay, half a mile or more, diving under each wave we faced, until after tremendous effort we reached the farthest sea-ward line of breakers.
Often while I swam, clinging to the board and struggling with the waves for its possession, I saw in the emerald water curling above me the shadowy shapes of large fish, carried on the crests of the combers, transfigured clearly against the sky fins and heads and tails outlined with light.

Once in smoother water we waited for the proper moment, counting the foam-crests as they passed. Waves go in multiples of three, the third being longer and going farther than the two before it, and the ninth, or

Page 405

third third, being strongest of all.
This ninth wave we waited for.
Choosing any other meant being spilled in tumbling water when it broke far from land, and falling prey to the succeeding ones, which bruised unmercifully.

But taking the ninth monster at its start, we rode marvelously, staying at its summit as it mounted higher and higher, shouting above the lesser rollers, until it dashed upon the smooth sand half a mile away.
Exultation kept the heart in the throat, the pulses beating wildly, as the breaker tore its way over the foaming rollers, I on the roof of the swell, lying almost over its front wall, holding like death to my plank while the wind sang in my ears and sky and sea mingled in rushing blueness.

To take such a ride twice in an afternoon taxed my strength, but the Marquesan boys and girls were never wearied, and laughed at my violent breathing.

The Romans ranked swimming with letters, saying of an uneducated man, "Nee literas didicit nee nature".
He had neither learned to read nor to swim.
The sea is the book of the South Sea Islanders.
They swim as they walk, beginning as babies to dive and to frolic in the water.
Their mothers place them on the river bank at a day old, and in a few months they are swimming in
shallow water.
At two and three years they play in the surf, swimming with the easy motion of a frog.
They have no fear of the water to overcome, for they are accustomed to the element from birth, and it is to them as natural as land.

It should be so with all, for human locomotion in water is no more tiresome or difficult than on the earth.

Page 406

One element is as suitable to man as the other for transportation of himself, when habitude give natural movement, strength, and fearlessness.
A Marquesan who cannot swim is unknown, and they carry objects through the water as easily as through a grove.
I have seen a woman with an infant at her breast leap from a canoe and swim through a quarter of a mile of breakers to the shore, merely to save a somewhat longer walk.

Fredrick O'Brien: Mystic Isles of the South Seas, 1921.
O'Brien attributes the demise of surfing in Tahiti to the frowns of the missionaries, to whom athletics were a species of diabolical possession.

Chapter XIII
Pages ?

T'yonni's house was half a mile from my own.

A quarter of a mile farther, and the same distance from the junction of lagoon and river, we had our swimming-place.
On an acre or two of grass and moss, removed from any habitation, grew a score of lofty cocoas, and under these we threw off our pareus or trousers and shirts.
The bank of the stream was a fathom from the water which was brackish at high tide and sweet at low.
With a short run and a curving leap we plunged into the flowing water.
It was refreshing at the hottest hour.
The Tahitians seldom dived head first, as we did, but jumped feet foremost, and the women in a sitting posture, which made a great splash, but prevented their gowns from rising.
As I remarked before, we three Americans bathed stark when with men, but the modest Tahitian men never for a moment uncovered themselves, but wore their pareus.
Captain Cook said that in their houses he had not seen a single instance of immodesty, though families slept in one room.
Choti avowed that he had to make love to his girl models to induce them to pose in the altogether, for money would not make them adopt the garb of Venus.

The Tahitians did not enter the sea for pleasure.
The rivers and brooks were their bathing- and resting-places.
They attributed sicknesses to the too frequent touch of salt water.
They had not the habitude of swimming within the lagoons, as at Hawaii; it was not with them an exercise or luxury, but a part of their every-day activities in fishing and canoeing.
A farmer after his day's work does not run foot-races.
Yet in gatherings these people often vied for supremacy in every sort of sea sport, and before time, in bays free of coral, developed an astonishing skill in surf-riding on boards, in canoes, and without artificial support.
Such skill was ranked on a par with or perhaps the same as proficiency in the pastimes of war, as did the Greeks, who addressed Diagoras, after he and his two sons had been crowned in the arena: "Die, for thou hast nothing short of divinity to desire."
These ambitions had been ended in Tahiti by the frowns of the missionaries, to whom athletics were a species of diabolical possession, unworthy souls destined for hell or heaven, with but a brief span to avert their birthright of damnation in sackcloth and ashes.

O'Brien, Frederick: White Shadows in the South Seas
Garden City Publishing, New York, 1919
  Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1919.
Internet Archive
Frederick O'Brien: Mystic Isles of the South Seas.
Garden City Publishing Co., New York,1921.
Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1921.


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Geoff Cater (2009-2017) : Frederick O'Brien : Surf-riding in the Marquesas, 1914.