“I never before met with the natives of any place so much astonished, as these people were, upon entering a ship,” wrote Captain James Cook upon first landing in what he called the Sandwich Islands–today known as Hawaii.
“Their eyes were continually flying from object to object; the wildness of their looks and gestures fully expressing their entire ignorance about everything they saw, and strongly marking to us, that, till now, they had never been visited by Europeans, nor been acquainted with any of our commodities except iron,” continues Cook’s journal entry, dated January 20, 1778.
European exceptionalism was put to the test almost exactly a year later when on February 14, 1779, the Hawaiian people, led by King Kalaniopuu, overtook Cook and the crews of the HMS Resolution and Discovery. By day’s end, Cook and a number of his sailors were dead. Those that managed to escape found refuge offshore on the Resolution.
Tensions with the Hawaiians and British had been brewing for some time before violence broke out. After overstaying their welcome at Kealakekua Bay on the island of Hawaii, a place of deep religious significance for the Hawaiians, on February 4, the British finally set sail. But rough seas damaged the Resolution, and after a week the expedition was forced to return to Hawaii to attempt to make repairs.
None too happy to see Cook and company return, after a dispute over some British property, negotiations with King Kalaniopuu broke down after a lesser Hawaiian chief was shot and a group of Hawaiians overwhelmed the Cook party.
If you subscribe to the idea that Captain Cook “discovered” surfing this is actually how it played out. But the Hawaiian people had been practicing the high art of wave-riding for centuries prior. It was woven into the social fabric of their society and religion. They celebrated gods who surfed–including Ku, La’amoamoa, Hi’laka and her brother Kanemilohae.
“Surfing has been one of the most popular sports in Hawaii from ancient times. At times entire villages would leave home and work when hearing the call, ‘Ua pi’i mai ka nalu!’ ‘Surf’s Up!’ On the nights when the tops of waves shine with a glistening light it is said the gods have joined in the sport,” reads a passage from John R.K. Clark’s “Hawaiian Surfing: Traditions From The Past.”
But humans had been riding waves around the world for centuries prior to this cultural clash. From Africa, to China, Peru and beyond, there’s all kinds of evidence that the act of catching an incoming ocean wave, harnessing its power and hurtling towards shore has been going on in coastal fishing communities for a long, long time.