Diversity before Diversity: Duke Kahanamoku
Print Friendly and PDF

Exactly a century ago, Duke Kahanamoku (1890-1968) became a celebrated Olympic swimmer and the single most important individual ever in surfing. From a history of surfing:

In 1912, Hawaiian beach boy Duke Paoa Kahanamoku was already famous as a surfer and swimmer. He was credited with developing the flutter kick to replace the scissor kick in freestyle swimming [he may have picked it up from visiting Australians] and was the three-time world record holder in the 100-meter freestyle. As a surfer, Duke was one of Hawai'i's best ocean watermen, a beach boy and one of the founders of the Hui Nalu Club. Duke was a fine figure of a Polynesian, slim and muscular and built for speed, blessed with extraordinarily long hands and feet. 

In 1912, Duke passed through southern California en route to the summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. His surfing demonstrations at Corona del Mar and Santa Monica caused a sensation much greater than Freeth's. Duke became world famous by winning an Olympic gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle in Stockholm and again in Antwerp in 1920. Touted as the fastest swimmer alive, Duke was on the road constantly, giving swimming exhibitions around Europe, the United States and the world. He also became a favorite of Hollywood casting directors, playing Aztec chiefs, Hindu thiefs and Arab princes. On weekends he would take his Hollywood friends surfing, and everywhere he could, Duke used his fame to introduce the world to the sport of surfing.

Most notably, he galvanized Australia with a visit in 1914, launching that country's great tradition of surfing. 

Other trivia: He won a silver medal at his third Olympics in 1924, losing to Johnny Weismuller (who went on to play Tarzan), while his brother won bronze. Then he played on the U.S. water polo team at the 1932 L.A. Olympics. His 1925 rescue using his surfboard of eight drowning men from a ship sinking off Newport Beach, CA was big news nationally. 

"Duke" was his given name, not his feudal title, although his parents were from well-known (but not royal) Native Hawaiian families.

One of the points I'm trying to make with this Diversity Before Diversity series is that when thinking about the past, we shouldn't project how African-Americans were treated to other minorities. It's not accurate, and it's not fair to blacks. 

Here are some Long Beach, CA newspaper accounts from 99 years ago, which I doubt would have been written in the same tone about a black sportsman:

1913 July 11. Long Beach Press 
Duke Kahanamoku, the wonderful Hawaiian swimmer, who equaled the world's record for swimming fifty yards at the Los Angeles Athletic Club last night enjoyed luncheon at the Hotel Virginia, spent the day in Long Beach and was shown about the city by Lorne Middough and other members of the Poly High Water Polo team. 
... He is a remarkable athlete and called forth the admiration of a large audience when he tied the world's fifty-yard mark last night. 
1913 July 12. Daily Telegram 
The great Hawaiian swimmer and six members of the Hawaiian team spent several hours in Long Beach yesterday. They came upon the invitation of Pete Lenz. They couldn't resist the surf and the Duke gave a thrilling exhibition of surfboard riding. Thousands of people enjoyed watching him. Many people here have expressed a wish that the Bath House company would present frequent surfboard riding exhibitions such as was offered yesterday. It is believed they would prove a big card. 
1913 January 29. Long Beach Press 
As a result of a battle to the death with a ten-foot eel, the largest ever seen here. Duke Kahanamoku, who won the world's championship at Stockholm, is today minus the index finger on his right hand and his swimming prowess may be permanently impaired. 
The swimmer encountered the eel while practicing for the Australian swimming championships off here, and after a fight lasting several minutes, choked it to death. He was exhausted when he reached the shore, with the eel's body in tow.
I suspect, now that I think about it, that Kahanamoku played a role in the slow change in racial attitudes in Southern California, which became more Hawaiian over the course of the 20th Century. Northeastern Yankee adventurers had married into Hawaiian aristocratic families, which created a ruling class that was part mixed race. (For example, George Clooney's character in The Descendants is 1/32nd Hawaiian.) To water-oriented young Southern California fellows like the Poly High water polo team, Kahanamoku — swimmer, surfer, and eel-battler extraordinaire — must have seemed like the coolest guy in the whole world. (What did California proto-surfers in 1913 say instead of "the coolest?" The keenest? The 23-Skidooest?)

By the way, a key figure in the revival of the old Hawaiian sport, who paved the way for Kahanamoku's exhibitions, was the great writer Jack London (Call of the Wild). London wrote extensively about surfing from 1907 to 1911 (here's an extract), creating global excitement.

Mark Twain had tried surfing in Hawaii decades before, but immediately wiped out. His short description of the sport in Roughing It did not generate much intrigue, although this picture from the first edition of Twain's book has a fairly contemporary-sounding caption:
In one place we came upon a large company of naked natives, of both sexes and all ages, amusing themselves with the national pastime of surf- bathing. Each heathen would paddle three or four hundred yards out to sea (taking a short board with him), then face the shore and wait for a particularly prodigious billow to come along; at the right moment he would fling his board upon its foamy crest and himself upon the board, and here he would come whizzing by like a bombshell! It did not seem that a lightning express-train could shoot along at a more hair-lifting speed. I tried surf-bathing once, subsequently, but made a failure of it. I got the board placed right, and at the right moment, too; but missed the connection myself. The board struck the shore in three-quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck the bottom about the same time, with a couple of barrels of water in me. None but natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly.
Print Friendly and PDF