The Critical Surf Studies Reader

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The evolution of surfing—from the first forms of wave-riding in Oceania, Africa, and the Americas to the inauguration of surfing as a competitive sport at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics—traverses the age of empire, the rise of globalization, and the onset of the digital age, taking on new meanings at each juncture. As corporations have sought to promote surfing as a lifestyle and leisure enterprise, the sport has also narrated its own epic myths that place North America at the center of surf culture and relegate Hawai‘i and other indigenous surfing cultures to the margins. The Critical Surf Studies Reader brings together eighteen interdisciplinary essays that explore surfing’s history and development as a practice embedded in complex and sometimes oppositional social, political, economic, and cultural relations. Refocusing the history and culture of surfing, this volume pays particular attention to reclaiming the roles that women, indigenous peoples, and people of color have played in surfing.

Contributors. Douglas Booth, Peter Brosius, Robin Canniford, Krista Comer, Kevin Dawson, Clifton Evers, Chris Gibson, Dina Gilio-Whitaker, Dexter Zavalza Hough-Snee, Scott Laderman, Kristin Lawler, lisahunter, Colleen McGloin, Patrick Moser, Tara Ruttenberg, Cori Schumacher, Alexander Sotelo Eastman, Glen Thompson, Isaiah Helekunihi Walker, Andrew Warren, Belinda Wheaton


“Editors Hough-Snee and Eastman have curated 18 essays that go above and below the waves to explore the deeper social, cultural, and political meaning of surfing. Recommended. All readers.”―R. W. RobertsChoice

“An exciting and important contribution to a field that is still relatively new to academics. . . . The book is an ambitious and innovative one that lays valuable groundwork for a field with a promising future. Beyond surf-oriented scholars, it will be of interest to scholars in the wider fields of sport history, cultural studies, ethnic studies, gender studies, geography, and political economy; and to a nonacademic readership that includes surfers and surf enthusiasts.”―Elizabeth E. SineJournal of Sport History

“While [The Critical Surf Studies Reader] is underpinned by a rich diversity, essays collected here all find a certain degree of unity through a shared commitment to critical analysis and reflexivity that marks each as a serious intellectual engagement with the world of surfing. . . . High-quality scholarship and insightful critical analysis make this a worthy addition to other works in the field of Indigenous studies.”―Barry JuddNative American and Indigenous Studies

“Many of the chapters are written with a historical approach to studying surfing, making this book highly relevant for sport historians interested in surfing and other lifestyle/action sports. A well-written and recommended read for surfing history enthusiasts!”―Anne TjønndalInternational Journal of the History of Sport

The Critical Surf Studies Reader is a thought-provoking book that will make important contributions to numerous fields including sociology of sport, sociology of action sports, sport for development and peace, cultural studies, media studies, leisure and tourism studies, critical race studies, and settler colonial studies. . . . [T]his collection of work should have a wide appeal within and beyond academia, and I can imagine it being taken up by those surfers who are critically engaged with the activity that defines such a part of their identity and communities.”―Rebecca OliveSociology of Sport Journal

“What makes this book especially interesting is that even though it is of course an anthology, the strengths of the individual texts come through when consuming the collection holistically. … All of the texts provide excellent insights and, taken together, produce a vivid image of the current state of surfing in its various facets.”―Jeeshan GaziNational Identities


“Dexter Zavalza Hough-Snee and Alexander Sotelo Eastman have produced a deeply informed and much-needed critical counter-voice on surfing’s dominant culture and media. This volume offers a range of interventions on the current state of wave-riding and its many worlds. A go-to volume for figuring out critical surf studies.” — David Theo Goldberg, lifelong board rider and author of ― Are We All Postracial Yet?

About the Author

Dexter Zavalza Hough-Snee is a Ph.D. candidate and instructor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of California, Berkeley.

Alexander Sotelo Eastman is a postdoctoral fellow at Dartmouth College.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

The Critical Surf Studies Reader

By Dexter Zavalza Hough-Snee

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-6957-8


List of Abbreviations,
Part I / Coloniality and Decolonization,
1. On a Mission: Hiram Bingham and the Rhetoric of Urgency PATRICK MOSER,
2. A World Apart: Pleasure, Rebellion, and the Politics of Surf Tourism SCOTT LADERMAN,
3. Kai Ea: Rising Waves of National and Ethnic Hawaiian Identities ISAIAH HELEKUNIHI WALKER,
4. Consolidation, Creativity, and (de)Colonization in the State of Modern Surfing DEXTER ZAVALZA HOUGH-SNEE AND ALEXANDER SOTELO EASTMAN,
5. Decolonizing Sustainable Surf Tourism TARA RUTTENBERG AND PETER BROSIUS,
Part II / Race, Ethnicity, and Identity,
6. Surfing beyond Racial and Colonial Imperatives in Early Modern Atlantic Africa and Oceania KEVIN DAWSON,
7. Pushing under the Whitewash: Revisiting the Making of South Africa’s Surfing Sixties GLEN THOMPSON,
8. Space Invaders in Surfing’s White Tribe: Exploring Surfing, Race, and Identity BELINDA WHEATON,
9. Indigenous Surfing: Pedagogy, Pleasure, and Decolonial Practice COLLEEN MCGLOIN,
10. Appropriating Surfing and the Politics of Indigenous Authenticity DINA GILIO-WHITAKER,
Part III / Feminist Critical Geography,
11. Surfeminism, Critical Regionalism, and Public Scholarship KRISTA COMER,
12. Desexing Surfing? Pedagogies of Possibility LISAHUNTER,
13. “My Mother Is a Fish”: From Stealth Feminism to Surfeminism CORI SCHUMACHER,
Part IV / Capitalism, Economics, and the Commodification of Surf Culture,
14. Free Ride: The Food Stamp Surfer, American Counterculture, and the Refusal of Work KRISTIN LAWLER,
15. The Political Economy of Surfing Culture: Production, Profit, and Representation DOUGLAS BOOTH,
16. Soulful and Precarious: The Working Experiences of Surfboard Makers ANDREW WARREN AND CHRIS GIBSON,
17. Branded Primitives ROBIN CANNIFORD,
18. Surfing and Contemporary China CLIFTON EVERS,


On a Mission: Hiram Bingham and the Rhetoric of Urgency



Hiram Bingham stepped ashore on the island of Hawai’i on Tuesday, April 4, 1820. By his own account he was eager to track down King Kamehameha II and ask for permission to settle in the Islands to spread the Gospel. There were twenty-two people in his company: seven married couples, five children, and three Native Hawaiians who had arrived by various routes at the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall, Connecticut, and been trained as missionaries. After spending 163 days at sea — a grueling voyage around the tip of South America filled with seasickness, morning sickness (four of the women were pregnant), tight quarters, and stifling heat — Bingham had no idea if the King would even allow the New Englanders to stay.

Bingham certainly had things on his mind that morning other than surfing, but the sport was present from the first moments of his arrival. As he boated in from the Thaddeus, he remarked that “a great number of the natives — men, women and children, from the highest to the lowest rank, including the king and his mother, were amusing themselves in the water,” some of them “floating on surf-boards.” This is no surprise. He’d come ashore at Kamakahonu on the north end of Kailua Bay, on the west side of the island. This had been the residence of King Kamehameha I, an expert surfer who lived out the last years of his life at this spot. His twenty-two-year-old son, Kamehameha II — also known as Liholiho — may have been one of the surfers that morning. “Amusement” is a word often used to describe surfing during this time period (as when Bingham later presented “sporting on the surf” as “the favorite amusement of all classes”). It is possible, then, that Liholiho — and perhaps his mother, the sacred queen Keopuolani — were catching waves as Bingham prepared to lay at their doorstep an ideology that, in its eagerness to show positive gains for Christian donors back home, falsely trumpeted the decline of surfing in the Hawaiian Islands. Bingham’s inflated public rhetoric proliferated a warped view of surf history, influencing later writers and surf historians who accepted his words as historically accurate rather than as religious propaganda. The result has been a narrative, still repeated in academic and popular histories, that surfing nearly died out in nineteenth-century Hawai’i. A careful reconsideration of our primary source for surfing’s supposed early demise — Hiram Bingham’s writings — calls into question Bingham’s reliability and starts the process of recuperating Native Hawaiians’ practice of their national pastime. Surfing did not nearly “die out” in nineteenth-century Hawai’i, as so often has been reported. Riding waves continued to be a part of Hawaiian daily life during the missionary era and well after Bingham’s departure in 1840.

Bingham was in a hurry that first day. He waited until Liholiho came in from the ocean, then presented his offer to the young king: eternal life and education for his people in exchange for sponsoring the missionaries — providing them with homes, churches, and eventually schools.

The king listened, but was noncommittal. The next day, to boost their cause, the missionaries brought ashore gifts: elegant bibles and a spy glass. The following day they invited the king and his retinue back to the Thaddeus to dine. After dinner, the missionaries sang hymns on the quarterdeck at the king’s request, accompanied by a bass viol played by one of the young Hawaiians, George Kaumuali’i, who’d studied at the Foreign Mission School.

On April 7, the missionaries went back ashore for more lobbying, then again on the 8th. They decided to ask the king to split their company: some to remain with him at Kailua on the Big Island, the rest to settle on O’ahu in Honolulu, an up-and-coming port town. Prescient leader Liholiho responded: “White men all prefer Oahu. I think the Americans would like to have that Island.”

But the king still did not give them a definitive answer. Instead, he offered them temporary shelter in a thatched hut at Kailua. Captain Andrew Blanchard of the Thaddeus, impatient to get on with his fur-gathering expedition to the North American coast, urged the missionaries to accept. Bingham took a look at the hut — he described it as a barn-like structure — and hesitated: the whole company under one roof, a dirt floor, no ceiling or walls or windows or furniture, and miles away from a fresh water source? He needed something firmer from the king. He stalled, and told Liholiho that it was taboo for them to unload on the Sabbath (April 9); then he stayed aboard and planned a full-court press for the next day.

On Monday, April 10, from morning until late afternoon — “hearts burning with the desire to be advantageously and speedily settled down in our work” (my emphasis) — the whole company lobbied the king and local chiefs for permission to stay. This urgency on Bingham’s part, manifest in his writing through the repeated use of words like “speedily” and “eagerly,” was not merely a quirk of character or a clash of two cultures with fundamentally different concepts of time. Rather, it was a sign of religious anxiety: the missionaries believed they had a duty to save Hawaiians before the Second Coming of Christ, an event predicted among Congregationalists (the denomination of the two ordained ministers in the group, Hiram Bingham and Asa Thurston) to occur in 1866. So there was urgency to their project, and no amount of effort was too great to begin saving “heathens” around the world. Beyond their personal religious convictions, however, it turns out that Bingham and the other missionaries consistently used a rhetoric of urgency as a basic strategy to alarm their readers back home in order to incite donations and fund their mission. On a side note, we can remark that narratives of urgency parallel much of surf history, as when fiction writer Jack London famously exclaimed, early in the twentieth century, that surfing “was at its dying gasp” when Alexander Hume Ford arrived in Waikiki and took the sport under his wing with the founding of the Outrigger Canoe Club. More recent urgency arrives in mailboxes around the globe on a monthly basis as the surf media hypes travel alerts for the latest perfect wave.

Back to the Big Island: King Liholiho continued to put Bingham off. He wanted to wait until his hanai mother and co-ruler, Ka’ahumanu, returned from a fishing trip before he gave an answer to the missionary. After the death of Kamehameha I the year before, Liholiho accepted a radical change to the taboos that had governed Hawaiian society for centuries: the old gods and shrines were abandoned — some of them burned — leaving a vacuum that Bingham saw as providential for his mission to create a kingdom of Jehovah in the middle of the Pacific. He did not know that Liholiho’s mothers — his biological mother Keopuolani, and his father’s favorite wife Ka’ahumanu, who had raised Liholiho in her household — were the primary movers behind this change. Both women would eventually be critical to the mission’s success. Ka’ahumanu especially became the linchpin for Bingham’s rise to power and his ability to suppress native traditions like surfing for a number of years. For her part, Ka’ahumanu was able to use the new religion to solidify and extend her rule in Hawai’i until her death in 1832.

But all that was yet to come. On April 10, 1820, Ka’ahumanu unexpectedly arrived back from her fishing trip and, together with the king, sat ready to give an audience to the newcomers.

But only after calling for an impromptu hula. “While the eyes and ears of this great multitude were engrossed with this idle, time-killing employment,” Bingham wrote — he estimated 2,000 natives were gathered at the event — “we longed to interest their souls with the news of the great salvation.”

Finally, at sunset, after “a time that seemed indeed long to us,” Bingham got the chance to present his case to the rulers. He went over it all again — why they’d come, what they hoped to achieve, the benefits to the Hawaiians, their plans to establish two missions on Hawai’i and O’ahu — and answered the sovereigns’ questions. He hoped they would give his request careful thought “and early grant us a favorable answer” (my emphasis).

The king’s advisor, John Young, later told Bingham that, if the Hawaiians followed their normal practice, he’d be lucky if they gave him an answer within six months.

Bingham wasn’t willing to wait six months. The next day he came back with a new proposal: allow the missionaries to stay for one year. It was a compromise for Bingham — the time was much too short for his grandiose plans — but he desperately needed a foothold. The souls of 130,000 Hawaiians and the success of the American Board’s inaugural mission to the Pacific rested on his shoulders.

Liholiho granted his request. Bingham and most of his party eventually ended up in a thatched hut in Honolulu. One of the reasons the missionaries noticed surfing in the coming days was because their residence sat on the path to Waikiki, the traditional surfing grounds of Hawaiian royalty, and the king and his court would parade by Bingham’s front door when they wanted to get some waves. When it happened on Sunday, Bingham sometimes followed the king and preached to him down at the beach.


The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions

Bingham’s charge once he got settled in Honolulu was to save Hawaiian souls by converting them to Christianity. Everything in his life was directed toward that purpose. Surfing itself was a fairly low priority for him. The polygamy and incest of Hawaiian chiefs (Liholiho had five wives; his favorite, Kamamalu, was his half-sister), the prostitution of Hawaiian women who swam out to incoming ships, the gambling and rum drinking, the hula dancing, which Bingham connected to worship of pagan gods — all ranked above surfing on Bingham’s to-don’t list.

But surfing played an interesting role for the missionaries. To understand its unusual appeal, it is necessary to turn toward Boston a moment and consider the organization that sent the missionaries to Hawai’i in the first place: the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. A brief look into the early history of the mission to Hawai’i, and the goals of the Congregational Church in general, will provide critical context for understanding how the missionaries used surfing to further their financial and religious goals, and why their actions necessarily cast doubt on the veracity of Bingham’s statements about the state of surfing.

The mission to the Sandwich Islands (as they were dubbed by Captain James Cook in 1778) was the first independent venture by the American Board, an organization founded by Congregationalists in Boston in 1810 during the Second Great Awakening, an era of religious revival in the United States. The Board sent several groups of missionaries into Asia and the Middle East during its first decade, but these were in areas under the control of Britain and the London Missionary Society. The mission to the Sandwich Islands, writes John A. Andrew III in Rebuilding the Christian Commonwealth, captured “the attention of New Englanders almost at once. … Never before in the history of American foreign missions had so much attention been directed toward a single object.” The success of the mission — and advertising its success — quickly became the driving force of the American Board. Success abroad, the Board hoped, would dispel growing factionalism among Protestant denominations at home (Methodists, Baptists, even differing sects among the Congregationalists) and pave the way for a new Christian commonwealth around the world. The Sandwich Islands, situated in the middle of trade routes in the Pacific Ocean, would be the ideal launching pad for their global evangelism. For Americans, the Board tied its mission to Manifest Destiny by arguing that a principal goal was also the Christianization of the West Coast (mainly Native Americans). Like their Pilgrim ancestors, the Board sought a new City on the Hill in the Sandwich Islands: a Kingdom of Jehovah in the heart of the Pacific. At home there was growing competition for parishioners among the various Protestant denominations (not to mention the Catholics); moreover, as Americans steadily emigrated north and west out of New England following the Revolutionary War, the Methodists and Baptists held an advantage because their ministers were itinerant.

But the Congregationalists could be the first ones to the Sandwich Islands.

So the missionaries, like the romantic philosophers of the previous century who projected Eden onto Tahiti and Tahitians, arrived with their own utopian ideals. Instead of glorifying leisure and low-hanging breadfruit, however, the missionaries valued toil and tilling the land: this was their vision of recreating heaven on Earth — or, to be more specific, an idealized New England in the Sandwich Islands. Failure of this first mission would call into question the Board’s credibility and its entire foreign mission project. Such were the pressures behind Bingham’s relentless push in those first days to secure royal permission for his group to stay.

But it took more than tenacity and strong convictions to “save” the world. The price tag to outfit and send the first group of missionaries to the Sandwich Islands was more than ten thousand dollars. How could they fill the coffers? How would they sustain public interest in a mission that would take time to arrive, set up, and produce hard results in the form of native converts? This was where “exotic heathen” customs like surfing came in. The Board had its own publication, the Missionary Herald, which turned into “a useful propaganda organ” for their fundraising activities. After the big news that the missionaries would be permitted to stay and that the Hawaiians had officially abandoned their traditional system of religious beliefs, the Missionary Herald and other New England publications begin to focus on news from the Sandwich Islands. “Each issue of the Missionary Herald reproduced long segments of the missionaries’ journal,” Andrew writes. “These proved good propaganda and stimulated the flow of donations.” The following is an excerpt from one of those published journals — Bingham’s first description of surfing — which appeared in the Missionary Herald in August of 1822. After describing surfboards and how Hawaiians paddled them out through the waves, Bingham wrote: “Then choosing one of the highest surges, adjusting his board as it approaches him, directing his head towards the shore, he rides on the fore front of the surge, with great velocity, as his board darts along swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, while the whitening surf foams and roars around his head, till it dies on the beach, and leaves him to return or retire at pleasure. … Sometimes the irregularity or violence of the water tears their board from under them, and dashes it on the rocks; or threatening to carry them into danger, obliges them to abandon it, and save themselves by diving and swimming.”

The excitement and novelty of riding waves, along with many other native customs, was used by the Board essentially as a marketing device for the missions: to grab readers’ attention and shock them into donating money so that the missionaries could continue the work of eradicating such dangerous customs. Bingham had chosen his subject wisely: at least four newspapers in Vermont and Connecticut picked up his description of the sport over the next two months, one article giving the sport its first headline: “The Surf-Board of the Sandwich Islands.” Such articles had already begun to increase interest and donations to the mission, so much in fact that by December of 1821, the Board began preparations to send a second company of missionaries to the Sandwich Islands. Eventually they would finance twelve groups and 153 missionaries over the next thirty years.



After the second company of missionaries arrived in April of 1823 (fourteen adults, one baby, and four more Hawaiians), modest stations were established on Hawai’i, O’ahu, Kaua’i, and Maui. The first company of missionaries had brought their own printing press and printer — Elisha Loomis — and had begun churning out spelling sheets and religious pamphlets in the Hawaiian language, which the missionaries had codified for easy learning (up to that point the Hawaiians had no written language). Reading and writing — known as palapala — was the key to conversion. It was the most successful meeting ground between missionary and native because the Hawaiians loved to learn and the missionaries loved to teach. The Congregationalists had planned this strategy from the beginning of the mission. Reverend Herman Daggett, the principal of the Foreign Mission School back in New England, had advised that the founding of schools was the way “to befriend the natives and gain their confidence before attacking their religious system.” He continued: “This will probably be grateful to the Natives … & may serve as a cover to the ultimate object, which if too soon presented to their view, might excite prejudice & resentment.”

(Continues…)Excerpted from The Critical Surf Studies Reader by Dexter Zavalza Hough-Snee. Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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