The complicated history of surfing – Scott Laderman

The complicated history of surfing – Scott Laderman

For some, it’s a serious sport. For others, just a way to let loose. But despite its casual association
with fun and sun, surfing has a richer and deeper
history than many realize. What we today call surfing originated in the Polynesian islands
of the Pacific Ocean. We know from various accounts that wave riding was done
throughout the Polynesian Pacific, as well as in West Africa and Peru. But it was in the Hawaiian archipelago
in particular that surfing advanced the most, was best documented, and, unlike elsewhere in Polynesia,
persisted. And for the people of Hawaii, wave sliding was not
just a recreational activity, but one with spiritual
and social significance. Like much of Hawaiian society, nearly every aspect of surfing was
governed by a code of rules and taboos known as kapu. Hawaiians made offerings when selecting
a tree to carve, prayed for waves with the help
of a kahuna, or an expert priest, and gave thanks after surviving
a perilous wipeout. Certain surf breaks were strickly reserved
for the elite. But it wasn’t just a solemn affair. Surfers competed and wagered
on who could ride the farthest, the fastest, or catch the biggest wave
with superior skill, granting respect, social status, and romantic success. Though it was later called
the sport of kings, Hawaiian men and women of all ages
and social classes participated, riding surfboards shaped from koa, breadfruit, or wiliwili trees. Many Hawaiians road alaia boards, which were thin, midsized,
and somewhat resemble today’s shortboards. Some mounted paipo boards, short, round-nosed boards on which
riders typically lay on their stomachs. But only chieftains could ride
the massive olo boards, twice as long as today’s longboards. Unlike most modern surfboards, all boards were finless, requiring surfers to drag their hands
or feet to turn. We don’t know exactly when wave sliding
was invented, but we know that it had already
been practiced in Polynesia for centuries by the time it was described in 1777
by William Anderson, a surgeon on Captain Cook’s ship
“Resolution.” Although Anderson was in awe, most of the American Christian
missionaries who arrived in Hawaii several decades later regarded surfing as sinful, and they discouraged it, along with
other aspects of native culture. The biggest threat to surfing, however,
was the threat to the natives themselves. By 1890, new illnesses introduced
by Europeans and Americans had decimated the Hawaiian people,
leaving fewer than 40,000 from a pre-contact population
that may have exceeded 800,000. At the same time, foreign influence grew with white settlers overthrowing
the native monarchy in 1893, and the U.S. annexing
the islands five years later. The end of Hawaii’s independence coincided
with surfing’s native-led revival, a revival soon exploited
by the American colonizers. But first, some Hawaiians
took surfing overseas. In 1907, George Freeth,
the so-called Hawaiian Wonder, traveled to the west coast and gave surfing demonstrations
in southern California. Then in 1914, Olympic swimmer
Duke Kahanamoku made his way to Australia and New Zealand, gliding across the southern Pacific waves and attracting rapt audiences
wherever he went. Shortly before Freeth went to California, a South Carolinian named
Alexander Hume Ford moved to Hawaii. After learning to surf, he became
a champion of the pastime. But Ford may have had unsavory reasons for his enthusiastic efforts
to boost the sport. Like many settlers, he wanted Hawaii
to become a U.S. state but was worried about its non-white
majority of natives and Asian workers. Ford thus promoted surfing
to attract white Americans to Hawaii, first as tourists, then as residents. He was helped by numerous writers
and filmmakers. Ford’s demographic plan
would fail miserably. Hawaii became a state in 1959 and remains the most racially diverse
state in the country. But the promotion of surfing
was a far greater success. Today, surfing is a multi-billion dollar
global industry, with tens of millions
of enthusiasts worldwide. And though relatively few of these surfers
are aware of the once-crucial wave chants or board carving rituals, Hawaiians continue to preserve
these traditions nearly washed away by history’s waves.

Antonio Breitenberg

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100 thoughts on “The complicated history of surfing – Scott Laderman

  1. Norika says:

    Excellent video on history and facts

  2. Adwoa Nkansah-Gyekye says:

    I'm from west Africa

  3. AugOmatic says:

    Ted Ed don't surf

  4. *Insert internet name* says:

    Does the good things always have to end up with how much money it makes in the end? –_-"

  5. Doctor Yammy says:

    Brief history lessons like these make me feel bad being an American ;(

  6. Jack Seifer says:

    White people ruin everything

  7. Keko Rivera says:

    Surfing was reserved for the chiefs

  8. 7om says:


  9. Al Burtuqal says:

    Reminder that if a polynesian would want to go to Australia today, they can't, because Australia hates refugees

  10. Breakthrough Science - for Everyone says:

    I never considered surfing as something with an ancient cultural background. Thanks for the lesson 🙂

  11. Vesna Juric says:

    I love Hawaii

  12. SoCalFreelance says:

    Dolphins have been wave riding long before humans, it would not surprise me if humans got the idea from them.

  13. Kealohapauole Kūnuiākea says:

    This video is great. But historicaly inaccurate. Hawaii was never annexed, but a occupied Hawaiian kingdom from the United States.

  14. Syd Jose says:

    Breaks my heart that so many natives have died at the hands of cruel colonists who found them “sinful” and brought illness that killed so many. These fascinating, beautiful people and their culture amazes me. I can’t help but learn more. I find Polynesian and Maori culture so amazing. So incredibly complex and beautiful.

  15. Eli Cruz says:

    What about the three Hawaiian princes in 1885 who was the first to surf Santa Cruz.?

  16. Penguin King says:

    Wow lol 😀 this is good

  17. Little lizard says:

    These drawings are fire AF tho

  18. Friends don’t Lie says:

    Fun fact: hawaiian culture is dying

  19. zan w says:

    Wait didn't the Greeks invented surfing

  20. Dragonthief says:

    This history made me wanna vomit. F*ck the US.

  21. Ethic Ethnic says:

    I knew about wave riding roots in Polynesia, but I had no idea that it had roots with Africans as well.

  22. Nancy Tinder says:

    Everybody go surfin’……

  23. Zack Fly says:

    I don't know how to even swim but i love watching people surf (mostly whipe out)

  24. subash chander says:

    Worth spending time

  25. Oliwia Olano says:

    "history's waves" yOU MEAN WYPEPO

  26. Dawson Bolus says:

    People are people; there was/is no premium or righteous race or nation. Greed is amongst us all, from tribal wars to global conquering.

  27. join me for a smile! says:

    This reminds me of Lilo and Stich. Ahh.. childhood ♥️

  28. Ursula Nichols says:

    should be talked about more

  29. SDBARTENDER1 says:

    Which waves were for the Kings only?!

  30. Bryan says:

    white men are not even close to the first people to go to land and take it over with force no questions asked. Dont know why everyone hates on that but doesnt think about the rest of history

  31. JM Downs says:

    You missed the best part of the story where surfers realized with uratane wheels the could surf on land and the 50 years later we have people jumping down 25 stairs on those land surf boards

  32. Debra Evans says:

    Thank you for this history lesson
    Another hidden history
    That we never
    The truth will always come to light
    Thank you again

    Debra Evans

  33. Edward Dorville says:

    The Documentary White Wash, and this brief account of surfing history have a lot in common.

  34. Scuffed Lozenge says:

    This was on my english language GCSE paper so thanks for giving me the context and something to write about. You guys are the best

  35. Mad Myers says:

    Ugh white ppl have done so much bad in history

  36. Not Who You Think I Am says:

    British: ah nice board in the water coooool
    American: siiiiiin everything you do is a sin

  37. Perpetual Student says:

    hey make sure you get that word "white" in there so we can all be sure.

  38. Alex Mrykhin says:

    good job ! nice movie

  39. Oliver Rayner says:

    in the map of nz why did u not put raglan in

  40. Nature_slayer says:

    WRONG!!!! 1885 3 Hawaiian princes surfed the river mouth in Santa Cruz ca. My hometown. That, was the first time surfing was recorded in California !!!!!!!! Kook.

  41. Ron Hadley says:

    Ya religion ruins everything.

  42. Lana Fazaa says:

    4:32 the red man looks like he has a McDonald's sign in his pocket

    Sooooooo American

  43. Farken Behg says:

    Ted needs to do more research and show more of the other pacific islands not just polynesia. The Melanesias were the ones who gave polynesia tattooing, they also traded many things and shared many thing. Micronesians and Melanesians never lost their traditions and way of live. The whole revival of the seafarers in polynesia was not by a polynesian person but by Melanesians and Micronesians. They taught the Polynesians who to navigate the sea again.

  44. vince says:

    wow Americans are jerks. that's what I learned

  45. askip7 says:

    Sorry to nit pick but there aren’t any pyramids in Hawaii

  46. Elena Autumnal Mermaid says:

    Hawaii has such a dark history. A whole culture destroyed

  47. Ratu Tui says:

    Surfing is not native to Hawaii. people have been doing this in fiji and french Polynesia for thousand of years. Hawaii was not Polynesian until Fijian and Tama french Polynesian ancestors arrived. Hawaii is not Polynesian until Fijian and Tahiti came to be created the Hawaiian people

  48. Marina says:

    Laird Hamilton is a legend! In my opinion i think if someone would like to give you surf-lessions.. Take the chance 🙂

  49. Acelyn Fury says:

    Thank you

  50. Captain_ Foxy says:

    surfs and dies

  51. JetSurfing Nation says:

    Jetsurfing is a motorized powered surfboard is a next generation of surfing..

    Here is Amazing HISTORY Of Motorized Surfboards in 5 minutes: How did it all begin?

  52. hahahaha says:

    Lol surfing only came from the Hawaiian islands? Come on Ted u can do better. It's rampant in most austronesian island cultures. The brits and dutch has already witnessed and documented it being practiced in indonesia islands at the coasts for hundreds of years since the 16hundreds when they discovered indonesia which is even before the western world discovered the Hawaiian islands.

  53. Joachim Macdonald says:


  54. Ladale Lee says:

    Annexing is bs.

  55. Surfdocsteve says:

    It always amazes me how every where was a utopia before Europeans or Americans got there, but somehow the rest of the world wants to come here now?

  56. Spencer AM says:

    So demographics are imperialism, great to know. Protect Europe and America from demographic colonialism

  57. TJ Rosimo says:

    Whiteman back then called it sinful because they are just jealous. Pigs

  58. Lumberjack king the great says:

    Fuke America

  59. Charles Williamson says:

    surfing is still a religion, at least it feels like it

  60. Dreaming Lotus says:

    This is my favorite animator for these ted-ed videos

  61. Aric Wright says:

    Surfing is stolen just like everything else that a minority lets a white person see.

  62. r4dicaldud3_ says:

    We should have watched white men can’t jump

  63. Lucas Elting says:

    I thought the title read: The history of suffering

  64. rafael can says:

    Best Channel i Hope it will help my presentation

  65. DreGod says:

    Smh no pun intended but Europeans stayed colonizing various native lands of the earth plane. The proof is in the history. That's why the people on Sentinel island killed that Christian missionary. They knew what was up. There is definitely a debt owed to the indigenous.

  66. M- Nice says:

    Sinful?? Seriously???

  67. Fish Maggie says:

    Surfing was actually invented by Taako? You know, from TV?

  68. Haneoo Hamoan says:

    What annexation are you referring to? Bring forth the annexation of Hawaii! Where is the signature of the Queen? By what method under international law did the United States acquire the hawaiian kingdom?

  69. Haneoo Hamoan says:

    #educate2liberate #speakthetruth #ted-ed @tedx

  70. Lach & Tay says:


  71. Dj_AUXCORD world says:

    Kahuna Matata what a wonderful phr3

  72. Derek Meinke says:

    T A H I T I

  73. Dean Angelo says:

    Christian missionary: I fear no man.

    Christian missionary: But that thing?!

    sees a man surfing

    Christian missionary: it scares me.

  74. Moana Nuku says:

    Warring parties would arrive in their vaka and surf to shore with club in hand, ready for battle

  75. Ted Castrence says:

    who have been to SIARGAO?

  76. Christian Pike says:

    Do you guys just hate Americans and white people?



  78. Jay says:

    I'd love a ted ed history of boxing video.

  79. Melanie Ortiz says:

    Free Hawaii! End the illegal occupation of the Hawaiian kingdom!✊

  80. Hawaiian Fishing says:

    Us Hawaiians are proud people! Surfs up!!

  81. Leonard C says:

    So of course with every TED video must come a healthy dose of cynicism of westerners white folks and western religion. What is wrong with these bitter Marxist.

  82. PlasticRevolver Bee says:

    Was first started by a Chicken name Joe.

  83. Ilovepineapples says:

    I have no idea what the target demograohic are for these videos, all i know is that i love them

  84. Taeao RTKC says:

    That map is inaccurate

  85. epic Tejas says:


  86. Week Sauce says:

    Cowabunga it is

  87. okimarobot says:

    No bias here – ted

  88. The Spooky Burger says:

    lots of easily impressionable people in the comments… “cOlOnIzEr BaD”…

  89. et chalaco says:

    surfing, as the skill of riding waves really started in ancient Peru.

  90. Che Garcia says:

    Applause for Hawaii for not allowing the invaders to completely take over the island and still have their culture perserved

  91. Leslie Adkins says:

    White people just wont keep their hands off another's culture. Why? Why?

  92. samuel cedeno says:

    i would've been a friking native if europeans didnt colonize anything wtF DUDE

  93. SoulCollector 356 says:

    Ahhh Americans

  94. slayer 1 says:

    Could you imagine a guy riding on a wave that is big enough to support a 20-foot board wow with no pollution no messed up coral perfect waves every time

  95. Seawolfaka says:

    And the lies continue. You for forgot to mention the slaves of the Ali’i benefited from the Tahitians spending the kingdoms gold and silver.

  96. For Liberty says:

    Wow, what bias. Blaming white people for the demise of Hawaii's inhabitants but neglect to mention that the Tahitians came and conquered the Polynesians in 1300AD. But yeah, let's keep blaming white people.

  97. Leonardo DaSilva says:

    I'm glad you covered the polynesian origins of surfing. But I got a Gruncle here who was really excited for you to cover things like the rise of surfing and surf rock youth subcultures in California, Australia, New Zealand in the '50s and Later South Africa; and stuff like the rise of Surfings Olympic history and it's major champions. You guys could've really gone all out with this.

  98. Hondeer says:

    Me going to Church: Forgive me father for I have sinned.
    Father: That is ok my child, confess your sins to me.
    Me: I sold my wavestorm…
    Father: Blasphemy!
    Me: … and got an handmade long board.
    Father: You have delighted God and may he give you shore breezes to hold you up, Amen.

  99. Hondeer says:

    Who here actually came to learn about surfing and not to bash white people?

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