While surfing may have been started by a couple of gnarly Hawaiian guys riding boards as big as trees way back in the day, we all know that its modern incarnation was invented by some Malibu Barbie named Gidget, only to be spread around the country by The Beach Boys before going global, thanks to The Endless Summer. And it's been nothing but fun-fun-fun ever since.
Um, dude, not exactly. As Scott Laderman demonstrates in his exhaustively researched, extensively footnoted and mostly well-written new book, Empire in Waves: A Political History of Surfing, there's a far more complex story hidden beneath the sun/sand/bikinis pop culture version of surfing history.
“Gidget is only a very small part of the story,” Laderman tells the Weekly. “It's time for surfers to think of surfing in a more complex way.”
As Laderman explains, surfing often closely mirrored American foreign policy – as good, bad and goofy-footed as it's often been in the last 120 years. He makes a compelling case that surfing was used as an imperialist instrument both during and after America's illegal annexation of Hawaii in 1898; helped create a form of tourism that conquered the Third World; drew international attention to the struggle against South African apartheid; and even was used as a diplomatic weapon in the Cold War.
Just think back to the surfing-during-combat scenes from the definitive Vietnam War film, Apocalypse Now, and its two most memorable bits of dialogue, uttered by the great Robert Duvall: “Charlie don't surf!” and “I love the smell of napalm in the morning. It smells like?…?victory!”
Laderman, 42, is exactly the right guy to produce a unique version of surfing's history: Born in Santa Monica and raised in Brentwood, his childhood access to year-round waves gives him insight into the hedonistic nature of surfing, while his post – UC Berkeley role as a human rights activist gives him a keen understanding of global conflict. His current occupation as associate professor of history at the University of Minnesota Duluth provides the academic overview necessary to support his thesis (even if the climate surely doesn't lend itself to hands-on research).
Laderman tells the Weekly that he went out of his way to make the book accessible to the mass market. For the most part, he succeeds, with a breezy, fast-moving narrative that only occasionally gets bogged down in academic tropes.
Aside from infrequent trips a little too deep into the weeds of surf history, Laderman has crafted a history book with a unique perspective, sure to appeal to anyone who has a fascination with the ocean or even a mild interest in historical personalities and their little-known connections to surfing. For instance, check out the story of how writer Alexander Hume Ford, who stumbled upon surfing in Hawaii and helped promote it in the early 20th century, got writer Jack London – most often associated with the Klondike Gold Rush – interested in surfing and even persuaded him to spend a lot of time in Hawaii.
Then there are the detailed stories of the two Johnny Appleseeds of surfing, George Freeth, creator of the rescue paddleboard; and Duke Kahanamoku, a great swimmer who competed in four Olympics. Both were Hawaiians who later established California connections: Freeth in Redondo Beach, where he became known as the father of modern surfing, and Kahanamoku in Hollywood, where he had small parts in many films.
“They were the two best-known and most influential surfers of the early 20th century, in terms of the global spread of the sport. Freeth was especially important in terms of California and Duke in … spreading surfing to Australia,” Laderman says. “They were both great ambassadors for the sport.”
Future historians of the early 21st century may one day say the same of Laderman and his revelatory work. He set out to catch himself a big wave and nailed it.
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