top of page
  • Writer's pictureTodd DeGarmo

Hawaii Surf Swimming in 1866

When I came across this 1866 image and article in our historic newspaper collection earlier this year, I immediately thought of Glens Falls native, Charles Reed Bishop (1822-1913), and this, the 200th year of his birth.

As a young man Bishop traveled in 1846 to the Kingdom of Hawai'i, stayed, and made his fortune. He became very involved in the Kingdom, in 1849 becoming a citizen, and in 1850 marrying Bernice Pauahi Paki of the royal House of Kamehameha. Throughout his distinguished career, he was a royal advisor, a legislator, on the board of education, founder of its largest museum. With the overthrow of the Kingdom in 1893, he left his adopted home of Hawaii, and settled in California until his death. His remains were returned to the island to be buried alongside his wife.

This image especially reminds me of one of Charles Reed Bishop's lasting legacies for the now state of Hawaii: the Bishop Museum founded in 1889 to celebrate Hawai'i and other Pacific island cultures, in the name of his late, beloved wife, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the last descendant of the royal Kamehameha family. Today, the Bishop Museum is the largest museum in the state and the premier natural and cultural history institution in the Pacific, recognized throughout the world for its cultural collections, research projects, consulting services and public educational programs (

Returning to the 1866 image and article: it's subject of faahee or surf swimming, and the note of the use of a small board called papa faahee (forerunner of today's surfboard) would have seemed so foreign and intriguing to the 1866 American reader. It's the stuff of study by the Bishop Museum. Nowadays, for the rest of us, it is perhaps more recognized and commonplace, and often, a part of our summer beach time recreation. Here's the article in full:

"Faahee, surf-swimming, is a favorite pastime with the natives of the Sandwich Islands. According to Ellis, a recent writer, “individuals of all ranks and ages, and both sexes, follow this sport with great avidity. They usually selected the openings in the reefs or entrances of some of the bays, where the long, heavy billows rolled in unbroken majesty upon the reef or the shore. They used a small board, which they called papa faahee - swam from the beach to a considerable distance, sometimes nearly a mile - watched the swell of the wave, and when it reached them, resting heir bosoms on the short, flat-pointed board, they mounted on its summit, and, amid the foam and spray, rode on the crest of the wave to the shore; sometimes they halted among the coral rocket, over which the waves broke in splendid confusion. When they approached the shore, they slide off the board, which they grasped with the hands, and either fell behind the wave or plunged towards the deep and allowed it to pass over their heads.

“Sometimes they were thrown with violence upon the beach, or among he rocks on the edges of the reef. So much at home, however, do they feel in the water, that it is seldom any accident occurs.

“I have often seen along the border of the reef, forming the boundary line to the harbor of Fare in Huahine, from 50 to 100 persons, of all ages, sporting like so many porpoises in the surf that has been rolling with foam and violence toward the land; sometimes mounted on the top of the wave, and almost enveloped in spray, at other times plunging beneath the mass of water that has swept like mountains over them, cheering and animating each other; and by the noise and shouting they made, rendering the roar of the sea and the dashing of the surf comparatively imperceptible.”


Folklife Center Sources

Surf Swimming at Hawaii, Sandwich Islands. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, New York, April 7, 1866 (No. 549 -Vol. XXII), p. 36-37.

Biographical Files: Bishop. Folklife Center at Crandall Public Library, Glens Falls, NY.

Charles Reed Bishop: Man of Hawaii, by Harold W. Kent. Palo Alto, CA: Pacific Books, 1965.

Heart of a Hero: Charles Reed Bishop, by Peter Galuteria. Honolulu, Hawaii: Bishop Museum Press, 2009.

Tribute to Charles R. Bishop. Honolulu, Hawaii, 1912.


Todd DeGarmo is the founding director of The Folklife Center at Crandall Public Library, in Glens Falls, NY, and can be reached at He’s worked as a public sector folklorist and educator in various venues for over 42 years, and is the editor of Voices: Journal of New York Folklore. He lives in the upper Hudson Valley of upstate New York, a stone’s throw from the Battenkill near the Vermont border.

64 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page