Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Sir Joseph Banks’


Age of Wonder gems: 1. Surfing in Tahiti

As promised, here’s the first of a handful of gems from Richard Holmes’ epic Age of Wonder (after my (over)lengthy post on Tuesday). [This one’s for Jem…]

As mentioned in the previous post, one of the book’s threads is Sir (as he would become) Joseph Banks – and his account of what he encountered as a self-funded scientific researcher during a Royal Navy expedition to the South Seas under Captain Cook. The focus of his work was the time they spent on Tahiti (or Otaheite, as they originally called it). He laid the foundations of what would become a formal discipline: cultural anthropology. He certainly took participating in local customs very seriously (!) and as a result scandalised some back home with his accounts. But that aside, I loved this wonderful moment in the Holmes’ account:

(in 1769) Rounding the tip of the bay, they looked out to sea and saw something wholly unexpected and ‘truly surprising’. This was the astonishing and never-to-be-forgotten sight, far out on the unprotected edge of the lagoon, of a group of dark Tahitian heads bobbing amidst the enormous dark-blue Pacific waves. At first Banks thought they had been flung out of their canoes and were drowning. Then he realised that the Tahitians were surfing.

No European had ever witnessed – or at least recorded – this strange, extreme and quintessentially South Seas sport before. (p24)

This was what he wrote in his journal (HT surf-research):

…  as the shore was coverd with pebbles and large stones. In the midst of these breakers 10 or 12 Indians were swimming who whenever a surf broke near them divd under it with infinite ease, rising up on the other side; but their chief amusement was carried on by the stern of an old canoe, with this before them they swam outas far as the outermost breach, then one or two would get into it and opposing the blunt end to the breaking wave were hurried in with incredible swiftness
Sometimes they were carried almost ashore but generaly the wave broke over them before they were half way, in which case the[y] divd and quickly rose on the other side with the canoe in their hands, which was towd/(swam) out again and the same method repeated
We stood admiring this very wonderfull scene for full half an hour, in which time no one of the actors atempted to come ashore but all seemd most highly entertaind with their strange diversion.