Mud-musk and metal-tangs bleed on its edge
A youngster, unshaven and writhing, dies
Tracing folds in the face of his sweetheart
Creating the Centena
From the start of this process I had the sense that my research subject Duke Kahanamoku, the godfather of surfing, would afford me the chance to draw comparisons between surfing and war.
Metaphor abounds between these two abnormal endeavours. Surfers and soldiers walk among civilians in a shroud of mystery at their uniform and the equipment they carry. They disappear behind the veil; toiling in esoteric environments, reacting to moments of relative calm punctuated by chaos, then return as changed men and women.
After some research, my Centena took a different tack. It was Gary Osmond’s article for the New Zealand Journal of History that did it.
In the spring of 1916, the First World War was at full tilt. John McCrae had penned ‘Flanders Fields’. Conscription was underway in Britain. The last of the troops had not long departed the Gallipoli peninsula and the battle of the Somme was imminent.
In that same season, Duke Paoa Kahanamoku registered for military service. Miles from the front, Kahanamoku experienced relative peace in his home in Hawaii.
He was an athlete, famous for swimming and surfing. In the shadow of the war, he toured with surfing displays in the USA, Australia and New Zealand. From its distant and ancient past the sport – an expression of joy and reconnection to nature – travelled the globe under the feet of Kahanamoku.
Earlier, in 1912 he had equalled the 100m freestyle swimming world record and, before its cancellation, he was favourite to win gold swimming in the 1916 Olympic games.
In his article ‘Honolulu Māori’ Gary Osmond shows good evidence for the racial stereotypes that Kahanamoku experienced during his sporting endeavours.
“Other references were redolent of classical associations
that underlay the Noble Savage and informed the Nimble Savage.[…] Kahanamoku’s aquatic abilities were also naturalized and racialized.”
“Fascination with Kahanamoku’s physical appearance also assumed racial
overtones in which physicality and corporeality linked with skin colour[…]”5.
Kahanamoku was no more a ‘natural born’ Olympian swimmer than a man is a ‘natural born’ soldier. Yet, the respect due to him was hamstrung by the colour of his skin. Despite the pressures he experienced, Kahanamoku continued to strive for success. He went on to win two gold medals in the 1920 games.
I could find only tangential evidence to suggest that Kahanamoku could have died at the hands of the war. But there were countless examples of others who did and, of course, many who escaped: mothers, daughters, friends and future generations.
And, whether it was the war itself, racism or oppression, each of those individuals lived to fight their own fights.
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