A brief history of surfing in Africa and the diaspora
Popular histories of surfing tell us that Polynesians were the only people to develop surfing and that Bruce Brown, Robert August, and Mike Hynson introduced surfing to West Africa. All these claims are incorrect. By
The modern surf cultures currently developing along Africa’s long shoreline are not something new and introduced; they are a rebirth; the remembering and reimagining of 1,000-year-old traditions. The first known account of surfing was written during the 1640s in what is now Ghana. Surfing was independently developed from Senegal to Angola. Africa possesses thousands of miles of warm, surffilled waters and populations of strong swimmers and sea-going fishermen and merchants who knew surf patterns and crewed surf-canoes capable of catching and riding waves upwards of 3m high.
Africans surfed on 1m to 1.5m-long wooden surfboards in a prone, sitting, kneeling, or standing position, and in small one-person canoes. Despite Bruce Brown’s claim that The Endless Summer (1965/1966) introduced surfing into Ghana, if viewers shift their eyes away from Robert August and Mike Hynson, they will see Ga youth of Labadi Village, near Accra, riding traditional surfboards, which can still be found at some beaches. The ability of Ga men, in the film, to stand on the Americans’ longboards illustrates their surfing tradition.
Africans also rode longboards, about 3.6m long, and used them to paddle several miles.
English anthropologist Robert Rattray provided the best description and photographs of paddleboards on Lake Bosumtwi, about 160km inland of Cape Coast, Ghana. The Asante believe the anthropomorphic lake god, Twi, prohibited canoes on the lake. Keeping with divine sanctions, people fished from paddleboards, called padua, or mpadua (plural) and used them to traverse this 8.5km-wide lake.
German merchant-adventurer Michael Hemmersam provided the first known record of surfing, describing a sport that was new to him. Believing he was watching
Gold Coast children, who were probably Fante on the Cape Coast, learn to swim, he wrote parents “tie their children to boards and throw them into the water”. Most Africans learned to swim when they were about 16 months old and with more positive reinforcement.
Later accounts are unambiguous. For instance, in 1834 in Accra, James Alexander wrote: “From the beach, meanwhile, might be seen boys swimming into the sea, with light boards under their stomachs. They waited for a surf; and came rolling like a cloud
on top of it.” There are also accounts of Africans bodysurfing. In 1887, an English traveller watched a man named Sua, at home “in his element, dancing up and down and doing fancy performances with the rollers, as if he had lived since his infancy as much in the water as on
As a wave approached, “he turns his face to the shore and rising on to the top of it he strikes out vigorously with it towards land, and is carried dashing in at a tremendous speed after the same manner as the [surf-canoes] beach themselves.”
Fishermen often surfed their 1.8m-long paddleboards and surf-canoes, with accounts describing both off the Cape Verde Islands, Ivory Coast, Congo-Angola, and Cameroon, with Kru canoes of Liberia being heavily documented. In 1861, Thomas Hutchinson observed Batanga fishermen from southern Cameroon riding surf-canoes “no more than six feet in length, fourteen to sixteen inches in width, and from four to six inches in depth” and weighing about 7kg.
Describing how work turned to play Hutchinson wrote: “During my few days stay at Batanga, I observed that from the more serious... occupation of fishing they would turn to racing on the tops of the surging billows which broke on the sea shore; at one spot more particularly, which, owing to the presence of an extensive reef, seemed to be the very place for a continuous swell of several hundred yards in length.
Four or six of them go out steadily, dodging the rollers as they come on, and mounting atop of them with the nimbleness and security of ducks.”
Surfing was a means for opening up economic opportunities. It allowed Africans to understand surf-zones so they could uniquely traverse them in surf-canoes, linking coastal communities to offshore fisheries and coastal shipping lanes. Atlantic Africa possesses few natural harbours and waves break along much of its coastline.
The only way many coastal people could access the ocean’s resources was by designing surf-canoes that were fast, agile, and manoeuverable, allowing them to surf waves ashore.
Surfing was the intergenerational transmission of wisdom that transformed surfzones into social and cultural places, where youth holistically experienced the ocean. Suspending their bodies in the drink and positioning themselves in the curl, they learned about surf-zones by seeing and feeling how the ocean pushed and pulled their bodies. Youth learned about wavelengths (the distance between waves), the physics of breakers, and that waves form in sets with several-minute intervals between sets.
Importantly, surfing taught youth that to catch waves one needed to match their speed; something Westerners did not comprehend until the late 19th century. Documenting how surf-canoemen used childhood lessons, an Englishman noted that they “count the Seas [waves], and know when to paddle safely on or off”, often waiting to surf the last and largest set.
Kevin Dawson is an associate professor of history at the University of California Merced.