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The Duke: Between American & Hawaiian cultures

Duke Kahanamoku, left, with Sam Kahanamoku: Image Public Domain



Surf Culture

Swimming for the USA earned Duke national attention

Surfersvillage Global Surf News, 23 August, 2014 - Duke Kahanamoku, who won a total of five swimming medals in Olympics from 1912 to 1924, probably did more than anyone else to bring the sport of surfing from the Hawaiian islands to the United States mainland. Almost in reverse, he also played a substantial part in the Americanization of old Hawaii.

Born in Honolulu in 1890, descended from patrician ancestors who counseled the Hawaiian monarchy, he grew up near Waikiki Beach as the son of a police captain. Duke was a child when Queen Liliuokalani was thrown under house arrest and Hawaii transformed, by aid of the United States Marines, into Uncle Sam’s territory.

With no outward hint of resentment toward those who had seized and subjugated his country, Duke sought and won a place on the American swimming team at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, the only Hawaiian present. The Philadelphia Inquirer sportswriter Edgar Forrest Wolfe (who used the pen name Jim Nasium) pronounced Kahanamoku in 1913 “a human fish” and “the greatest swimmer the world of sport has ever seen.”

The Duke, as sportswriters called him, was widely lauded for heroism in 1925, when a 40-foot yacht called Thelma capsized near Newport Beach in a turbulent sea, and he used his surfboard to swim out to the craft three times to save eight passengers from drowning.

Called the “King of all Swimmers,” Duke used his réclame to help weave the ancient art of surfing — little known outside the islands, and fading even there at the time — into mainland United States popular culture. “You are rewarded with a feeling of complete freedom and independence while rocketing across the face of a wave,” Duke explained in his autobiography.

Michael Beschloss

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