In putting together this look at Africa’s surfing roots, I am indebted to Australian surf historian Geoff Cater as well as Dr. Ben Finney and James Houston whose works on the subject I have liberally quoted from here. All quotes without footnotes are cited by Cater and their sources listed at the end of this chapter.
As I wrote in my short opinion piece “Surfing’s Origins” that begins the LEGENDARY SURFERS collection, “if we include bodysurfing, the first beaches surfed must have been those along the African Coast -- specifically those with long sandy shelfs that facilitate standing and jumping into waves about to break without going over one's head.
“The first body surfing surfers were probably homo sapiens, but also could have been our hominid ancestors. I feel, however, that surfing probably did not happen as an activity until after humans achieved cognition (the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through experiences and the senses), currently estimated at about 70,000 years ago.
“If we don't count bodysurfing in our subject of the First Surfers, and specify having to ride some object used for buoyancy -- say a log or even a small fishing canoe -- the coast of Africa is still the most logical location and the First Surfers post cognitive homo sapiens, tens of thousands of years ago.”
Of course, that was well before we humans began documenting our activity, out of the water and in. Leaving behind records of ourselves – in whatever form – came much, much later.
In Africa, it came later than most everywhere else on the planet. The earliest accounts of surfing off the African coast were not made until the arrival of Europeans off the midwestern African coast in the 1600’s A.D. From then on through the 1800’s, African aquatic activity was written down by foreigners who, significantly, did not remark on any particular surfing culture or development compared to what had been noticed in the Hawaiian Islands.
In one of the earliest European reports from West Africa, Johann von Lubelfing (1600) related how, when absconding with stolen goods from his ship, two Africans were able to "swim below the water like a fish" to escape.
Dutchman, Pieter de Marees (1602) described the fishermen of Guinea as excellent swimmers, "easily outdoing people of our nation in swimming and diving." He observed that the young "girls as well as boys," swim daily, and that some women were equal to men in swimming, but not in diving.
On the Quaqua coast, Samuel: Brun (1620) noted that the local inhabitants used "a little raft of three or four pieces of wood” on which "they travel from the land out to sea, where there are such big waves that it is remarkable how these people can come through them."
Michael: Hemmersam (1645) recounted an occasion when, after the canoes of two visiting “Moors” drifted away, the skipper threw them "a board (on which) they laid and swam ashore with it." He recalled: "We were all quite amazed at this great feat of daring."
In a chapter on child rearing, Hemmersam records that the mothers "tie the children (when 2-3 years of age) to boards and throw them into the water, and so they learn to swim."
At Cape Corso, Wilhelm Johann Muller (1669) noted that children were taught to swim at an early age and observed "an enormous crowd, in their daily ritual of bathing in the harbour, accompanied with considerable youthful mischief."
Jean Barbot (1712) wrote: "the young have no other occupation than to play in the sea, thousands playing on the large waves of the surf on the coast, carried on little boards, until the sea casts them ashore on the sand of its beaches." He also noted that swimmers also used "small bundles of rushes, fasten'd under their stomachs."
The surf skills of the canoemen of the Gold Coast were praised by Henry Meredith (1812): When returning to the beach, men position "the canoe on the summit of the sea," and keeping. "as straight a course as possible ... conduct (it) on shore with surprising velocity."
For European, this standard method of landing was a met with a thrill and some apprehension, and was later recorded by, among others, Paul B Du Chaillu (1867), Hugh Dyer (1876), John Whitford (1877), and illustrated in London's The Graphic (1891) and several French publications.
In his account of African surfriding, John Adams (1823) writes of Fantee children amusing themselves in the ocean:
On "pieces of broken canoes, which they launch, and paddle outside of the surf, when, watching a proper opportunity, they place their frail barks (boards) on the tops of high waves, which, in their progress to the shore, carry them along with great velocity."
As Australian surf historian Geoff Cater explained, “Broken canoes, most likely splitting longitudinally with the grain and with the timber already finished, would have been readily recycled, and one possible option was as a surfboard.”
John Adams noted the skill of the men using canoes: "the principal art of these young canoe men consists in preserving their seats while thus hurried along, and which they can only do by steering the planks with such precision, as to prevent them broaching to; for when that occurs, they are washed off, and have to swim to regain them."
The children, "not more than six or seven years of age," swim expertly, and surfriding is a community event, the best rides receiving the plaudits of the spectators, who are assembled on the beach to witness their dexterity."
After arriving by native canoe through "two or three lines of heavy rollers" at Accra in modern day Ghana, James Alexander (1835), like Adams, also observed juvenile surfboard riding. In a brief account he wrote of "boys swimming into the sea, with light boards under their stomachs. They waited for a surf (wave); and then came rolling in like a cloud on the top of it."
In a later conversation, he was told that the local surfriders were occasionally threatened by sharks.
Indeed, as in oceans the world over, sharks were an occasional hazard. Thomas J. Hutchinson (1861) was told that, shortly before he arrived in Batanga (Cameroon), a fisherman died after losing a leg to "a prowling shark."
Hutchinson made special note of local fisherman in a group of four or six riders in small light-weight one-man canoes riding in an area of large surf merely for the fun of it. He described the paddle-out, take-off, steering with a trailing paddle at speed, and the inconvenience of the wipe-out, somewhat mitigated by their being "capital swimmers – indeed, like the majority of the coastal negroes, they may be reckoned amphibious."
Kevin Dawson, in Swimming, Surfing, and Underwater Diving in Early Modern Africa and the African Diaspora (2009), wrote that this is "the only (account from West Africa) that describes adults surfing (recreationally)."
As Cater noted, “While there are numerous accounts of (adult) West Africans riding waves in canoes, in those instances they were invariably in pursuit of their livelihood, either in transporting freight or passengers, or in returning from fishing.”
While employed to lay undersea cables On a Surf-bound Coast, Archer P. Crouch (1887) had many experiences in landing and launching surf-boats and canoes that he wrote about. However, it is his rare account of swimming in considerable sized surf and taking instruction in the art of body surfing from his African assistant, Su, that stands out.
Another exceptional glimpse into African aquatic life was given by Alfred Burton Ellis:
In his ethnographic study of the Tshi-speaking peoples of the Gold Coast, Alfred Burdon Ellis (1887) wrote that "every portion of the shore where the surf breaks unusually heavily, or rocks cause the water to become broken, and ... dangerous for canoes, has its local spirit."
Apparently, stand-up surfing on wooden boards remained in a primitive state. It was not until the 1960’s that riding for fun on boards we would legitimately call “surfboards” became common along parts of the West African coast. Bodysurfing and bodyboarding, of course, continued as the most popular and numerous forms of African wave riding.
As Finney and Houston wrote in their landmark book on surfing, published in the 1960’s, “in areas of Senegal, the Ivory Coast and Ghana... African youths and young fishermen regularly body-surf, ride body-boards and catch waves while standing erect on boards about six feet long. These Atlantic skills seem in no way connected with the Pacific, either historically or prehistorically. Evidently, it’s an old pastime in West Africa; young Africans were seen riding waves while lying prone on light wooden planks as long ago as 1838, long before surfing began to spread from Hawai’i [to the rest of the world].”
This was a reference to the British explorer Sir James Edward Alexander observing surfing by natives in Equatorial West Africa in 1835. Volumes one and two of Alexander’s Narrative of a Voyage of Observation Among the Colonies of Western Africa, published in 1837, are remarkable in their scope and detail. The often poetic accounts of every detail of West African life in the early 1800s – sex, murder, slavery, war, passion, drunkenness, death, revolt and a note on surfing – are impressive.
James Edward Alexander was anchored off the island of Accra, off the Cape Coast not too far from the “yellow sands” of what used to be called Guinea. On November 16, 1835, while describing native island life, Alexander noted that, “from the beach, meanwhile, might be seen boys swimming into the sea, with light boards under their stomachs. They waited for a surf; and then came rolling in like a cloud on the top of it. But I was told that sharks occasionally dart in behind the rocks, and ‘yam’ them.”
Following publication of several articles in academic journals on surfboard riding in Oceania, Ben Finney examined accounts of surfing on the coast of West Africa (1962). Initially noting Rouch (1949) and Beart (1955), he raised the question of whether surfboard riding developed as an "independent invention" in both locations, or by "invention in one and then diffusion to the other."
Finney considered and rejected the possibility of a recent diffusion from Hawaii, citing the early nineteenth century report by James Alexander (1835); and, noting the surfboard-like craft of Lake Bosumtwi identified by Rattray (1923), concluding that surfboarding in West Africa and Oceania evolved independently.
Finney’s conclusion is consistent with what we know of the dispersal of Humankind over the planet and what Europeans found off the coast of Western Africa tens of thousands of years later. While it is logical that bodysurfing and bodyboarding began off the coasts of Africa, standing on wooden boards and riding waves along the African Coast is probably no more than a century old.
Geoff Cater References
1600 von Lubelfing : Swimming and Canoes, West Africa.
1602 de Marees : Swimming, Canoes and Fishing, Guinea.
1604 Ulsheimer : Canoes and Whaling, West Africa.
1620 Samuel Brun : Canoes, Rafts, and Fishing, West Africa.
1645 Hemmersam : Float Boards and Canoes, West Africa.
1669 Muller : Swimming, Canoes and Fishing, West Africa.
1712 Jean Barbot : Canoes and Fishing, Guinea.
1735 John Atkins : Canoes and Fishing, Guinea and Brazil.
1812 Henry Meredith : Canoe Surfing on Gold Coast, Africa.
1823 John Adams : Surfboard Riding on the West Coast, Africa.
1835 James Edward Alexander : West Africa.
1861 Thomas J. Hutchinson : Canoe Surfing in Gabon, Africa.
1874 W.H.G. Kingston: Great African Travellers.
1876 Hugh Dyer : Surf Boats in West Africa.
1877 John Whitford : Surf Canoes and Boats, West Africa.
1881 David Greig Rutherford : Batanga Canoes, West Africa.
1887 Archer Crouch : Body Surfing, West Africa.
1887 Alfred Burton Ellis : Surf Dieties of West Africa.
1891 The Graphic : Surf Boats, Ghana.
1895 C. S. Smith : Batanga Canoes, West Africa.
1899 Mary H. Kingsley : Canoes and Fishing, West Africa.
1921 Lord Hamilton : Surfriding at Muizenberg, South Africa.
1922 Agatha Christie : Torquay, Muizenberg, and Waikiki.
1923 Robert Rattray : Padua at Lake Bosumtwi, Africa.
1932 George Bernard Shaw : First Surfboard, Muizenberg, SA.
1949 Jean Rouch : Surf Riding at Dakar, Senegal.
1955 C.Beart : Jeux et Jouets de l'Ouest Africain. Memoires de l'Institut Francais d' Afrique, Noire No. 42, Dakar, pages 330-331.
1962 Ben Finney : Surfboarding in West Africa.