Friday, August 26, 2022

Kapu and Classes

Aloha and Welcome to this installment in the LEGENDARY SURFERS series entitled: Kapu & Classes.

A tiki from the Marquesas

In “the old days,” lectured Dr. E. S. C. Handy, “the mass of the people were called makaainana. The word is interesting because it refers to the relationship of the people to the land. The makaainana were the people who lived on the land. Aina means land, but it has a deeper meaning because it is derived from the word meaning ‘to eat.’ The word actually means the land on which a person is born and from which he gets his living. The makaainana were the common people, the laboring masses, the cultivators of the soil, the fishermen, hunters, and craftsmen. In wartime they fought for the chief or king. Amongst themselves, their goods and their labor were shared or exchanged, but it was the right of the chief or king to require of them what he pleased, in goods or in services. Compensation for labor was, for the most part, in the form of gifts – food, cloth, mats, utensils, etc. There was no medium of exchange or money. Those who worked for the chief had their livelihood from him as compensation.”52

Due to this relationship, the maka‘ai-nana53 were second to the ali‘i when it came to all aspects of Hawaiian society, including wave riding. It was the ali‘i, or chiefly class, that not only had the reputation but more importantly the time to dedicate to their wave riding. Their wave riding sport included three types: he‘e nalu (board surfing), holua sledding, and lele wa‘a (canoe-leaping).54

“The ali‘i were a majestic aristocracy,” wrote Finney and Houston, “generally taller, broader, and physically superior to the commoners.”55 This difference in body type between the ali‘i and the maka‘ai-nana may have come about by the settling of Hawai‘i by two separate peoples, as sung in early legends and substantiated by archaeological evidence.56 As for the ali‘i, their status as leaders within the class of chiefs depended, in part, on their strength and stamina.”57 For the ali‘i, surfing and other sports were not only recreational pastimes, they were serious training sessions to keep them fit for the physical requirements their status required.

“The rulers of those people were in their chiefly position,” Duke Kahanamoku told his biographer Joe Brennan in their book World of Surfing, “because of their inheritance of rank, plus their physical strength and courage. In short, they were recognized and respected for their athletic talents, so the leaders constantly trained and schooled themselves in athletic activities in order to be strong enough to maintain their positions of command. Surfing rated high on their athletic agenda, and they strove for perfection in that field.”58

Today’s common expression “taboo” is based on the Hawaiian system of kapu.59 The kapu system helped assure the ali‘i position of privilege. This system, like other laws, applied only to the maka‘ai-nana. Used in relation to surfing, it prohibited commoners from using the onini (o-NEE-nee) and owili (o-WE-lee) types of olo boards, both of which were made of wili-wili.60 According to a local from Kona who told about surfing in the earlier days to Thomas G. Thrum and translated by M. K. Nakuina, “it is well known that the olo was only for the use of chiefs; none of the common people use it.”61

The kapu system also restricted maka‘ai-nana from surfing certain breaks that were reserved for the chiefs only. As Duke Kahanamoku put it, “the ali‘i did as they saw fit. This meant that those of royal rank surfed to their hearts’ content and developed great skill at riding the waves. The oppressed commoners had to do without... The more select surfing areas were reserved for those of royal blood. A commoner using one of the tabued beaches risked a death sentence.”62 This consequence for using ali‘i-only surfing areas was also substantiated by Hawaiian scholar David Malo.63 An example of this segregation was witnessed by William Ellis, upon seeing some ali‘i having fun surfing by a rivermouth, at the same time strictly forbidding commoners to approach.64

This particular kapu only applied to particular breaks. For instance, Ellis also mentions ali‘i and maka‘ainana surfing together at another location and other accounts refer to an “inter-class mixing” in the ocean.65 The intricacies of the kapu system are difficult to know for sure, however, since most of what was written about it came after the abandonment of the kapu system in 1819.66 Certainly, ali‘i surfing privilege is substantiated in such Hawaiian surf legends as that of Piikoi the Rat Killer, and the designated special surf spot at Waikiki which was kapu to everyone but the Queen. In the case of Piikoi the Rat Killer, this maka‘ainana was severely beaten and nearly put to death for riding to shore on one of the Queen’s waves.67

Another advantage that the ali‘i had over the maka‘ai-nana was personal wealth. This obviously determined the quality of wave riding gear. For example, a chief could order a team of maka‘ai-nana into the colder highlands to cut down a selected tree, usually the light weight wili-wili. After the appropriate ceremonies, the retainers brought the wood back to his ahu-pua‘a,68 or ruling realm, where the ali‘i would have a craftsman carefully custom-shape his board. Commoners had to settle for heavier wood – like koa – of their own design. For women and children of common birth, the situation might be even more basic. For instance, the Hawaiian chronicler John Papa I’i (1800-1870) recalled a scene at Lahaina, Maui, in 1812, where the “boys were surfing on the north side of Pelekane, with banana trunks for surfboards.”69

The manner of handling and riding boards was much the same as it is today. After paddling prone past the soup70 and the breakers,71 surfers would position their boards out beyond the breaker line, sitting on their boards and waiting for a set72 to roll in. Selecting their wave of the set, they would swing again to the prone position – kipapa73 – and dig hard to catch the wave. “Gracefully, and all in one catlike motion,” described “The Father of Modern Surfing” Duke Kahanamoku, “the surfer would spring to his feet. Then, in a standing position with feet spread, he would maintain balance and direction by shifting his weight, right or left, forward or backward. Thus the board was deftly maneuvered throughout the shoreward ride.”74

In the Hawaiian Annuals, published in 1896, a native Hawaiian surfer from the Kona district of the Big Island gave a detailed description of surfing in the Hawai‘i of old. This was translated by another Hawaiian surfer, M. K. Nakuina:

“Breakers. The line of breakers is the place where the outer surf rises and breaks at deep sea. This is called kulana nalu. Any place nearer or closer in where the surf rises and breaks again as they sometimes do, is called the ahua.

“Methods of Surfriding. The swimmer taking position at the line of breakers waits for the line of surf... the first one is allowed to pass by. It is never ridden because its front is rough. If the second comber is seen to be a good one, it is sometimes taken, but usually the third or fourth is the best, both from the regularity of its breaking and the foam calmed surface of the sea through the travel of its predecessors.

“Expert Positions. Various positions used to be indulged in by experts in this aquatic sport, such as standing, kneeling and sitting. These performances could only be indulged in after the board had taken on the surf momentum and in the following manner. Placing the hands on each side of the board close to the edge, the weight of the body was thrown upon the hands, and the feet brought up quickly to the kneeling position. The sitting position is obtained in the same way, though the hands must not be removed from the board till the legs are thrown forward and the desired position is secured. From kneeling the standing position was obtained by placing both hands again on the board, and with agility, leaping up to the erect altitude, balancing the body on the swift, coursing board with outstretched arms.”75.


52  Handy, E.S.C. “Government And Society,” chapter 3 of Ancient Hawaiian Civilization, “A Series of Lectures Delivered at the Kamehameha Schools,” C.E. Tuttle Company, Inc., Rutland, Vermont, ©1965. Ninth printing, 1981, p. 35.

53  maka‘ai-nana, n. Commoner, populace, people in general; citizen, subject. Cf. lunamaka‘ainana. Literally, people that attend the land (PNP matakainanga). From Pukui and Elbert, Hawaiian Dictionary, 1986.

54  Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 44.

55  Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 44.

56  See old Chapter 1, “The First Surfers.”

57  Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 44.

58  Kahanamoku, Duke with Brennan, Joe. World of Surfing, Grosset & Dunlap, New York, NY, ©1968, p. 21.

59  kapu n.  Meaning “prohibited.” This is where the expression “taboo” comes from.

60  See Chapter 3, “Ancient Hawaiian Surfboards.”

61  Thrum, Thomas G. “Hawaiian Surf Riding,” Hawaiian Almanac and Annual, 1896. Early account of surfing as told by a Kona native and translated by M.K. Nakuina, who was also a surfer in his younger days. See Finney and Houston, 1996, Appendix E, p. 102.

62  Kahanamoku, 1968, p. 22.

63  Malo, David. Hawaiian Antiquities, Bishop Museum, Honolulu, Special Publications 2, 2nd Edition, Hawaiian Gazette Company, ©1951, pp. 56-57. Original translation by Nathaniel Emerson, 1898. First published in 1903.

64  Ellis, William. Polynesian Researches, volumes 1-3, published by Fisher, Son & Jackson, London, 1831.

65  Ellis, William. Polynesian Researches, volumes 1-3, published by Fisher, Son & Jackson, London, 1831.

66  Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 46.

67  Finney and Houston, 1996, p. 46. See also Gault-Williams, “Ancient Polynesian Surf Legends.”

68   Ahu-pua‘a, n. Land division usually extending from the uplands to the sea, so called because the boundary was marked by a heap (ahu) of stones surmounted by an image of a pig (pua‘a), or because a pig or other tribute was laid on the altar as tax to the chief. The landlord or owner of an ahupua‘a might be a konohiki. A konohiki was a headman under a chief. The land rights included fishing rights along the land’s border, sometimes referred to as konohiki rights.  See Pukui and Elbert, 1986.

69  Lueras, 1984, p. 41. John Papa I’i (1800-1870) quoted.

70  Soup n. The turbulent foam created by a wave’s breaking; not very suitable for surfing, and often dangerous in big surf; a mixture of air bubbles and moving water.

71  Breaker n. Any wave that breaks on its way to the beach.

72  Set n., A series of waves – 2, 3 or 4 in a row – generally arriving at regularly spaced intervals.

73  Kipapa has several meanings in the Hawaiian language. Relative to surfing it means the prone position on a surfboard or to assume such position. See Pukui and Elbert, 1986.

74  Kahanamoku, 1968, p. 23.

75  Hawaiian Annuals, 1896. See also Blake, pp. 46-47. Ku-lana nalu, n. Place where the waves swell up and the surf rider starts paddling and racing the wave, usually at the most distant line of breakers. Also kulana he‘enalu. Ahua, to swell, as a wave; heap, mound, hillock, knoll, pile; heaped, bumped; tremendous. See Pukui and Elbert, 1986. Comber, n. A long, curling wave.  See Cralle, 1991.

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