Waterman is the first comprehensive biography of Duke Kahanamoku (1890–1968): swimmer, surfer, Olympic gold medalist, Hawaiian icon, waterman.
Long before Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz made their splashes in the pool, Kahanamoku emerged from the backwaters of Waikiki to become America’s first superstar Olympic swimmer. The original “human fish” set dozens of world records and topped the world rankings for more than a decade; his rivalry with Johnny Weissmuller transformed competitive swimming from an insignificant sideshow into a headliner event.
Kahanamoku used his Olympic renown to introduce the sport of “surf-riding,” an activity unknown beyond the Hawaiian Islands, to the world. Standing proudly on his traditional wooden longboard, he spread surfing from Australia to the Hollywood crowd in California to New Jersey. No American athlete has influenced two sports as profoundly as Kahanamoku did, and yet he remains an enigmatic and underappreciated figure: a dark-skinned Pacific Islander who encountered and overcame racism and ignorance long before the likes of Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, and Jackie Robinson.
Kahanamoku’s connection to his homeland was equally important. He was born when Hawaii was an independent kingdom; he served as the sheriff of Honolulu during Pearl Harbor and World War II and as a globetrotting “Ambassador of Aloha” afterward; he died not long after Hawaii attained statehood. As one sportswriter put it, Duke was “Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey combined down here.”
In Waterman, award-winning journalist David Davis examines the remarkable life of Duke Kahanamoku, in and out of the water.
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The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku
By David Davis
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2015 David Davis
All rights reserved.
The precise moment when Duke Paoa Kahanamoku slipped into the shimmering blue waters of the Pacific Ocean is lost to history. Duke himself recalled only that he was around four years old when his father, so proud of his namesake, the first of the Kahanamoku children to survive infancy, tossed him over the side of a canoe somewhere off Waikiki Beach.
"It was save yourself or drown," he said, "so I saved myself."
This was no mere introduction. This was a baptism. Water binds the Hawaiian Islands. It is no exaggeration to say that, in Duke's era, water was the lifeblood of Hawaii and its people. It cleansed their bodies after work and was a transportation source. It was their playground, for surfing, swimming, and canoe races, and it was a hallowed sanctuary. Fishing brought them sustenance, from the hee (octopus) and papio (trevally) and oio (bonefish) to the akule (scad) and amaama (mullet) that they caught, ate, and traded with neighbors for vegetables and meat.
On that momentous but unrecorded day, young Duke splashed, flailed, and swallowed water until he discovered his buoyancy and equilibrium, caught his breath, and trusted in the ageless sea that engulfed his body, like his father and uncles and grandfathers before him. Until he felt comfortable enough to stretch his arms beyond his head and pull his hands through the water, his sticklike legs kicking and churning. Until he was moving, self-propelled, his black hair glistening in the sunlight, a little black shadow shimmering in blue liquid. A water bug, soon to be a water boy, soon to be a waterman.
Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku was born on August 24, 1890, in downtown Honolulu, near the corner of King and Bishop Streets. He referred to his birthplace in different ways, depending on his audience. To younger folks, he might say, "I was born where the Bank of Hawaii is now," or to a contemporary, he might say, "I was born where the Arlington Hotel was." If he was talking to an old-timer, he'd say that he was born at Haleakala ("House of the Sun"), which they knew to be the homestead of Princess Bernice Pauahi Paki Bishop, the last of the Kamehameha royal line and the largest landowner in the kingdom.
The two-story structure, fashioned from pink coral by Princess Bernice's father, was all of those incarnations. Duke's father, it is said, was born on the site, in July of 1869, to parents identified as Kapiolani Kaoeha and Kahanamoku. As kahu (retainers) of Princess Bernice, the proud parents sought her advice about naming their baby.
The story goes that the Duke of Edinburgh, Alfred Ernest Albert, the second son of Queen Victoria of England, was making a stopover in Hawaii on a voyage to the British colonies in the Pacific. Princess Bernice, who had traveled to Europe and considered herself an Anglophile, suggested that the newborn be named to commemorate the royal visit. Thus, Halapu Kahanamoku became Duke Halapu Kahanamoku.
"Mrs. Bishop took hold of me and at the same time a salute to the Hawaiian flag from the British battleship in which the (Prince Albert) Duke of Edinburgh arrived," the elder Duke put it. "And after I was washed by Mrs. Bishop she gave me the name 'The Duke of Edinburgh.' The Duke heard and was glad and came to house and I was presented to him and tooke [sic] me in his arms. And that is how I got this name."
Years later, he and his wife, Julia Paakonia Lonokahikini Paoa, gave the same first name to their son. Strictly speaking, Duke was only a name. The family was not related by blood to Kamehameha the Great, the monarch who conquered the islands and established the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1810. But genealogy in Hawaii is as tangled as the gnarled roots of a banyan tree because it involves other factors besides direct bloodline. Duke's paternal grandparents, through their domestic relationship with Princess Bernice, who was the great granddaughter of King Kamehameha, were considered adjunct members of the royal family and thus had valid claims to nobility. Further, the name "Kahanamoku" reputedly "had been given to [Duke's grandfather] by Kamehameha or a powerful alii [nobleman] to commemorate the 'putting together of the Islands of Hawaii to form the Kingdom,'" according to one source.
The ancestry of Duke's mother, Julia Paakonia Paoa, also involved nobility. The Paoa family had a reputation for being storied watermen. Through the Paoa side of the family, originally from the Big Island of Hawaii, "Duke is a descendant of Kinau [a regent] of the Kamehameha line," according to one cousin. "Also [Duke's grandmother] was the granddaughter of Makue and Halapu ... who are descended from the ancient Alapai family. ... The ancestors of Duke — through both his father and mother — were warriors of Kamehameha the Great and no doubt fought to bring Oahu into the Kingdom."
All of this would lead to confusion after Duke Kahanamoku achieved Olympic fame, as many journalists and fans assumed that he had blood-ties to Hawaiian monarchy. When asked if he was related to Hawaiian royalty, Duke was wont to reply, "My understanding [is] that we are in a line of the royal family."
Conflicting evidence exists about his parents' birthdates. One census states that Duke's father was born in July of 1870 — a full year after the visit by the Duke of Edinburgh. Information from the same census states that Duke's mother was born in May of 1873 (making her seventeen years old when her son was born). Other reports give her birth year as 1870. It is also unclear exactly when Duke Halapu and Julia were married. According to official reports, they wed in Honolulu in April of 1907.
What is clear is that Duke was his parents' oldest surviving child. One infant, a girl, died before him. In handwritten notes, Duke called her variously "Miss Lea" and "Miss Kala." In total, Duke's mother lost three infants to stillbirth.
In 1890, when his eldest son was born, Duke Senior was a hack driver and clerk for the United Carriage Company. He had a stand on King Street just across from the Arlington Hotel. He then found work as a deliveryman for the W. W. Dimond Company in Honolulu.
In 1893 Duke Senior was hired by one of the most powerful men in Hawaii, Lorrin A. Thurston, to perform at the world's fair in Chicago. World's fairs were perhaps the most popular form of mass entertainment during the latter half of the nineteenth century. They were rollicking extravaganzas that combined elements of today's technology conventions, Middle Eastern bazaars, art walks, amusement parks, and county fairs. Some twenty-seven million visitors attended the "White City" edition in Chicago, where Thurston and his troupe extolled the splendors of Hawaii and showed off an enormous cyclorama of the Kilauea volcano. Duke Senior later traveled with the group to New York.
While her husband was away on an extended trip to the mainland, Julia and young Duke, then three years old, moved from Honolulu to Waikiki. Her side of the family, the Paoas, had title to 3.22 acres of land, formally awarded them after the Great Mahele (land division) of 1848. The Mahele introduced private ownership of land in Hawaii, a radical notion in a kingdom where, by tradition, the lands were controlled by the chiefs but were also considered communal property for use by the commoners. The premise behind this reform was to give Hawaiians possession of the kingdom's lands, but instead foreigners took advantage of the opportunity and purchased vast tracts of invaluable property.
The distance from downtown Honolulu to Waikiki is but a few miles, but it might as well have been one thousand miles. Honolulu was devoted to commerce, shipping, and politics — "a humming city with shops and palaces and busy wharfs, plying cabs and tramcars, telephones in operation and a railway in building," according to Robert Louis Stevenson, a visitor to Oahu in 1893. And, ever since the days of the whaling ships, Honolulu was known as a den of easy pleasures. The Chinatown area was considered to be the center of gambling and opium use; the local police force was widely reputed to be "on the take."
Waikiki means "spouting waters." The area was formed from the natural convergence of inland waters flowing from the Palolo, Manoa, and Makiki valleys, which then fed into the Pacific Ocean via three freshwater streams: the Kuekaunahi, the Apuakehau, and the Piinaio. This confluence created an aquatic never-neverland of rice fields and banana plantations, coconut trees and hau groves, duck ponds, lily ponds, and fish ponds stocked with mullet and milkfish, limu (seaweed) that attracted crabs and shrimp, and patches of taro root that, when mashed, produced Duke's favorite food: poi.
In this bountiful idyll, young Duke was soon joined in 1895 by his brother, David Piikoi, followed by his oldest sister, Bernice, in 1897, William in 1900, and Samuel Alapai in 1902. Then came three siblings in quick succession: sisters Kapiolani (1905) and Maria (pronounced "Ma-RYE-a," 1907) and Louis (1908). Duke went by "Paoa" among family and friends, to distinguish him from his father.
Their mother spoke little English, but Julia was active in the community, joining the Daughters of Hawaii and the Kaahumanu Society (the latter was named for the favorite wife of King Kamehameha). Slender and devout, Julia ran the day-today household with quiet love, and Duke credited her with the luscious hair of the Kahanamoku clan. "Mother used to get herbs and put them in a cloth and squeeze them on our hair," he remembered.
Tall and handsome, Duke Halapu "laid the law down," according to one of his sons. He had joined the Honolulu Police Department, first with the special bicycle force before being assigned to the patrol wagon and then appointed as receiving clerk. He was promoted to sergeant on March 7, 1910, a happy day that coincided with the birth of the last "bruthah," Sargent. With the arrival of Sargent, Duke now had eight younger brothers and sisters.
The Paoa and Kahanamoku families lived in simple wooden cottages in the neighborhood of Kalia, on the western edge of Waikiki, extending from the intersection of Kalia Road and Ala Moana Boulevard to the beach. They were surrounded by aunts and uncles, dozens of cousins, in-laws, and extended family: the Sterlings, the Piikois, and the Harbottles. Young Duke always had companions to play with, to explore the marshes and coconut groves with, and to fish with. If someone picked up a guitar or a ukulele, the others joined in. "[Kalia] was a beautiful place to live," said Mary Paoa Clarke, one of Duke's cousins. "We were just like one big family there."
Like many people in polyglot Hawaii, they learned to straddle different worlds. They spoke Hawaiian, English, and Pidgin. They joined the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which had made inroads in the community, but Duke and the other children were also infused with Hawaiian traditions and values. Aloha, meaning love and welcome, was central to their lives. Worldly possessions and wealth were deemed not as significant as mana, a form of spiritual power. The togetherness of ohana, or family, bound them in unity.
The natural world loomed significant. Not only was taro a plant used to produce poi, a staple in the diet of both chiefs and commoners, but in Hawaiian lore taro was a brother to the people. Each family had its aumakua, or animal guiding spirit; the mano (shark) was the aumakua of the Kahanamokus. Duke was taught to respect sharks but never to fear them because they provided protection. His father later told one reporter that he was given "a direct promise" from the chief shark of Honolulu harbor and Puuloa (near Pearl Harbor) that "in Duke's favorite distances he would never be defeated."
Their backyard was water: the wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean, a seemingly infinite horizon, along with the streams that fed into it. Waikiki's largest fishpond, Kaihikapu, was nearby. The omnipresent sunshine and the balmy temperatures, interrupted only by cleansing rain showers, encouraged the water-focused lifestyle. When the trade winds blew, and the aroma of papaya mixed with scents from coco palms, mangoes, luxurious ferns, and the jasmine-like perfume of the pikake flower, Kalia felt like heaven.
One of Duke's uncles owned fishing canoes that helped in supplying the family with food. Another uncle helped lay the submarine cable that, in 1902, linked Hawaii with the mainland by telegraph. All of the children learned how to catch dinner. "We had a lot of crabs down there, too, that we caught," Duke's brother Louis Kahanamoku said. "Then we used to use a little cord with a good hook on the end. And we get the [coconut leaf], we tie the hook on like that and we stick 'em in the eel hole. Eel take a bite at 'em. That's how we caught our eel. You really got to know how. Never miss."
Being in the water was as central and basic to their lives as eating and sleeping. Duke's father and uncles taught their progeny to swim, but his mother, too, encouraged her children. "Mother said, 'My boys and girls, go out as far as you want. Never be afraid in the water,'" Sargent Kahanamoku said. "All we did was water, water, water. My family believes we came from the ocean. And that's where we're going back."
There was never much money, not with so many mouths to feed, but the family never went hungry. And, as they grew older and bigger, the kids found ways to bring in extra cash. When ships ferrying tourists, sailors, and merchants arrived in Honolulu, Kahanamoku and his cousins hustled down to the harbor. From the decks high above the water rained money that was thrown overboard by the visitors — nickels, pennies, dimes, and even foreign coins. The kids gulped mouthfuls of air and then dove into the water, plunging deep as they learned to control their breath, the reward commensurate with their efforts. The best divers, according to lore, could tell in a flash which coins were pennies and thus to be ignored, and which shined with precious silver.
The aquatic lifestyle that Duke Kahanamoku and so many Hawaiians enjoyed derives from Hawaii's unique origin. Indeed, one cannot understand Kahanamoku and his times without knowing about Hawaii's history. Hawaii has had, in essence, three distinct births. The first was geological. The islands were formed millions of years ago from eruptions of deep, underwater volcanoes. The lava eventually hardened upon contact with water. Over time, these masses grew large enough to break through the surface, producing a chain of eight major islands (Niihau, Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, Lanai, Maui, Kahoolawe, and the Big Island of Hawaii) as well as numerous atolls, reefs, and shoals that stretch over 1,500 miles.
Then came man. Seafaring Polynesians in double-hulled canoes were the first to arrive, perhaps from Tahiti or the Marquesas, perhaps as early as 400 AD. They discovered an Edenic paradise: glorious weather, a bountiful sea, and no predators. They worshipped their own gods and developed their own rituals and laws — known as the kapu system — that regulated every aspect of daily life, from religious rites to marriage, from preparing meals to land ownership, from sex to surfing.
As the most isolated archipelago in the world — separated by water some 2,500 miles from the West Coast of the United States and about 3,800 miles from Japan — Hawaii existed without outside contact after the Polynesian expeditions ceased around 1200 AD. Scholars believe that Spanish explorers in the sixteenth century were the first to reach Hawaii, but truly significant interaction with foreigners began in January of 1778 with the arrival of Captain James Cook, a British explorer seeking the Northwest Passage. Cook dubbed them "the Sandwich Islands" after his patron, the fourth Earl of Sandwich.
Hawaii's third and most dramatic transformation had begun. Cook's accidental discovery coincided with the rise of Kamehameha, a chief from the island of Hawaii whose relentless military campaign conquered and ultimately united the islands under his rule. King Kamehameha retained many of Hawaii's ancient traditions even as he relied on an influx of foreign advisers to open Hawaii to the outside world. (Cook was not one of those; he was murdered when he returned to Hawaii in 1779.)
Excerpted from Waterman by David Davis. Copyright © 2015 David Davis. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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