As a Hawaiian, Kahanamoku was heir to a lineage of Polynesians. Historians believe this seafaring folk began moving from the area around New Guinea, in the Pacific Ocean, around 1500 B.C., eventually reaching what we know now as Hawaii about 800 years ago.
In the centuries that followed, Hawaii absorbed successive waves of new peoples, becoming a complex mix of Pacific Islanders, Asians, Americans, and Europeans. Exposure to the mainland United States would also change the islands (see “Hawaii and the U.S.,” below). Still, Hawaii was distant enough from any other place—2,400 miles from California—that it developed its own distinctive culture.
Part of that was surfing, traditionally known as he‘e nalu, or wave sliding. For centuries, it was a way of life for chiefs and commoners, men and women. But by the time Kahanamoku was born in 1890, few people were still surfing. The youngster from Honolulu, on the island of Oahu, was part of a new generation that rediscovered it.
Growing up on Waikiki Beach, Kahanamoku was a natural. At 6'1" and strong, with big feet and hands, he moved through the water with speed and power. It was this ability that would make him famous, first as a swimmer, then as a surfer.