A very wonderfull scene

Longhouse and Canoes in Tahiti, 1969
British Library

In 1768, British botanist Joseph Banks was one of nearly a hundred crew members to join Captain James Cook on the first of three historic voyages of exploration. For three years they journeyed, visiting South America, Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia and Java as they circumnavigated the globe aboard HMS Endeavour, and each day Banks made note of the diverse flora and fauna of these exotic lands. But it was in May of 1769, while in Tahiti, that they spotted something else entirely, and in Banks’ journal he recorded the “wonderful” sight. It is believed to be the first Western report of people surfing.

The Diary Entry

29 May 1769

In our return to the boat we saw the Indians amuse or excersise themselves in a manner truly surprizing. It was in a place where the shore was not guarded by a reef as is usualy the case, consequently a high surf fell upon the shore, a more deadfull one I have not often seen: no European boat could have landed in it and I think no Europaean who had by any means got into it could possibly have saved his life, as the shore was coverd with pebbles and large stones. In the midst of these breakers 10 or 12 Indians were swimming who whenever a surf broke near them divd under it with infinite ease, rising up on the other side; but their cheif amusement was carried on by the stern of an old canoe, with this before them they swam out as far as the outermost breach, then one or two would get into it and opposing the blunt end to the breaking wave were hurried in with incredible swiftness. Sometimes they were carried almost ashore but generaly the wave broke over them before they were half way, in which case they divd and quickly rose on the other side with the canoe in their hands, which was towd out again and the same method repeated. We stood admiring this very wonderfull scene for full half an hour, in which time no one of the actors atempted to come ashore but all seemd most highly entertaind with their strange diversion.

Further Reading

Joseph Banks’ Endeavour Journal can be read in full in a few places online. The easiest to navigate (no pun intended) is probably Wikisource.

You can (virtually) flick through one of Banks’ journals on the website of the State Library of New South Wales, though that particular volume begins a few months after this entry. And be warned: the website is often slow.

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