Duke's Ulcers: How Surfing's Most Popular Icon Dealt with White Supremacy


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Updated 521d ago

By Steve Hawk

On January 22, 1968, Duke Kahanamoku was crossing the parking lot of the Waikiki Yacht Club, rummaging for the keys to his Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, when his big heart finally gave out. He was 77. The Rolls had been a recent acquisition—a gift, actually—and a punctuating symbol of considerable irony for a man who, despite his fame, had spent most of his life poor. It might have been the last thing he saw before he died.

The passing of Hawaii’s beloved son stunned the world, particularly the surf world, but locals had seen it coming. Kahanamoku had been dealing with a range of ailments for years, and Oahu newspapers, as recounted by Joe Brennan in his 1994 book Duke [1] had covered his extended hospital stays in gratuitous detail.

© 2022 - Tom Blake/Croul Family Collection/SHACC

“Duke Is Critical After Brain Surgery,” read a May 22, 1962, headline in the Honolulu Advertiser after he got smacked in the head by a boom while sailing. Three weeks later, the hospital held a press conference to announce his recovery.

“Duke wore a blue robe over red Bermuda shorts,” the Advertiser reported. “On his feet, he wore white socks, chopped off at the toes. ‘The socks keep his feet warm,’ his wife explained. ‘But he likes to wiggle his toes.’”

The article alluded to another illness that hit Duke hard in his final years: “As for the recurrence of gastric ulcer symptoms earlier this week, the doctor said, ‘It is still a problem.’”

© 2022 - Bain News Service photograph collection

The doctor was right. Four years later (two before he died), Kahanamoku underwent surgery for bleeding ulcers. The surgical team gave him four transfusions and removed almost half of his stomach. Again, he stayed in the hospital for weeks. “It was touch-and-go the first few days and nights,” Brennan writes. “But he fooled those friends who were afraid that his years had finally caught up with him.”

Two decades after Kahanamoku’s ashes were scattered at Waikiki, his widow gave an interview in which she talked about his stomach problems. “He suppressed everything; he kept everything inside,” Nadine Kahanamoku said: “It gave him a stomach ulcer and, unfortunately, it was a bleeding ulcer…. So we were always going to get transfusions for Duke. He would start bleeding, eliminating blood, and we’d have to go down to Kaiser Hospital.”

Google “Kelly Slater,” and you’ll get nearly 1 million hits. Google “Duke Kahanamoku,” the most influential surfer of all time, and you’ll get about half of that. When it comes to sparking scholarly study, however, Duke leaves Kelly in his wake. Three book-length examinations of the Hawaiian’s life have appeared in the last 10 years, and they’re just the latest additions to a 100-year-old library of newspaper headlines, collegiate papers, authorised biographies, quick-buck primers and blind-eye tributes—along with a much-pawed archive of letters and articles penned by Duke himself.

And yet…and yet, still, somehow something’s missing. Something big. For all that’s been written (and lauded and lamented) about Duke Paoa Kahanamoku over the past century, the man has never been fully illumined.

© 2022 - American National Red Cross photograph collection/Library of Congress

This opacity is probably more Duke’s doing than it is a failure of research. He rarely talked in public, especially about himself. And although he served as the face of Hawaii through decades of cultural and political upheaval, he remained conspicuously mum about the controversies erupting around him. Nor did he ever speak out against the systemic racism that humiliated him time and again, and that kept him from cashing in on his fame.

Watch any video clip in which Kahanamoku talks on camera (there are only a handful, unfortunately[2] and you’re bound to fall in love. As a surfer, you wish you’d had a chance to sit beside him, take his hand, and thank him for, well…shit…everything. He was, by all accounts, a gentle, statuesque, impeccably mannered man. He embraced and embodied his ancestry’s sacred concept of aloha and was thus perfectly suited to serve as Hawaii’s international ambassador. He was one of those men who walked through the world determined not to insult anyone, ever.

And so it is left to others to do the insulting for him, and the more you learn, the more you want to rage on his behalf.

He was born in 1890, with lineage to King Kamehameha and local chiefs. At the time of his birth, Hawaii’s native population had fallen from as many as 800,000 a century earlier down to about 40,000, due to infections introduced by Western explorers and missionaries. While Duke was still a toddler, a cadre of wealthy white conspirators ousted Hawaii’s last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, using a bogus threat of American military intervention.

© 2022 - Bain News Service photograph collection

The rich haoles called themselves the Committee of Safety. Determined to avoid bloodshed and caving to their bluff, the queen peacefully abdicated, and that was that. From then until now and beyond, the island nation would be an American holding.

Although few surfers know the details of that imperialist takeover, many can recite the highlights of Kahanamoku’s life. How he took to the water like a fish. How he helped establish the Waikiki beachboy scene and save the sport of surfing from the Christians who tried to kill it. How, at age 20, he crushed the world record for 100 yards in his first sanctioned swim meet.

How, less than a year later, he sailed to Stockholm for the 1912 Olympics, won gold and silver medals, and became one of America’s first dark-skinned sports celebrities. How he possessed the physique of a god and romanced a string of visiting wahines. How he single-handedly rescued eight fishermen whose boat had capsized during a huge swell at Corona del Mar. How he spread the surf gospel to places like California, the East Coast, Australia[3] and New Zealand.

After his first Olympics (he would medal again in 1920 and 1924), Kahanamoku returned home to a hero’s welcome and a lower-class existence, even as Hawaii’s ruling elite unabashedly exploited his image and heritage for their own gain. “During Kahanamoku’s era,” James Nendel writes early in his impressively researched 2006 master’s thesis[4], “Hawaiian traditions, banned under the puritanical influence of nineteenth-century missionaries, were rediscovered and used as marketing tools to advertise a new Hawaiian culture…. Kahanamoku was instrumental in all of these developments, whether by intention or by default.”

One of Nendel’s more interesting detours (also explored by David Davis in his book Waterman[5]), is a high-profile, depression-era rape-and-murder story that threatened to stain Hawaii’s image as an idyllic getaway, and to which Kahanamoku was tangentially—but tellingly—connected.

In September 1931, Thalia Massie, the white wife of a U.S. Navy officer stationed on Oahu, falsely claimed that she’d been gang-raped by five dark-skinned local boys. The woman’s story was full of holes, the defendants had strong alibis, and the trial ended in a deadlocked jury. While the accused men were out of jail awaiting a second trial, Thalia’s mother and husband, joined by two enlisted men, kidnapped and murdered one of the wrongly accused men, a Hawaiian. Caught red-handed, the co-ed killers were arrested and made to stand trial.

That’s when the shit storm hit. The story had been followed closely—and with unrelenting white-supremacist prejudice—by Mainland periodicals, and the reaction to the killers’ arrest was hysterical: How dare this American territory punish white folks for a so-called “honour killing.”

Hawaii’s image as a tourist’s dreamland, Nendel writes, was suddenly in danger of shifting from a tropical utopia “to a land where it ‘is unsafe for white woman’ due to ‘savage, even fiendish’ criminal attacks of ‘natives.’” One magazine, Davis notes, ran a photo of Duke riding a wave with a white woman on his shoulders, under the headline “A Paradise Gone Mad.” The local U.S. naval commandant even threatened to declare martial law.

The accused killers hired attorney Clarence Darrow, who five years earlier had been the star litigator in the historic Scopes “Monkey” Trial, in which he’d argued in favour of allowing the science of evolution to be taught in schools. He was at the time the most famous private lawyer in America.

Enter Duke. Shortly after Darrow arrived in Hawaii, the attorney arranged to have a publicised encounter with Hawaii’s legendary beachboy at Waikiki. With reporters watching and cameras flashing, Kahanamoku took Darrow for an outrigger joyride. “The publicity,” Davis writes, “was a major coup for Darrow, who had managed to co-opt Duke’s aloha spirit for his own beleaguered cause.”

The brothers Kahanamoku in Waikiki, circa 1910.

The brothers Kahanamoku in Waikiki, circa 1910.

Think about that for a minute. Think about the conflicting impulses that must have tugged at Kahanamoku’s gut when he got summoned to the beach to meet Darrow. On the one hand, Duke was committed to welcoming all visitors with kindness and good manners. (Later in life, he would hand out business cards that read, “ALOHA is the key word to the universal spirit of real hospitality which made Hawaii renowned as the world’s centre of understanding and fellowship…. I believe it, and it is my creed.”)

On the other hand, here, climbing into his canoe, was a pasty old haole come to defend a clan that personified one of Jim Crow America’s ugliest truths—that it was OK, even commendable, for vigilantes to lynch a dark-skinned man simply suspected of attacking a white woman.

Such episodes of cognitive dissonance predate Kahanamoku’s fame as a swimmer (they actually go back to his father[6] and recur all the way to his death.[7])
In 1911, for instance, The Mid-Pacific magazine’s maiden issue ran a cover shot of a smiling young Duke riding a wave. The accompanying article, “Riding the Surfboard,” carried his byline, even though it’s clear in retrospect that Alexander Hume Ford, the magazine’s founder and surfing’s leading proselytizer at the time, wrote it.

Near the end of the article, Ford had the audacity to put these words in Duke’s mouth: “When it had been fairly demonstrated that the white man could learn all the secrets of the surfboard acquired by the Hawaiian-born, the beach at Waikiki took on a new aspect… Hundreds learned to ride the surfboard, and feats were accomplished by the haole never dreamed of by the kanakas [native Hawaiians].”

It was as if the editors of Surfer magazine circa 1975 had slapped Eddie Aikau’s byline on a piece thanking the Bronzed Aussies for showing the local boys how to charge Pipe. Duke never revealed if he’d approved Ford’s story before it ran, but he never publicly disowned it, either.

New York City, 1912. Duke marches through the streets with fellow Olympians on their way to Stockholm, where Duke would win gold.

New York City, 1912. Duke marches through the streets with fellow Olympians on their way to Stockholm, where Duke would win gold.

© 2022 - Bain News Service photograph collection

More dissonance: When Kahanamoku returned to Hawaii after the 1912 Games in Stockholm, he wanted to maintain his amateur status so he could compete in future Olympics. Seeing the long-term promotional benefit of keeping their star athlete in the public eye, Honolulu’s power brokers backed his plan and arranged to buy a house for him near Waikiki. Leading the effort were W.R. Castle and Henry Waterhouse, both members of the notorious Committee of Safety—the group that, two decades earlier, had ousted Duke’s queen. The same faction also landed him a low-paying job as “superintendent” at City Hall, a gig that amounted to sweeping floors and mowing lawns.

Even his seemingly glamorous move to Hollywood—where he was lured by a promise to play King Kamehameha in a film that never got made—turned into a series of psycho-spiritual beat-downs. This was in the 1920s, before dark-skinned actors were given leading roles, so Duke found himself cast in a series of minor “ethnic” characters. His Internet Movie Database entry is almost laughable. The list of characters he played includes “Native Chief” in Mister Roberts, “Ua Nuke” in Wake of the Red Witch, and “Kalita” in Girl of the Port [8].

Kahanamoku’s lifelong internal dichotomy—periodic perks of fame vs. ongoing exploitation by Hawaii’s haole elite—is the dramatic engine that drives the most interesting analyses of his life, and each of the four major works here pushes down on that pedal now and then. But they also keep a cautious foot near the brake—for fear, it seems, of coloring Hawaii’s great icon as a sort of Uncle Tom or, more euphemistically, an “accommodationist.”

Late in his book, Davis dismisses such insulting labels when discussing the rise of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement in the decade after Duke’s death: The image of Kahanamoku as an accommodationist was now perceived as a liability, especially in an era when more overtly confrontational athletes were challenging the establishment: boxing champ Muhammad Ali, who refused to fight in Vietnam; track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised their fists in solidarity with the Civil Rights Movement at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics…

But it is also true that his essence, his Hawaiian-ness, was never usurped. He was no minstrel puppet; he was his own man who quietly displayed a subversive side. As the first Hawaiian to compete in the Olympics and as the first Pacific Islander to win athletic glory in the modern era, he redefined what it meant to be an American.

Davis takes this defence a step too far. Quietly or otherwise, Duke was almost always more accommodating than subversive, and he definitely allowed many people to pull his strings. But Davis is right in claiming that Kahanamoku never let outside forces smother the best parts of his heritage. In the deepest nooks of his soul and to almost everyone he ever met, he remained a man of pure heart, of true aloha.

But boy did he swallow a lot of shit in his 77 years.

Perhaps my favourite Duke Kahanamoku story, one that hints at the complexity of his innermost thoughts, isn’t in any of the books or college papers written about him. I heard it years ago from Greg Noll, the big-wave legend who’d traveled with Kahanamoku in the 1960s to promote a signature-model board that Noll was building on Duke’s behalf.

In Noll’s telling, he was sitting beside Duke at some event that had been arranged in the ageing Hawaiian’s honour. The organisers had promised Kahanamoku that he wouldn’t have to make a speech—a prospect that always made him uncomfortable. But at some point, the emcee pointed to Kahanamoku and implored him to climb onstage and say a few words. Ever polite, Duke obliged. As he pushed back his chair from the table, he leaned toward Noll and whispered, “Fucking haoles.”

Left: Obie J Rod, between him and Pop Proctor is Gordon Feeeman. On the far right side leaning on his elbow is Joe Droege

Left: Obie J Rod, between him and Pop Proctor is Gordon Feeeman. On the far right side leaning on his elbow is Joe Droege

© 2022 - Fritz/SHACC

I’ve been telling this story for years, always delivering the final line in the way that I imagined, even hoped, that Duke delivered it: with seething inflection. I envisioned it as a sort of catharsis for him. And I originally intended to end this article with that two-word quote. I saw it as my way of raging on Duke’s behalf—a cynical, perfectly succinct condemnation of centuries of colonial atrocities.

But then I showed an early draft to a friend who insisted that I had it wrong, that Duke would have said it in a much lighter tone, almost as a joke. My friend had lived in Hawaii for 20 years, married a local woman, and spent most of his time there learning the ways of the culture. He’s heard a lot of Hawaiians mutter that very phrase, he said, but always quietly, with more resignation than rancour: “When he says ‘fucking haole,’ he’s just saying, ‘typical,’ or ‘there they go again.’”

The most significant aspect of the story, my friend insisted, was not what Duke said but to whom he said it. Noll also lived in the islands for years and built deep and abiding friendships with many Hawaiians, most notably Buffalo Keaulana and his extended Makaha family. Whispering that slur was Duke’s subtle way of letting the Californian know that he regarded him as a bruddah.

So I called Noll to ask if he could offer any more details about the encounter. He said he couldn’t remember where or when it happened, or what kind of tone Duke used. Then, without prompting, Noll said this: “If they say ‘fucking haole’ to you, it’s almost a compliment. It means they don’t consider you a haole.”
In other words, my friend was right: I’d missed the point. Because even when moved to voice the core complaint of his people, Duke Kahanamoku also managed to embrace a young surfer from the land of their undoing.

Mike Hynson and Duke Kahanamoku.

Mike Hynson and Duke Kahanamoku.

© 2022 - Metz/SHACC

This story originally appeared on Surfline.

[1] For about a year before his death, Kahanamoku spent untold hours spilling his life story to Brennan, a local magazine writer who served as Duke’s “official” biographer. Brennan repurposed the material into four books, published between 1968 and 1994. The books are repetitive, factually unreliable and sticky with fanboy hyperbole, but the last one (cited here) is worth reading because Brennan caught Duke at a time when he was reminiscing through a melancholy filter, and he told Brennan a lot of stuff that he never told anyone else. And the little bit of actual journalism Brennan performs—most notably, finding and exchanging letters with a woman from Duke’s youth who might have been a long-lost love—suggests that Hawaii’s most public figure kept intriguing secrets.

[2] If you haven’t seen Duke’s 1957 appearance on the schmaltzy celebrity-ambush show “This Is Your Life,” go watch it now on YouTube. Every surfer should watch it. The episode’s a tearjerker for reasons the producers never could have imagined. Kahanamoku’s discomfort at unexpectedly finding himself before a studio audience and on live TV is palpable, but as his brothers and sisters and several old friends join him onstage you can see beneath his embarrassment a pure and profound joy. Above all, though, you see his humility, grace, and eagerness to please. But still, there’s something sad at the center of it all—like he doesn’t want to be there but also doesn’t want to disappoint. And, as always, the overseers use him to sell something: As the show ends, the host awkwardly reads from cue cards as he rewards the Kahanamokus with parting gifts, including a “magnificent Magnavox high-fidelity custom radio phonograph and matching speakers—the finest instrument of its kind because it’s a Magnavox.”

[3] That Summer at Boomerang, by the accomplished Australian surf journalist Phil Jarratt, deserves praise for revealing many little-known details about the 1912 Stockholm Olympics and Kahanamoku’s subsequent trips to Australia. But the book is a strange mix of fastidious reporting and wholesale fabrication. At times, Jarratt is too committed to sharing verifiable history, such as when he reprints the entire menu, from soup to sweets, of a dinner that Duke attended in Sydney in 1915. In other places, Jarratt risks criticism by fictionalizing scenes—complete with dialogue and physical interactions. A few of Jarratt’s “imagined conversations,” as he calls them, provocatively suggest that 24-year-old Duke had an unrequited but lustful relationship with his local 15-year-old wave-riding partner, Isabel Letham: “As they turned a corner and began climbing the hill to Freshwater, the sway of the car forced her into his shoulder, his chin in her hair.”

[4] Although Nendel is a much better historian than he is a wordsmith or storyteller, his groundbreaking 473-page dissertation (easily found online) deftly inspects Kahanamoku’s triumphs and struggles through the lens of Hawaii’s maddening history. It’s an essential manuscript for anyone with serious interest in Duke’s story—despite occasional leaps down the academic rabbit hole with sentences like this: “In this manner, Hawaiian local identity represents a Gramscian style of cultural hegemony.” No doubt, Nendel’s thesis helped steer the research of the other two big recent books about Duke: Davis’s Waterman and Jarratt’s That Summer at Boomerang. Jarratt, in crediting his sources, rightly calls Nendel’s work “definitive” and “worthy of much wider distribution.”

[5] Released in 2015, Davis’s Waterman is the latest addition to the Kahanamoku archive. Although it treads much of the same thematic terrain that Nendel surveyed a decade earlier, it’s meticulously researched, smartly structured, and by far the best pick if you’re going to read a single volume about Duke’s life. Davis unearths many telling tidbits, and he might be the first Kahanamoku scholar bold enough to suggest that the legend’s late-life marriage to Nadine was not all canoe rides and plumeria blossoms.

[6] Duke Senior traveled to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, only months after Queen Liliuokalani was overthrown, to perform in an exhibit designed to promote Hawaii as a travel destination. “As part of the attraction, a kahuna or Hawaiian priest chanted to Pele, the goddess of fire, and a native octet sang kanaka melodies,” reads a history of the fair. The man who organised the exhibit and gathered the talent was Lorrin A. Thurston, whom historians widely regard as the leader of the illegal coup that felled the Hawaiian monarchy. Arrogant, racist and verbose, Thurston would go on to run the newspaper that became the Honolulu Advertiser, and he and Duke would cross paths many times over the years. In the long parade of evildoers responsible for the haole takeover of Hawaii, he’s pretty much the biggest asshole.

[7] Kahanamoku’s tendency, as his widow Nadine put it, to keep “everything inside” probably wasn’t the initial source of his stomach problems (medical researchers have since dismissed stress as a trigger for ulcers), but it almost certainly aggravated them.

[8] Davis told me that he went to great lengths to find and watch Girl of the Port. His artful critique of Duke’s performance suggests that the Hawaiian was drawing from experience as the cameras rolled. Here’s an excerpt from Waterman in which he describes Duke’s primary scene:

In the film, Kahanamoku plays Kalita, a villager, and sports a Don King-like Afro while clad in a sarong. The action opens during a monsoon as Kalita escorts the heroine (Sally O’Neil) into a rough-and-tumble saloon. After the two exchange pleasantries and Kalita turns to leave the bar, the villainous McEwen (Mitchell Lewis) confronts him.

McEwen: “Hey, you, Kalita.”
Kalita: “Yes, boss.”
McEwen: “When a black baboon like you carries bags for a white woman, he does it for money and nothing but, sabe?”
Kalita: “Yes, boss.”
McEwen: “Well, there’s your money. [Throws coin to the ground.] Now pick that up before I skin the hide off you.”
Kalita: “Yes, boss.”
Kalita bends to retrieve the coin, walks outside, and, as the rain lashes his face, throws down the coin in disgust. Three statements of “Yes, boss.” The first was delivered with a hopeful, can’t-we-just-get-along note; the second with a resigned, almost lifeless tone; and the third, accompanied by a close-up of Duke’s steely gaze, is an eloquent study in anguish.

Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku, by David Davis University of Nebraska Press, 2015

That Summer at Boomerang: From the Waves at Waikiki to the Sand Dunes of Freshwater, the True Story of Duke Kahanamoku in Australia, by Phil Jarratt, Hardie Grant Books, 2014

Duke Kahanamoku—Twentieth-Century Hawaiian Monarch: The Values and Contributions to Hawaiian Culture from Hawaii’s Sporting Legend, Master’s thesis by James D. Nendel, Pennsylvania State University, 2006.

Duke: The Life Story of Duke Kahanamoku, by Joseph L. Brennan, Ku Pa’a Publishing, 1994

Riding the Surfboard, by Duke Paoa [Kahanamoku], The Mid-Pacific Magazine, January 1911