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  • Empire in Waves: A Political History of Surfing by Scott Laderman
  • Ed Jaggard
Laderman, Scott. Empire in Waves: A Political History of Surfing. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014. Pp. xii+ 238. Notes, index, and illustrations. $26.95 pb.

In April 1985, surfing’s reigning world champion, Tom Carroll (an Australian), announced that he would not compete in upcoming events in South Africa. The decision was both political and personal, resulting from Carroll’s growing concern about that country’s apartheid policies. Almost immediately afterward, he was joined in his opposition by several other prominent surfers, one of whom, Martin Potter, had grown up in South Africa. However, Ian Cairns, executive director of the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) that organized surfing’s worldwide professional tour, announced in response to Carroll, “We [the ASP] don’t have a political position” (121). Carroll’s stand attracted great publicity and was applauded by the Australian government. On the other hand, the ASP’s viewpoint reflected the opinions (if they had any) of the majority of professional and everyday surfers.

In the surfing world, Carroll’s stand was an epiphany of sorts. For decades beforehand, surfers had deluded themselves into believing that somehow they were above and beyond the world of politics, that what they sought and enjoyed (uncrowded, perfectly shaped swells) was pure, hedonistic, and freedom-seeking. Yet this was far from being so, for, beginning with surfing’s early twentieth-century Hawaiian revival, it was entangled in U.S. empire building in the Pacific, much of this arising from the nationalistic enthusiasms of Alexander Hume Ford. This, then, is the purpose of Scott Laderman’s book: to reveal how surfing’s global expansion in the past hundred years has occurred within well-defined political contexts, a reality denied by surfers in general.

Within an overlapping chronological framework, Laderman constructs his argument from five evidential focal points, including the initial Americanization of Hawaiian surfing post–1900 as part of the United States’s extension of power in the Pacific, and, after World War II, the appearance of surfing nomadism, combined with Cold War cultural diplomacy as surfers began to explore the wider world. Inspiring them in this was Bruce Brown’s 1966 documentary, The Endless Summer, an “artful chronicle of two surfers chasing the summer, with its warm water and consistent waves, from California to Africa and points between,” including Hawaii, Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, Senegal, and Ghana (48–49). Decades of surfing exploration followed, yet “For globally wandering surfers to consider the political realities of the places they visited was to risk polluting the transcendence of the wave-riding experience” (64).

One outcome of this was surfers’ nonreaction to the “discovery” of a surfing paradise, the Indonesian archipelago, and Bali in particular. Entranced by the sybaritic world in which they found themselves, they seemed unaware of the ways in which many of them were being exploited for tourism expansion by General Suharto’s repressive government or the atrocities of the mid-1960s and the genocidal killings in East Timor in 1975. Indeed, by their ever-growing presence, surfers seemed to be condoning the regime’s brutality. Nor by the 1980s and ‘90s, when they were complaining about overcrowded breaks and the [End Page 261] construction of Western-style resorts alongside once idyllic villages, did surfers acknowledge that this was the inevitable result of their own “discoveries.” Americans and Australians, in particular, almost ruined the paradise they had found.

South Africa—popularized among surfers by Bob Brown’s classic film—presented different issues, in particular, the deplorable racism embodied in the country’s apartheid laws. Remarkably, most surfers were blind to the overt injustices. In the aftermath of the British Commonwealth’s Gleneagles Agreement discouraging sportsmen and women from competing in South Africa, Phil Jarratt, the Australian editor of the influential surfing magazine Tracks, argued convincingly that the country should be dropped from the professional and amateur circuits (113). Feigning ignorance, and seemingly prepared to do no more than shrug their shoulders at the situation, including the blatantly racist treatment of several of the world’s leading nonwhite surfers, almost all in the surfing world, and the ASP, in particular...


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pp. 261-262
Launched on MUSE
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