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  • Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku by David Davis
  • Ronald Williams Jr., Instructor
Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku. By David Davis. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015. 315 pp. Notes. Bibliography. Illustrated. Index. $26.95 cloth

David Davis, an award-winning sports journalist and contributing writer at Los Angeles Magazine, has written a biography of a man about whom he declares, “Until Barack Obama came along, no one born in Hawaii was more famous or revered” (p. 1). Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, surfing ambassador, Olympic swimming champion, and worldwide symbol of “kanaka” achievement is certainly one of the Hawaiian Islands’ most famous exports. In Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku, Davis takes on the task of examining this iconic [End Page 153] man “in and out of the water.” The 300-page text undoubtedly expands our body of knowledge concerning this seminal figure in Hawaiian history, yet it just as clearly falls short of delivering more than a rudimentary gaze inside the personage of this Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) whom leaders of a burgeoning tourism industry marketed simply as “The Duke.”

A strength of Waterman lies in its international scope. Davis keeps a wide, trans-national lens open to the reader, continually providing global context for events that Kahanamoku, and Hawai‘i more generally, both affected and were shaped by. Clear and concise descriptions of political events such as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand—an event that led to the abandoning of the 1916 Olympic games where Duke had been primed to compete—add important perspective. The author also satisfies his claim of covering areas of Kahanamoku’s life that were given “short shrift” in previous writings: “his stint in Hollywood making motion pictures in the 1920s and his job as the sheriff of Honolulu” (p. 261). Additionally, Davis makes clear his subject’s most apparent characteristics: a passion for the ocean and life in general, and consistent humility in the face of ever-expanding accolades.

It is in the task of accessing and drawing out the deeper, more essential story of this Kanaka Maoli where the roots of the text’s problems are found. Davis’ biography of a figure who, he notes, was born in Hawai‘i when it was an independent nation, and describes as one of the most revered Hawaiians who ever lived, is nearly absent of native voice. In Waterman, the reader comes to know Kahanamoku and the events surrounding him through sources such as the Pacific Commercial Advertiser, an English-language newspaper owned by Lorrin A. Thurston—a central leader of the 1893 coup that ended native rule in the Islands. During Kahanamoku’s life, the issue of race and the politics of nationhood continued to infuse daily interactions in Hawai‘i and accessing native-language resources would seem essential to the task of producing a biographical account of this man.

A brief online search of available Hawaiian-language newspapers turns up nearly four hundred articles mentioning Kahanamoku, none of which are cited or apparently accessed within a text marketed on its dust jacket as “the first comprehensive biography of Duke Kahanamoku.” One of the many significant examples of native voice left behind is a sixty-line, six-stanza mele inoa (honorific name chant) published in Ka Nūpepa Kū‘oko‘a on 18 October 1912 and titled “He Mele No Duke Kahanamoku” (A Chant for Duke Kahanamoku). This mele was one of two published in that day’s native-language press and was composed by “Leinaala, o ka Makani Apaapaa” (Leinaala of the ‘Āpa‘apa‘a wind [a poetic reference to the district of Kohala, Hawai‘i]). Mele inoa, defined by noted cultural expert Mary Kawena Pukui as “a song of praise of our beloved alii [chiefs],” were an ancient form of [End Page 154] poetry that held deep significance for Kanaka Maoli and carried layers of rich narrative about their subjects, the era, and ka lāhui Hawai‘i (the Hawaiian people/nation).

Davis describes the indirect financial support received by Kahanamoku while competing as an amateur athlete, highlighting a post-1912 Olympics project that sought to reward this “waterman without job prospects or...


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