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William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life

Published on June 1st, 2017 at 03:09 am

By Margaret Boelter

When Europeans first moved to the Americas, they brought famine, disease and new
culture. As they expanded across American soils, many indigenous cultures were forced from
their territory and were subject to forced Christianization, enslavement, and other forms of
inhumane treatment. In Hawaii particularly, white colonists marginalized Hawaiian culture.
Captain James Cook landed in Hawaii in 1778 as the first European to “discover” the islands. He
was notoriously cruel and treated natives unjustly by pillaging and raping their land and peoples.
Years later, in 1893, white American businessmen overthrew the sitting monarch of Hawaii
Queen Lili’uokalani. Native people strongly opposed annexation efforts but were gradually
silenced by laws preventing their right to vote against American statehood. Despite this strong
local resistance, the interests of white agricultural businessmen, coupled with the need for a
Pacific stronghold in the Spanish-American War, caused congress to turn Hawaii into an
American state through a joint resolution in 1898 (Schamel). America began to transform Hawaii
into something far different than the original indigenous culture. Surfing was just one aspect of
Hawaiian culture that was first shunned then adopted and transformed by Westerners. In
Barbarian Days, William Finnegan describes how surfing had great cultural importance in
Hawaii and how missionaries drastically changed the local way of life:

In old Hawaii, before the arrival of Europeans, surfing had religious importance. This
was not what the Calvinist missionaries, who began arriving in Hawaii in 1820, had
in mind for the islander’s way of life. Hiram Bingham, who led the first missionary
party and found itself in a crowd of surfers before it even landed, wrote that ‘the
appearance of destitution, degradation, and barbarism, among the chattering, and
almost naked savages, whose heads and feet, and much of their sunburnt swarthy
skins, were bare, was appalling. Some of our number, with gushing tears, turned away
from the spectacle.’ Twenty seven years later, Bingham wrote, ‘The decline and
discontinuance of the surfboard, as civilization advances, may be accounted for by the
increase in modesty, industry or religion’ (Finnegan 27).

Here Finnegan shows how Hawaiian culture was marginalized from the moment of
European interference. Viewed as savages and unrefined, rather than just different, Europeans
destroyed indigenous individuality by forcing Hawaiians to work on fields, convert to
Christianity and give up their land for the white’s benefit.

Similarly, Laderman, a professor at University of Minnesota, shows how surfing in
Hawaii was affected by American imperialism in the Pacific Islands. He argues that the
missionary influence caused a dramatic decline in surfers. Nathaniel B. Emerson, the president of
the Hawaiian Mission Children’s Society, praises his own work in uplifting the ‘inferior’ race.
The author continues with a somewhat sarcastic tone while he depicts what Emerson thought of
the decline in surfing and the missionaries’ role in it:

How shamefully misguided, therefore, that certain critics had
seen fit to blame the missionaries for the decline of surfing and other sports,
Emerson continued. He, for one, would have none of it. His predecessors
“exercised no direct or appreciable influence’ in ‘the death and retirement of
Hawaii’s ancient sports and games’ (Laderman 9).

Clearly the missionaries strongly affected surfing and other parts of Hawaiian culture by
christianizing natives and putting natives to work involuntarily. Years later there were finally
people who recognized this injustice. Finnegan is known for his activism (or at least journalism)
in post-colonial social justice and makes it a recurring point in Barbarian Days.

William Finnegan is best known for his work as a journalist and works as a writer for the
New Yorker. He was born in New York City but was raised in Los Angeles, California and
Hawaii where he developed a passion for surfing. He received his BA in Literature from
University of California at Santa Cruz in 1974 and received an MFA in creative writing from the
University of Montana. Through his life he spent many years abroad and went on a type of
journey of self discovery where he pursued surfing. After teaching at a “colored” segregated
school in South Africa he rekindled his political justice interest (he had been a protester of the
Vietnam war in school) and began to take an interest in journalism. In 2015 he published
Barbarian Days : A Surfing Life which won the 2016 Pulitzer prize for biography or

The book starts in Honolulu where he begins to surf at a local beach. He attends a large,
unfriendly public school. Race clashes between haole whites and non-white mokes were
frequent. Finnegan comments on the fading but still palpable segregation that existed in Hawaii
via housing bans and segregated classes. Later he returns to California to attend high school and
learns local spots including Malibu First Point and C-Street. When he finally returns to Hawaii
he brings with his first serious girlfriend and scrapes by on low-earning jobs during the day and
surfing in his free time. After hitting rock bottom he departs to travel to Asia, Australia and
Africa in search of the “perfect wave.” Along the way Finnegan runs into cultural clashes
between western and indigenous/local culture, rampant urbanization, and guilt of his white

Finnegan meets an eager local in Samoa named Tia who brings him to a beach to show
him waves. There turns out to be no surfable waves at the beach but Tia still explains the
significance of each feature of the landscape and the history and story of each aspect in their

Every rock on the coast seemed to have a place in sacred literature. Then Tia said,
‘You come back in three years , this beach be really nice place, because I got moneys
in the New Zealand bank, so I buy some dynamites and make it nice (Finnegan 169).

In this instance the narrator faces one of the biggest issues with postcolonial globalism.
Tia is chasing a short term reward of building up his hometown without considering the long
term effects. With the beach destroyed by the dynamite he plans to buy, the sacredness of the
beach would vanish. The greed of the first-world consumer drives people like Tia to destroy the
environment to create monotonous resorts catered to first-world consumers. Is development of a
pristine coast bad even with compensation to its needy owners? Finegan thinks maybe so. The
narrator seems put off by this cheerful promise of “improvement”; he would prefer to enjoy the
coast in its most natural state. Thus the paradox is created. Islanders want to develop land to
draw tourists but ultimately drive away tourists like Finnegan because of the development.

Later in the book Finnegan finds a beautiful wave off the coast of a Fiji island. The
people living there don’t surf but have a good quality of life because of their proximity to family
and freedom to roam the island, even without being affluent. Those islanders eventually decide
to develop the land and build a road that would disrupt the coastline and allegedly bring more
wealth to the island. In the process, the narrator’s perfect wave is destroyed and in the long term,
the villagers become more isolated and unhappy. All of this occurred, again, because of the greed
of wealthy countries who drive poorer countries to exploit their environment.

Christian Palmer examines the capitalization of Hawaiian culture in a paper called The
Brazilian Hawaii: Surf Culture, Tourism, and the Construction of Place:

Mahalo and Hang Loose, two of the largest surf wear companies from Northeastern
Brazil reference Hawaii. Beyond these commercial references, Brazilian surf
magazines and surfers also regularly use Hawaiian words like aloha, mahalo, and
haole (Palmer 2).

Surfing was shunned historically, perhaps because of racism. Then it was claimed by westerners
in California, Australia and across the globe. First westerners destroyed and marginalized
Hawaiian culture then branded, copyrighted and profited off of it. The association of products
with surfing has become a key marketing ploy.

Overall, William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life shows how post-colonialism
affects surfing and Hawaiian culture. Think about it; had the early missionaries succeeded in
wiping out indigenous Hawaiian practices, surfing might not exist today. It is important to
protect the diverse cultures that still exist before they disappear in a modernizing society.

Works Cited

Finnegan, William. Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. New York, NY: Penguin, 2016. Print.
Laderman, Scott. “How Surfing Became American the Imperial Roots of Modern Surf Culture.”
Empire in Waves: A Political History of Surfing. N.p.: California Scholarship Online,
2014. N. pag. University Press Scholarship Online. Web. 6 Apr. 2017.
Palmer, Christian. “The Brazilian Hawaii: Surf Culture, Tourism, and the Construction of Place.”
Global Ethnographic 4 (2017): n. pag. Global Ethnographic Journal for Ethnographic
Research. Web. 6 Apr. 2017.
Schamel, Wynell and Charles E. Schamel. “The 1897 Petition Against the Annexation of
Hawaii.” Social Education 63, 7 (November/December 1999): 402-408.