A Hawaiian Childhood
Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku was born on August 24, 1890 in the Kalia District of Honolulu to Duke Halapu and Julia Paakonia Lonokahikini Paoa Kahanamoku. His father, who worked as a police officer, was born during a visit by the Duke of Edinburgh to Hawaii in 1869, and had been given the first name Duke to commemorate the event. When his first-born son arrived, the elder Kahanamoku passed the name along. The Kahanamoku family eventually grew to include six sons and three daughters.
Kahanamoku grew up during one of the most turbulent periods in Hawaii's history, one that brought its people close to extinction. There is no written record of when Polynesian groups settled the islands, but the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1778 is well documented. After shooting some islanders, the British explorer was killed in February 1779—but not before he left an extensive written record of his travels in the South Pacific. European audiences were fascinated by his descriptions of native traditions, particularly the sport of surfing, in which men, women, and even children would sail out into the ocean on long, flat boards, to be carried back to shore by cresting waves.
Cook's misadventure in Hawaii did not dissuade other explorers and missionaries from coming to the islands throughout the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, the effects of their settlements were far from benign on the Hawaiian people. Christian missionaries condemned many native traditions—including surfing—as uncivilized, and attempted to ban such practices. More threateningly, a slew of diseases cut the population of the islands from about 300,000 when Cook visited to just 40,000 in 1893. That year the islands were plunged into upheaval when pineapple grower Sanford Dole used American military forces to overthrow the governing Hawaiian monarchy under Queen Liliuokalani. Dole established a republic on the islands in 1894 and in 1900 all Hawaiians were made United States citizens.
As a son in a fairly privileged family, Kahanamoku's childhood was relatively untouched by the political controversies of the period. From his family's home near Waikiki Beach, he showed a talent for swimming and surfing from an early age. By the time he reached adulthood, Kahanamoku stood at six feet and weighed one-hundred-ninety pounds; his greatest asset in the water, however, was his size-thirteen feet, which he used as a propeller in the water in a flutter kick. Later in his career, the innovation would become known as the "Kahanamoku Kick," a variation of the Australian crawl that he used in freestyle swimming events.
After completing the eleventh grade, Kahanamoku devoted much of his time to a budding career as an athlete. Along with his surfing friends he founded the Hui Nalu Surf Club in 1911. The club often competed against the Outrigger Canoe and Surfboard Club in sailing regattas and the events proved to be a great tourist attraction. Kahanamoku also made headlines during his participation in the first Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) swimming event held in Hawaii, which took place in August 1911. The 100-yard freestyle event was held in between two piers in Honolulu Harbor on a temporary course set up just for the event. Consequently, when Kahanamoku won the race with a time of 55.4 seconds—the current record then stood at 60 seconds—AAU officials remeasured the course four times before declaring Kahanamoku the winner. In the 50-yard freestyle, Kahanamoku tied the world record of 24.2 seconds. The national AAU office refused to recognize his achievements, claiming that the course's irregularities must have helped Kahanamoku set the records.