The first descriptions of Hawaiian surfing were written by David Samwell, surgeon of HMS Discovery, and James King, second lieutenant of HMS Resolution, in the months bracketing Captain James Cook’s death at Kealakekua Bay on 14 February 1779. In his journal entry for 22 January, Samwell described Hawaiians surfing six- to seven-foot “alaias” on the “great swell rolling into the Bay,” and in March 1779, King recorded his version of the same event, but neither text was published until 1967. In 1784, King published a significantly revised and expanded version of the scene in the third volume of the official history, A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean. This skewed chronology has led to some disorientation among historians of surfing, while historians of Cook’s voyages, for the most part, have neglected the surfing episodes altogether. In this essay, I address the descriptions in four interrelated contexts: (1) the history of the texts themselves; (2) their importance to the history of surfing; (3) the significance of the swell occurring during the Makahiki festival; and (4) the emotional and metaphorical impact of the scene on Western observers/writers schooled in the politics of the sublime. In the final two contexts, I suggest the metaphorical and material relationship of the scenes to King’s famous description of Cook’s death in A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean and to Samwell’s equally famous response in A Narrative of the Death of Captain Cook (1786).

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