`The Sense of Victorious Struggle': The Eugenic Dynamic in Australian Popular Surf-Culture, 1900-50

Article excerpt

During the early years of the twentieth century Australian urban dwellers, particularly those in Sydney discovered the surf as a form of recreation, and there was a distinct appreciation of the eugenic qualities of this activity. Apart from the perceived vitality-giving attributes of surfing, there was a suggestion that indeed urban Australians had something of the challenge of the frontier at their very doorstep, and as had often been commented then and later, it was the pastoral frontier that had been responsible for the special eugenic qualities of the white Australian `type'. The editor of the Fairfax weekly, the Sydney Mail, summed up the life-giving forces of surfing this way:

   The joy of life and the pleasure of healthful living, the stress of combat
   with the curling breakers, and the sense of victorious struggle, the
   flashing sunlight, the bright gleam of white sand and foaming water, and
   the exultant feeling of physical energy actively exerted in the open air
   vibrate through this summer seaside ... Surf-bathing and breaker-shooting,
   and all the delightful experiences attendant on holiday life along these
   white ocean beaches of ours, at Manly, Bondi, Coogee, Long Bay, Balmoral,
   and other places are now becoming a national pastime. The number of those
   who take part in these health-giving recreations grows from year to year
   ... But having once come, it is a sport that has come to stay. None of
   those who have ever enjoyed the delight of swimming in the surf, battling
   with big waves, or riding triumphantly down the breakers will ever be
   content to forego it, or to take to swimming in smooth water again if they
   can get to the surf and the breakers.(1)

The discourse concerning the open-air recreation, the struggle against the elements, and the general `health-giving' physical experience, suggests that surfing had a special place as a eugenically inspired activity.

Surprisingly, the literature on the history of the surf-culture has not recognised the relationship between the developing culture of surfing on Australian beaches and eugenics during the first half of the twentieth century. Through his study of sun-worship on the Australian beaches, Booth comes closest to recognising this connection. However, he is more inclined to dismiss the growing numbers of sun-worship by Australians on their beaches, with their concern for a `therapeutic outlook', and associate this growing culture with the developing consumerism of the inter-war period.(2) Certainly, consumerism did greatly influence the burgeoning fashion industry associated with the ever-revealing beachwear of the period. However, there was a parallel growth in nudist colonies during the late 1930s in Australia, and this was simply an extreme version of the sun-worship that underpinned the surfing culture.

In her study of `the lifesaver as a national icon', Saunders also had the opportunity to illustrate the connection between surf-lifesaving and eugenics. Concerned with lifesaving clubs as a gendered site for masculine discourse, she, however, is also blind to the connection between the surf-culture and eugenics. This leads her to see surf-lifesaving, along with aviation and long-distance rally driving, as being representative of `modern Australia, with its emphasis on technology and urban location'.(3) While certainly, there is justification in Saunders' findings, had she attempted an analysis of the eugenic motive in the early history of surf-life-saving, she may have preferred to link the surf-culture with nudism and hiking which developed in Australian urban society during the 1930s.

More concerned with illustrating the place of women in the developing culture of surfing and how important the simple past-time of surfing was in the pioneering surf-lifesaving clubs, Jaggard's study, is no less aware of the eugenic underpinnings in surfing during the first sixty years of the twentieth century. …