Empire in Waves: A Political History of Surfing

Empire in Waves: A Political History of Surfing

Empire in Waves: A Political History of Surfing

Empire in Waves: A Political History of Surfing


Surfing today evokes many things: thundering waves, warm beaches, bikinis and lifeguards, and carefree pleasure. But is the story of surfing really as simple as popular culture suggests? In this first international political history of the sport, Scott Laderman shows that while wave riding is indeed capable of stimulating tremendous pleasure, its globalization went hand in hand with the blood and repression of the long twentieth century.

Emerging as an imperial instrument in post-annexation Hawaii, spawning a form of tourism that conquered the littoral Third World, tracing the struggle against South African apartheid, and employed as a diplomatic weapon in America's Cold War arsenal, the saga of modern surfing is only partially captured by Gidget, the Beach Boys, and the film Blue Crush. From nineteenth-century American empire-building in the Pacific to the low-wage labor of the surf industry today, Laderman argues that surfing in fact closely mirrored American foreign relations. Yet despite its less-than-golden past, the sport continues to captivate people worldwide.

Whether in El Salvador or Indonesia or points between, the modern history of this cherished pastime is hardly an uncomplicated story of beachside bliss. Sometimes messy, occasionally contentious, but never dull, surfing offers us a whole new way of viewing our globalized world.


Rafael lima came for the work but returned for the waves. a thirty-year-old Cuban American journalist and screenwriter, Lima found El Salvador much to his liking. the surf at La Libertad, the coastal town roughly twenty miles from the capital, was “clean, fast, [and] uncrowded,” he wrote in a photograph-studded piece for Surfer magazine. El Salvador provided “some of the best waves in Central America,” including a “long, howling, rock-strewn, hollow point break” that, with a six-foot swell that “held up all morning,” left him and his companions “[s]urfed out.” Accounts touting the discovery of waves at such and such a place are hardly unusual in the surfing literature. They are, in fact, the bread and butter of the genre. What distinguished Lima’s travelogue from others, however, was both its timing and the nature of its author’s employment. the year was 1982—deep into the Salvadoran regime’s violent crackdown on peasants, union organizers, human rights activists, and other civil society elements—and Lima was returning to the country after a stint training some of the paramilitary forces carrying out much of the regime’s repression.

The former martial arts editor of Soldier of Fortune magazine, Lima had, by the time of his excursion, already developed quite a résumé. He had spent time in Guatemala in the employ of an American company instructing that country’s right-wing militias in “anti-insurgency and light weapons.” He had then worked for “one of the largest landowners in El Salvador, training a small army to combat guerrillas on the huge cotton plantations.” Now he was “back to go surfing.” True, he had surfed in Central America during his previous visits to the region, using “my Indians”—a term Lima repeatedly deploys—to maintain security while he sought temporary solace in the waves. But this trip was different. This one was for pleasure.

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