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Madrassan men surfing

Date: 1800
Overall: 261 x 345 mm, 13 g
Medium: Colour aquatint on paper
Credit Line: ANMM Collection Purchased with USA Bicentennial Gift funds
Object Name: Aquatint
Object No: 00028619
Place Manufactured:London

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    This hand coloured aquatint was produced by Hassell, after a sketch by Charles Gold. Printed by Bummey & Co in England on the 15th January 1800 and published by G & W Nicol in 1806, the print depicts Madrassan men surfing breaking waves on 'catamarans'. On one, a single man stands on a platform constructed of three logs lashed together, holding a paddle-like board. Two other figures are seen further out to sea on a similar platform, with a row boat and sailing ships in the background.
    SignificanceAlthough Hawaiian surfing was drawn in 1779, this aquatint is believed to be one of the earliest illustrations of surfing that was published. It is an important visual record of surfing off the south-east coast of India, highlighting the development of surfing outside of Hawaii.

    Australia was first introduced to surfing in the late 19th century by traders and travellers who had passed through Hawaii. Today, surfing is an iconic Australian activity, and is common all over the coast of Australia.
    HistoryCharles Gold served with the Royal Artillery and was stationed at Madras on India's south-east coast. He returned to England in 1798 with a collection of sketches of views and native life in the region which were eventually published in London in 1806. In a volume titled 'Oriental Drawings' this plate was indexed in the volume under the titled 'Cattamarans'. Although the earliest illustration of a surfboard being paddled appears in Webbers painting of Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii (1779) and a detailed sketch of a surf board was made by Alphonse Pellion during the visit of Freycinet's expedition to Hawaii in August 1819, it was not until considerably later that illustrations of surfing (ie standing on the board atop a wave) began to appear.

    While Hawaiians had trees which yielded large slabs of relatively light but very buoyant timber to make board from, the land around Madras was largely made up of rice growing plains with poor soil quality. It is possible that the Madrassans overcame this problem by lashing light, buoyant logs, such as bamboo, together to provide a long narrow platform. It is evident from this illustration that by the late 18th century they were employing freestanding methods, with waves used for propulsion. It appears that instead of paddling by hand, they used meter lengths of board to propel themselves from the shore to beyond the breaks. The board could presumably have been used on the return journey to achieve speed to catch a wave and possibly to steer. 'Surfing' of this kind was probably for pleasure and recreation rather than for fishing or trade, as the Madrassans were fully conversant with boats and boat-building techniques that are still in use today.

    Although there is little doubt that modern surfing derives from the Hawaiians, it would seem that they were certainly not alone in mastering 'wave travel' by the late 18th century. Hawaii was settled by East Polynesians around AD 600 and contacts continued with Tahitian and Marquesan groups until c 1200 when they became isolated until the arrival of Cook. As surfing was found only in Hawaii it is probably that it was invented and developed during this period of isolation. Considering the age of south Indian civilisation, it may be that their ability to surf predates that of Hawaii.

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