This thesis examines the mythologising and racial constructions of influential Pacific islander aquatic athletes in early twentieth-century Australia and their on-going cultural meanings in Australia, the Pacific region and internationally. Alick Wickham (Solomon Islands) and Duke Kahanamoku (Hawai'i) are credited with radically altering Australia's sporting history by respectively introducing the crawl (freestyle) swimming stroke and surfboard riding in colourful, dramatic and seminal circumstances. Their contributions are cited in a diverse range of commemorations, which link their memories to Australia's pre-eminence as a swimming and surfing nation, and, indirectly, to the building of a national identity associated with water and sport.
The conceptual tools of myth, race and social memory are utilised to aid this re-evaluation of Wickham and Kahanamoku and their cultural legacies. It is argued that the crawl and surfing narratives are myths, defined not as delusions, falsehoods or outright fabrications but as accentuations of particular versions of the past at the expense of alternative explanations. Both stories give centrality to an individual and overlook historical antecedents and evolutionary processes in the introduction and development of the crawl stroke and surfing. In this sense, the origins of these sporting activities bear comparison with other sport creation myths that exist in the historiography of baseball and rugby union.
The myths are interpreted as cultural discourses about the 'natural' aquatic abilities of Pacific islanders. This racial stereotype - the Nimble Savage - arose from early European encounters with the Pacific region, when descriptions of the affinity of islanders with water began to emerge as a recurring trope in the logbooks and records of voyagers. While the Nimble Savage emerged from actual encounters with islanders, and had greater potency in describing some people and regions than others, it culturally pervaded the imaginary 'South Seas' and was bound up with ways in which the Pacific colonised the Western imagination as well as with the discursive themes of the 'primitive' body and the 'natural' athlete. It denotes an aquatically athletic cousin of the Noble Savage, with all of its romantic and 'positive' connotations, and simultaneously suggests its coexistence, convergence and overlap with the familial array of other 'savages', racial conventions and descriptors that have been applied to, or informed, studies of Pacific islanders. The Nimble Savage stereotype clearly differentiates popular racial representations of Pacific islander sportsmen from stereotypes that have characterised other racial groups, and contributes to understandings of the intersection of race and sport. This stereotype found succinct expression in the developing swimming and beach cultures of the newly independent Australia, and shaped constructions, representations and memories of islander individuals such as Wickham and Kahanamoku.
Finally, the thesis examines social memory as the vehicle for the creation, maintenance and perpetuation of these myths and racial ideologies. Social memory, understood as acts or performances of commemoration, includes books, articles, movies, documentaries, artworks, postage stamps, statues and other built physical structures, exhibitions and hall-of-fame inductions. Social memory reveals contemporary cultural meanings and significance as well as pays homage to the past. The social memory of Wickham and Kahanamoku places a selective emphasis on the crawl and surfing myths, while their other athletic achievements are overlooked, downplayed or acknowledged mostly in passing. This thesis examines specific instances of these social memories in order to elucidate their role in myth perpetuation, their cultural roles in varying national and local contexts, and their reflection of the Nimble Savage stereotype.