Summer anthropologies #1: The Nameless Summer

Summer anthropologies #1: The Nameless Summer

Publicity photo from the making of The Endless Summer. Photographer unknown. Public Domain.

Bruce Brown’s mid 1960’s surf epic The Endless Summer is one of the key elements that sparked the global surf tourism industry. It’s a film that set the pattern for how surf tourists have envisioned and engaged with the people and places they travel to and through in search of waves. In The Endless Summer, the non-western world exists as a kind of empty, ahistorical, and naive paradise that awaits the enlightenment of western discovery. 

The film has been taken to task for its loose facts, orchestrated storylines, racism, and blatant colonialist outlook on the non-western world (see the work of Laderman 2014 and West 2014, for starters). There’s one element of the film that I want to discuss here. I think this element plays a key role in perpetuating the kinds of erasures that make The Endless Summer’s fantasies of discovery possible. 

If you watch the film carefully you might notice something. In the opening segment, Brown, who is the film’s narrator, introduces us to several of the main characters. This includes Mike Hynson and Robert August, along with other surfing notables such as Corky Carroll, Lance Carson, and Miki Dora. All of them have names, which isn’t particularly striking. Right? People have names. 

But then Hynson and August depart on their endless summer journey around the world. They start by going to west Africa, making the first three stops in Senegal, Ghana, and Nigeria respectively. Suddenly, people don’t have names. Well, some people don’t have names. Mike and Robert have names, but Senegalese, Ghanaian, and Nigerian peoples do not. They become “Africans” and “natives” and are referenced mostly as a group. Individuals only get either generalized names, such as the “Chief”, or sarcastic, condescending names, such as the “Head Rope Coiler” in the coastal Ghanaian segment (which is Labadi Beach, outside of Accra). 

This part of the film has some notoriously derogatory, condescending, and racist segments that dehumanize and exotify local people, including one scene where one of the producers appears in blackface dressed as a ‘native’ who scares the two main protagonists. These scenes reveal the ignorance, biases, and preconceived ideas of Brown and others who were part of this film. On the flight to Senegal, after leaving the US, Brown narrates: “On the plane heading for Africa, Robert wondered what was in store for them. Would they find surf? Would they catch malaria? Would they be speared by a native? He didn’t have any idea.” 

Overall, people in these three countries are depicted as primitive, exotic, distant, and nameless folks who apparently sat, ready and waiting, for the western world to introduce them to new, fashionable things like the world of surfing. But these ‘native’ people aren’t just missing names. There are also repeated claims that coastal African peoples had no experience or knowledge of surfing or wave riding. In Senegal, Mike and Robert paddle out into some surf just outside their hotel, while Brown claims that they have found surf that “noone had ever ridden before, and, as far as we knew, no surfer had ever seen before.” He makes similar claims about the coastal community in Labadi Beach, Ghana. Brown calls it a “primitive fishing village,” and adds that “most of these people had never seen a white man before.” He then goes on to characterize the people as exotic and potentially dangerous: 

As they walked down the beach, they really wondered if they were doing the right thing. Didn’t know whether the UN had been there or not. They were a little nervous on the beach, so they paddled right out in the water. Paddling out, they had the horrible thought that maybe surfing would violate some religious taboo of the natives and they’d attack. 

The local Ghanaian people supposedly break out into cheers after Robert rides his first wave (even though the shot of Robert on a wave and the shot of the crowd are clearly not the same moment, as the wind and water conditions are very different). After this setup, Brown claims, “That was the beginning of surfing in Ghana.” Never mind the fact, for example, that the coastal community in Ghana was clearly adept in the ocean, and, even by Brown’s admission, had a deep history of fishing. They were, after all, a coastal community. There’s also the fact that there are deep histories of swimming, fishing, canoeing, and yes even wave riding that date well, well before the mid 1960s when Brown and his camera crew arrived (see Dawson 2009 and this page, which references the work of anthropologist Ben Finney). The namelessness presages and underlies larger erasures, biases, and fabrications.   

But don’t you worry. The names do come back. When Mike and Robert head to South Africa, they meet up with a community of white surfers that suddenly and miraculously have names again. John Whitmore, the leader of Cape Town’s (white) surfing community, is the first person outside the main cast to be named since the film’s opening segment. The erasure could not be more blatant. 

Given the fact that The Endless Summer was an archetype for surf media and also the growing surf tourism industry, I think a lot about the effects of this film, and particularly how ‘native’ people were portrayed in it. I think about what it means for ensuing generations to follow the model of discovery that’s presented in the film. The search for empty, ahistorical paradises with waves continues to appeal to millions of people, who hope to experience a similar sense of ‘discovery’ that Mike, Robert, and Bruce Brown did in the mid 1960s. Such desires take surf tourists to new destinations, whether Costa Rica, Panama, or Papua New Guinea (see West 2014 on the latter). 

Erasure sets the stage for these desires and the supposed discoveries that follow. Those ‘discoveries’ rest upon hopes and assumptions about pristine, empty landscapes, uncomplicated by the politics of history or the inconvenience of previous human experience (and occupation). But what kind of ‘discovery’ is really happening here? West (2014) argues that:

Claims of discovery are really at their base political claims. There is no real discovery going on. By claiming to have discovered something, you are editing out the people who live in a place from your representations of that place and thus attempting to disempower them. This disempowerment, this erasure of people from sea- and landscapes, leads to the fantasy of these sites as empty and therefore open to transformation by outsiders.

One way to disempower and dispossess, in the case of land, is to ignore the names that already exist and to proclaim new ones. Naming is conquest and erasure all at once. Such practices were common throughout the period of colonialist expansion. Another way to disempower and dispossess, as seen in The Endless Summer, is to erase, ignore, or simply dismiss the names of the people themselves–in this case very selectively. This aspect of the film speaks volumes about who is considered human, and worthy of recognition, and who is not. It seems to me that Brown and his crew would have had to meet and work with various individuals while making the segments in Senegal, Ghana, and Nigeria. So the choice to avoid naming anyone seems rather deliberate. 

In the end it speaks to deeper issues about relationships–or a complete lack thereof. One way to humanize people is not just to learn their names, but to develop a relationship with them in which we are granted the honor of using those names. There’s humanity and respect in recognition, in learning about people’s knowledge and experience, and in taking the time to develop mutual understanding. In Brown’s Endless Summer, such considerations and concerns only extend so far, and they end, abruptly, on the shores of west Africa. And so the nameless masses become mere backdrops for surf desire and discovery. It’s a pattern, derived from an early mold, and based in (willful) ignorance and exotification, that continues to shape surf tourism today. Breaking such patterns requires, at minimum, a willingness to set assumptions aside, listen to people, and recognize them as something more than mere decorative, interesting objects for surf stories.


Dawson, K., 2009. Swimming, surfing, and underwater diving in early modern Atlantic Africa and the African diaspora. Navigating African maritime history, pp.136-154.

Laderman, S., 2014. Empire in waves: A political history of surfing. University of California Press.

West, P., 2014. “Such a site for play, this edge”: surfing, tourism, and modernist fantasy in Papua New Guinea. The Contemporary Pacific, 26(2), pp.411-432.