On Not Swimming

First Lap

The pools were all closed in the summer of 2020, because of the pandemic. I missed them more than you’d think, if you knew that I forgot to go swimming at all in the summer of 2019 and only swam a couple of times the summer before that. Yet it was July, and it was hot. I wished I could wash away the virus, the isolation, the panic, slowly swimming laps back and forth through the cold, blue, silent water.

I live at the intersection of two major rivers. I could drive out to a park any day and swim in any of a number of lakes and creeks. It would be perfectly safe. My housemate went swimming, and she had a great time. I grew up swimming in creeks and lakes—and really, I like it just as well as I like swimming in pools. Maybe more. But I didn’t make time to go swimming. I went for long bike rides and long walks. I ate picnics and did some gardening. But I didn’t go swimming.

This tension, the desire to swim set against a tendency to stay out of the water, is not unique to me. In the 1700s alone, northern Eurasians simultaneously emulated Native swimming, fined people for swimming, built blue-tiled swimming pools, used African swimming to justify slavery, used their own swimming to justify colonialism, encouraged rich women to swim for their health, floated poor women for witchcraft, trained the first lifeguards, and published swimming manuals.

If the swimming pools were open, you could swim with me through this morass of contradictions: we’d dive in at the deep end and find ourselves surrounded by soggy books full of illustrated instructions for how to swim. Jean de Thevenot’s Art of Swimming appeared in French in 1696. Exercise for Young People appeared in German in 1739, The Art of Swimming in Norwegian in 1788, The Floating Man, or The Rational Science of Swimming in Italian in 1794, and Johann Gutsmuths’s A Short Course in Teaching Yourself the Art of Swimming appeared four years later. None of these were probably of much use in learning how to swim, but then Europeans were not that eager to learn. Swimming was fascinating in theory, but real swimming was too scary.

Out of fear, eighteenth-century people trained the first lifeguards to watch them swim and save them if they were drowning. There were lifesaving clubs on the Yangtze River in China, in 1708, but they saved mainly people whose boats were sinking. By 1767, a lifesaving club in Amsterdam guarded swimmers. Lifeguards reached Copenhagen in 1772, and Britain two years later. At my local pool—if it had been open—the city would have paid teenage lifeguards. Though not if I went to swim in the river. There I’d be on my own, as Chinook swimmers were in that same river in the 1700s.

Second Lap

This first lap, down and back, may have lulled you into thinking that eighteenth-century Eurasians were learning to swim. But our second lap runs crossways to our first; European authorities were also issuing edicts that made swimming illegal. Already in the 1530s, the German university town of Ingolstadt on the Danube had banned swimming, and in 1571, so did the University of Cambridge. By 1599, the Pope had banned swimming in Rome’s Tiber river. Vienna banned swimming in the Danube in the 1780s, “on account of the supposed offense and the danger of drowning.” Paris banned swimming in the Seine a few years later, in a fit of puritanical fervor during the French Revolution.

Swimming, many people said, was for animals and barbarians, not for civilized people. Qing Dynasty Chinese writers sneered at the swimmers of Hainan Island, off the coast of Vietnam. In the mid-1600s, boys there “could swim incredible distances under water and preferred raw seafood to cooked food”––both marks of barbarism to northern Chinese ears. Jonathan Swift, in 1725, mocked Indigenous swimming in the person of the imaginary Yahoos who “swim from their infancy like frogs”; a Yahoo woman terrifies Gulliver by leaping into the water to embrace him when he is swimming naked. In 1804, George Pinkard aligned Indigenous swimming with that of “cattle, wild beasts, and other quadruped animals.”

Third Lap

For our third lap, let’s use an overhand stroke. Indigenous and African people swam, as Richard Ligon observed, “by striking out their right leg and left arm, and then turning on the other side, and changing both their leg and their arm, which is a stronger and swifter way of swimming.” In the eighteenth century, unnamed Native Americans in Virginia taught William Byrd to swim their stroke, as he put it, “not both hands together but alternately one after the other.” Enslaved people in the Caribbean taught white children (perhaps including the young Alexander Hamilton, who was a good swimmer) to swim. Black, white, and Native boys and girls swam together, “blissfull in swimming,” as Bermuda’s governor Robert Robinson put it in 1687. Soon enough, white beach-goers would force Indigenous swimmers out of the water.

Last Lap

Freestyle is tiring, and we’re not in top shape, so let’s switch to a leisurely, dignified breaststroke for the fourth lap. Most white people swam “both hands together”—the breaststroke, not the crawl. This was probably the stroke of eighteen-year-old Benjamin Franklin, swimming dramatically along the Thames in 1724, and of twenty-two-year-old Lord Byron, who swam four miles across the Hellespont in 1810. I, too, learned breaststroke first in a suburb south of Paris, as a child. Even today, though Americans usually learn the crawl first, Europeans see the breaststroke as the stroke for water safety.

Franklin and Byron, hipsters avant la lettre, saw swimming as edgy; the danger was more an attraction to them than a deterrent. And swimming was cool. School boys read in Latin that Julius Caesar had been a strong swimmer. Horatio swam the Tiber. In 1692, John Locke quoted Plato’s proverb that an ignoramus can “neither read nor swim.” European gentlemen swam the way they bought classical statues: to align themselves with the Romans and their empire. If it was right for the Romans to build their empire and build prosperity throughout the Mediterranean, surely it was also right for Europeans to colonize the world? (The Greeks and Romans used an overhand stroke, though, like Africans—not the breaststroke of European colonizers.) In 1722, Czar Peter the Great made his naval officers bathe in the Caspian Sea. By 1798, Germany’s Gutsmuths advocated “a bathing place, as an indispensable appendage for a public school.”

Are your calf muscles beginning to cramp up with all this swimming? Feel like you’re tied in knots? In 1717, a mother, son, and daughter accused of witchcraft in Leicester “had severally their thumbs & great toes ty’d together & that they were thrown so bound into the water, & that they swam like a cork, a piece of paper or an empty barrell, tho they strove all they could to sinck.” High-minded Roman-inspired breaststrokers and Indigenous freestylers lived alongside raucous crowds who demanded their neighbors be floated for witchcraft. In 1751, a crowd of thousands forcibly floated—and drowned—Ruth Osborne in a pond near Tring, not far from London. In the Americas, witch-floating ended in the 1730s, when Benjamin Franklin mocked the practice in his newspaper, but in July 1776, as Franklin and Hamilton were signing the Declaration of Independence, a mob at Farnham in Suffolk floated a man for witchcraft.

Climbing Out

Whew. Let’s sit on the stairs in the shallow end of the pool and catch our breath. By the time poor Ruth Osborne was drowned for witchcraft, wealthy Europeans had already begun to take the water by climbing into specially built bathing-carriages at the beach. Starting about 1735, wooden carriages were rolled into the water by horses walking slowly backwards down the beach into the surf. Once the carriages were in the water, ladies changed into linen shifts and climbed down a set of stairs into the water where they did special bathing exercises, supervised by expert attendants. For added modesty and privacy, awnings and shades of linen could be stretched from the carriage to surround the bather. This scientific, healthy swimming was very expensive, and only wealthy women could afford it. Official, sanctioned swimming became a privilege of the rich.

Finally, as we climb out of the imaginary pool and towel off on the benches, I’ll note that an Ottoman image from 1721 depicts an imaginary Chinese ruler watching his vizier’s son swim in a tiled pool very much like the one I would have swum in, if the pool had been open. Artificial swimming pools for gentlemen were advertising in London newspapers by 1741, complete with paid instructors to teach their customers to swim. It’s all a muddle. African and Native swimming could be an astonishing skill for Europeans to emulate, or justification for slavery. Women’s swimming could be evidence of witchcraft, or a healthy scientific exercise. Swimming was both so dangerous as to be illegal—where it was not a required skill for safety—and also a fun pastime. No wonder I had trouble making up my mind to drive to the lake.

Karen Eva Carr is an Associate Professor Emerita in the Department of History at Portland State University. Her books include Vandals to Visigoths: Rural Settlement Patterns in Early Medieval Spain (2002), which examined how rural small farmers were tied into the Roman economy, and Shifting Currents: A World History of Swimming, which will appear next year. Her next project, Women, Clothing, and Money, looks at women’s economic power from prehistory to the Renaissance.

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