A history of swimming

Swimming in the Middle East, from a medieval Arabic manuscript

I’m not sure whether I’ve already mentioned it or not, but one of the projects I have open at the moment is a world history of swimming. It’s all written – five or six chapters, with lots of images. But the first draft is just chronological, really boring. Swimming in the Stone Age, Ice Age, Bronze Age. Swimming in Greece and Rome. Swimming in the Middle Ages. Swimming in the Age of Exploration. Swimming in the nineteenth century. You’d have to be fanatically interested to read that.

Chairman Mao swimming in China

So I’m thinking about ways to restructure the book for a second draft. They say the best thing is to write the story of how I found out all this stuff. How did I come up with this question? How did I figure out the answers?

I’m thinking about starting with Lord Byron, who swam the Hellespont in 1810 and started a huge swimming fad among white Europeans and colonizers worldwide. Or maybe with Benjamin Franklin, who may have inspired Byron by swimming down the Thames river in 1726. These events inspired my main questions: “Why did most white people not know how to swim in the 1700s?” and “Why did they suddenly decide they wanted to learn how?”

Tomb of the Diver, southern Italy, 400s BC

To answer the first question, we’d jump backwards in time to the Ice Age. The Ice Age may have brought summer high temperatures in Europe and Central Asia down into the 60s F (about 17 C). At those temperatures, nobody wanted to go swimming. People seem to have forgotten how. They became afraid of the water. As Central Asian people spread out into Mesopotamia and the Levant, people there stopped swimming too (even though it was hot).

Further south, in Africa and India, people still knew how to swim. Possibly they taught the Greeks and Romans how to swim again – certainly the Greeks and Romans could swim, though not super well (like, they seem not to have swum with their faces in the water). Then in the Middle Ages, as Central Asian Turkic and Mongol culture spread throughout Eurasia, everyone stopped swimming again. Maybe the Little Ice Age also made it too cold for swimming?

Enslaved Africans diving for pearls in Venezuela in the 1500s

So when Europeans arrived in Africa, India, and the Americas, they were astonished at how well everyone could swim – little babies! in the open ocean! and women! – and wondered why all these other people could swim when white people couldn’t. Their first super-racist theory was that Africans and Americans were more like animals than people, so that was why they could swim (and also why it was okay to enslave them.)

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 11.30.39 AM

That brings us to the second question: “What made Europeans change their minds and decide they did want to know how to swim?” I’m still wrestling with that one, but it’s clear that hipsters like Franklin and Byron (and the French ones in this image) played a part. The end of the Little Ice Age about 1850 also brought warmer summers to England and encouraged middle-class people to go to the beach on vacation. That brings us back to the beginning, and my plan is to stop there; I could go on to the history of segregated beaches and forcing black people out of the water, but I feel that’s a different book. Comments? 


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