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Sunday, February 25, 2018

Swimming And Surfing In Pre-20th Century

Image show Africans swimming freestyle across rapids during the 1884 Nile Expedition. Courtesy of Illustrated London News, 4 October 1884.

In his essay about African swimmers in 'Enslaved Swimmers and Divers in the Atlantic World' included in the March 2006 issue of The Journal of American History, Professor Kevin Dawson wrote, "...Having learned to swim early, many coastal and interior West African men and women incorporated swimming into their recreational and work activities.

The swimming abilities of several disparate ethnic groups were so strong that, independent of Polynesian influence, they invented surfing...Africans in Senegal, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Gabon, and possibly the Congo-Angola region surfed...several hundred of boys and girls sporting together before the beach, and in many places among the rolling and breaking waves, learning to swim...

He noted the observations of James Edward Alexander in 1834 at Accra, Ghana that “from the beach, meanwhile, might be seen boys swimming into the sea, with light boards under their stomachs. They waited for a surf; and came rolling like a cloud on top of it.”

In the chapter entitled "Swimming, Surfing and Underwater Diving in Early Modern Atlantic Africa and the African Diaspora", Professor Dawson notes, "...considerable numbers of Africans swam, that they were better swimmers than most Europeans and that Westerners tended to use the breaststroke while Africans preferred the freestyle.

While most travellers to West Africa mentioned that Africans were sound swimmers, several also noted that they were better than Europeans and described their use of the freestyle

Throughout his authoritative history of swimming in Europe and around the world, Professor Dawson often describes the reasons why breaststroke was the favored stroke of Europeans. "Westerners were evidently averse to the freestyle because it naturally generated considerably more splashing than the breaststroke, and according to theorists and pragmatists like Benjamin Franklin and Theodorus Mason, swimming 'should be smooth and gentle.'"

"I am reading Professor Dawson's work with an admittedly biased mindset, perhaps looking for an answer that may not be actually true," reflected Steven Munatones. "Even since I first heard of Captain Matthew Webb's unprecedented 21 hour 45 minute swim across the English Channel in 1875, I was mostly impressed that he swam from England to France entirely breaststroke."

While Professor Dawson reiterates in his books and essays that breaststroke was largely used while travelers around the world in the earlier centuries had observed people in West Africa and the Pacific Rim swimming freestyle. The freestyle stroke with its splashing and flutter kicking was perceived as barbaric and un-European.

So I wondered, theorized as an amateur historian, that those who near coastal areas from Samoa to Japan to the Western African areas had reasons to swim faster, as they learned how to play in the surf and waves, and against and with tidal flows and currents.

So while the Europeans focused on breaststroke and sidestroke for centuries, it was the peoples of Africa, the Americas, South Pacific and Japan that - for some reason - developed alternative means to propel themselves in the water. Why did these different types of swimming styles develop over history?

This is a question that has not been answered. But there is one possible idea.

The freestyle stroke is faster and is more conducive to moving quickly through the water, especially due to the more streamlined body and head position relative to breaststroke. So while the breaststroke is comfortable and relatively easy to learn for many, the freestyle most probably took a bit more training and effort to become proficient.

But in the calm conditions of lakes and lidos throughout Great Britain and other major European cities of pre-20th century society, it was probably not necessary to move quickly through the water. Swimming was a leisure activity with very few people doing it as a profession or even in competition. Breaststroke was sufficient and acceptable in these tranquil conditions - and the preferred swimming style used by Captain Matthew Webb on the first crossing of the English Channel.

But in locations where ocean swells, waves, currents, eddies and tidal conditions made the offshore waters more turbulent, a faster swimming style was necessary. Therefore, it made sense that the peoples of coastal Africa, coastal American cities, South Pacific islands and Japan would developed other (faster) means to propel themselves in the water. People could get in and out of the surf with the more streamlined freestyle; less so, swimming breaststroke. People could catch fish and hunt for - or swim away from - marine life better with freestyle than breaststroke.

So, although this theory is yet to be vetted by historians like Professor Dawson and professional anthropologists, I can imagine that breaststroke was developed over time by people who swam in relatively tranquil conditions while freestyle was found to be more useful by people who swam in more turbulent conditions.

In essence, the existence and lack of waves and currents may have played a role in the development of swimming styles over the centuries in different locations around the globe.

Does this theory hold any water? Send information, submit questions or alternative theories and evidence here.

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