A rigorously referenced, valuable and refreshing addition to the historiography of swimming

Dave Day
Department of History, Politics and Philosophy
Manchester Metropolitan University

Karen Eva Carr
Shifting Currents: A World History of Swimming
455 pages, hardcover, ill
London: Reaktion Books 2022
ISBN 978-1-78914-578-6

In the introduction to their 1894 text Swimming, leading British amateurs Archibald Sinclair and William Henry acknowledged that swimming, both as a utilitarian practice and as a pastime, dated back ‘to the remotest era’. Unsurprisingly, given that knowledge of the Classics was a contemporary marker of an educated gentleman, they cited Ancient and Classical sources before drawing a lineage between them and the Victorian world through Beowulf and a ‘Vision of Piers Plowman’.[1] Subsequent authors have continued to highlight the aquatic engagement of the Ancients, and Nicholas Orme began his 1983 discussion of early British swimming with the arrival of the Romans in 55 B.C., declaring them ‘the first recorded swimmers in its history’.[2] Writers have drawn heavily on art as a source and J.W. McVicar, who traced the history of swimming and bathing from illustrations in relief, inferred that Egyptian and Syrian swimmers were using an overarm movements similar to the modern crawl.[3] For Martin Henig and Jason Lundock, swimming was a varied and prominent aspect of life in both ancient Greek and Roman societies,[4] while Monika Trümper argues that the archaeological evidence of swimming pools suggests that the Greeks conceptualized swimming as a sport and leisure activity. She also notes that this was dependent on having the appropriate socio-economic conditions, notably, patrons with sufficient financial means, access to technological know-how, and a cultural appreciation of swimming.[5]

This is not merely a fashionable endeavour but one that is central to the way that we can begin to understand and appreciate the myriad of influences that have underpinned the way in which social groups across the world interact with the aquatic environment.

There are some hints in the literature that the story of swimming extended beyond the confines of the Mediterranean. Christopher Love speculates that swimming was an early feature in many different world cultures and one that evolved independently of any cultural encounters,[6] while Stathis Avramidis drew on paintings and sculptures to conclude that people swam competitively or recreationally in Egypt, Greece, Persia, Italy, Spain, the USA, Japan, and China. A variety of swimming strokes were depicted and, depending on the particular society, the ability to swim indicated either a high or low socio-economic status.[7] In Shifting Currents Karen Eva Carr substantially extends this narrative, spatially and temporally, by exploring the wide range of swimming practices engaged in by indigenous peoples across the globe. In doing so, Carr adopts the broad interpretation of aquatic engagement also employed by Eric Chaline for whom the term encompasses recreation, sport, hunting, farming, work, commerce, warfare, health and fitness, religion, science and the arts.[8] The result is the chronicling of a rich tapestry of swimming activity reaching from prehistoric times to the modern day and from all corners of the earth.

Much of the historiography regarding swimming implies a linear process to the present, beginning with the Classical world, disappearing and then re-emerging during the Renaissance, from which point it has matured into its modern form, but Shifting Currents takes the reader beyond this simplistic narrative. Carr explores the changing nature of different people’s involvement with swimming over time, suggesting, for example, that north European peoples forgot to swim during the Ice Age, rediscovered swimming between the Bronze Age and the fall of Rome, stopped swimming during the Middle Ages, and then relearned how to swim in the late 1700s. During this process, knowledge of indigenous swimming strokes that utilised overarm styles was lost and it was not until the late nineteenth century that they were revived in the Western world in the form of the Trudgeon and front crawl strokes.

(Shutterstock/Massimo Todaro)

Central to Carr’s text is the relationship between swimming and power and she argues that swimming ‘lends itself to the creation and maintenance of hierarchy’ (page 354). Who can swim and where they can swim were/are decided by elite groups who use swimming and swimming places as one of the markers of their social status. They also write the histories and, as a result, the widespread engagement of women in all periods and the swimming abilities of indigenous peoples have been marginalised in the literature. Theories of biological reductionism that were prevalent in the nineteenth century and that persisted well into the twentieth century have been used to justify the dominance of the White swimmer, especially in competitive sport, and while Black swimmers are increasingly emerging at elite levels their relatively low numbers remain a cause for concern. Whether or not they agree with every aspect of her argument, Carr’s proposal for a decolonization of the swimming narrative should resonate with all future historians of swimming as an activity, in all its forms. This is not merely a fashionable endeavour but one that is central to the way that we can begin to understand and appreciate the myriad of influences that have underpinned the way in which social groups across the world interact with the aquatic environment. We are no longer writing in the age of Sinclair and Henry who were products of a time when the notion of Empire was all pervasive and for whom male, White power was taken as a given.

Shifting Currents is a valuable contribution to the historiography of swimming not only because of the global scope of the work but also because it goes beyond the chronological, descriptive approach adopted by the majority of texts on the subject. Carr challenges the reader to think more deeply about how modern sports and leisure activities like swimming have evolved in the way that they have and the influence of power and social elites on their development. For the academic reader this is a rigorously referenced, refreshing addition to the lexicon, one that stimulates thinking about how their own future attempts at writing swimming history can be better framed to take account of some of the issued raised by the work. For the more casual reader, Shifting Currents tells an engaging story, illustrated extensively throughout, and it presents the author’s arguments in an accessible and readable fashion. Satisfying both these constituencies is never an easy task and Karen Eva Carr is to be congratulated on achieving such an excellent balance between the two.

Copyright © Dave Day 2022

[1] Archibald Sinclair and William Henry. Swimming. Badminton Library. Longmans, Green and Company, 1894.
[2] Nicholas Orme. Early British Swimming, 55 BC-AD 1719: With the First Swimming Treatise in English, 1595. University of Exeter Press, 1983.
[3] J. W. McVicar, ‘A brief history of the development of swimming.’ Research Quarterly. American Physical Education Association 7, no. 1 (1936): 56-67.
[4] Martin Henig and Jason Lundock. Water in the Roman World: Engineering, Trade, Religion and Daily Life Archaeopress Publishing Ltd, 2022, 53.
[5] Monika Trümper. ‘Swimming Pools and Water Management in the Eastern Mediterranean World of the 4th to 1st Century BC.’ (2018): 255-296. In Jonas Berking (ed.) Water Management in Ancient Civilizations. Available at www.edition-topoi.org
[6] Christopher Love, A Social History of Swimming in England, 1800–1918: Splashing in the Serpentine. Abingdon: Routledge, 2013, 1.
[7] Stathis Avramidis. ‘World art on swimming.’ International Journal of Aquatic Research and Education 5, no. 3 (2011): Article 8, 325
[8] Eric Chaline. Strokes of Genius: A History of Swimming. London: Reaktion Books, 2017, 9.

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