Well into the nineteenth century, most European swimmers were still using the breaststroke and backstroke, and keeping their faces out of the water, even in competition. That is, they swam even less well than the Assyrians, Greeks and Romans had in antiquity, since the ancient swimmers had at least used a crawl stroke. Some Eurasians were aware that Indigenous and Black American swimmers used an overhand stroke, which was much faster than the breaststroke. They saw that these “natural” swimmers used side breathing rather than holding their heads up out of the water. But for decades, swimmers from Britain to China resisted the crawl stroke. They saw the breaststroke as calm and rational, and rejected the crawl as excessively splashy and energetic. As swimming races became more competitive, however, slowly the advantages of the crawl stroke proved irresistible, and more swimmers began to use it.
In the early sixteenth century, the illustrations in Everard Digby’s early swimming manual show that Europeans swam with their heads out of the water. Even though contemporary European slave traders were already publishing books describing the overhand stroke of African and Native American swimmers, Wynman and Digby only explained four strokes. They knew the breaststroke, backstroke, sidestroke and dog-paddle, and how to tread water and dive underwater, but not the overhand crawl stroke used by Indigenous swimmers.
By the early 1700s American colonists had seen Native Americans swimming overhand strokes and were interested in imitating them. Accordingly, Virginia’s William Byrd took lessons from local Native Americans. Byrd wrote in his journal for 1733 that,
This being Sunday, we were glad to rest from our labors; and, to help restore our vigor, several of us plunged into the river, not-withstanding it was a frosty morning. One of our Indians went in along with us and taught us their way of swimming. They strike not out both hands together, but alternately one after another, whereby they are able to swim both farther and faster than we do.
Byrd’s shift to the crawl stroke did not immediately catch on with other American colonists. Probably both John Quincy Adams and Benjamin Franklin still swam the breaststroke. But by the 1830s other swimmers in the United States were emulating Byrd and studying Native American swimming. The American painter George Catlin was inspired to investigate Native American swimming after his brother Julius drowned in a swimming accident. Like other Native Americans, Mandan men and women in what is now North Dakota used the overhand crawl stroke with their faces in the water and side breathing. Catlin was surprised and impressed by it, and thought the crawl was superior to the European breaststroke:
By this bold and powerful mode of swimming, which may want the grace that many would wish to see, I am quite sure, from the experience I have had, that much of the fatigue and strain upon the breast and spine are avoided, and that a man will preserve his strength and his breath much longer in this alternate and rolling motion, than he can in the usual mode of swimming, in the polished world.
Other American painters also painted Native American people swimming, taking care to show how Indigenous swimmers dived head first into the water, and how they swam with their faces in the water. Catlin’s concern that the overhand stroke was less graceful than the breaststroke, the “usual mode of swimming in the polished world,” was probably still the dominant attitude among White Americans in his lifetime. As late as the 1870s an American traveler mocks the crawl stroke he saw used in Sudan, where a Nubian swimmer pulling the American’s boat “swims hand over hand, swinging his arms from the shoulders out of water and striking them forward splashing along like a side-wheeler.”
However, by 1880 the crawl stroke had apparently become normalized even among white swimmers in the United States, as shown in the illustration from Harper’s Weekly at the top of this page, which depicts two women using overhand strokes in a river race. The women have also learned to swim like “natural” swimmers with their faces in the water, turning their heads to the side in order to breathe as they go. The title, “Swimming à la Mode,” highlights that the women are using the latest fashionable stroke.
Difficult as it was for Americans to accept the new overhand swimming stroke, European, Central Asian and Chinese swimmers had much more trouble accepting it. Breaststroke, backstroke and sidestroke remained their only options for longer. In the early 1700s Ottoman artists depicted breaststroke and backstroke. Contemporary Indian paintings also show swimmers holding their arms out stiffly in front of them, as in the breaststroke. By the 1790s avant-garde British swimmers were attempting side strokes and diving, but not the crawl. In Thomas Rowlandson’s first satirical drawing on the topic, a woman is attempting to dive headfirst. In the other she is using a sidestroke, and his caption specifically points it out: “Side Way or Any Way.” In 1819 a Swiss sports writer describes the side- stroke, or something like it, as the most rapid stroke he knows:
The body is turned either upon the right or left side, and the feet perform their usual motions. The arm from under the shoulder stretches itself out quickly, at the same time that the feet are striking. The other arm strikes at the same time with the impelling of the feet … As swimming on the side presents to the water a smaller surface than on the [front], where rapidity is required, the former is often preferable to the latter.
Lord Byron described himself as a “strong swimmer,” but he and his friends did not use a crawl stroke, and probably did not swim with their heads underwater unless they were diving. By 1815 magazine illustrations show that some cutting-edge swimmers in France were swimming the crawl stroke, though they were still keeping their heads cautiously out of the water. Adolfo Corti’s 1819 Italian swimming manual also contains an illustration of what Corti calls “A French and Russian Stroke,” which looks like an early form of the crawl. Corti suggests that, when swimming on your front, you use one hand alternating with the other to press the water backwards. He assumes that you will keep your head out of the water. But Corti still considers the overarm stroke to be a novelty, and his go-to stroke remains the breaststroke with a frog kick, “a guisa di rana.” The breaststroke continued to be the normal Eurasian stroke.
When American swimmers tried to convert Britain to the crawl in the 1840s, they met with considerable resistance. George Catlin was so impressed by Native American swimmers that he brought two Ojibwa men from Lake Superior over to Britain to give swimming demonstrations there. But when these men, going by the stage names Wenishkaweabee and Sahma, accompanied Catlin as part of a swimming demonstration in London, British spectators professed themselves shocked at the crawl stroke’s splashing. British swimmers preferred the breaststroke, they said, because it was more decorous and civilized than the crawl. The Times described the Ojibwa stroke disgustedly as “totally un-European”: the swimmers “lashed the water violently with their arms, like the sails of a windmill, and beat downward with their feet, blowing with force and forming grotesque antics.”
Catlin had set up various swimming competitions to please the many spectators who gathered for this event. The two Ojibwa swimmers, who may not have been particularly good swimmers at home, first raced one another several times. Despite its contempt for the crawl stroke, The Times reported admiringly that both men swam “with the rapidity of an arrow, and almost as straight a tension of limb.” In the first race, one of the Ojibwa men swam 130 feet in less than half a minute, which was fast for the time. Then, when they were tired, the Ojibwa men raced one of the best swimmers in England, who beat them “with the greatest ease.” The Times reporter chose in the end to disregard the Ojibwas’ fine swimming in favor of his desire to support the superiority of British swimmers.
Like that reporter, many British swimmers, alarmed by the new stroke and its associations with Indigenous people, looked for reasons to put down the crawl stroke in favor of the breaststroke with which they were more familiar. They developed the idea that “graceful and elegant movements, with a minimum of splashing” were the most important aspects of swimming; “like dancing, the poetry of motion,” these were best represented by the breaststroke. The crawl stroke was disparaged as “ugly gestures” and “trick” swimming. A struggle developed between competitive swimmers, who wanted to use the new fast stroke to win races, and recreational swimmers, who resented the implication that their swimming owed anything to Indigenous people.
As we have seen, the crawl was probably not entirely unknown in Europe even before the Ojibwa demonstration. After the demonstration, alternating overhand strokes slowly became more popular, aided by increasing British familiarity with Aboriginal Australian swimming as the British Empire colonized Australia. After a British traveler demonstrated Aboriginal Australian swimming strokes in London in 1855, those strokes helped Fred Beckwith win a championship race a few years later. In 1861 a second race between a British swimmer and a Native American man (this time a Seneca man from Lake Erie) was widely promoted, though in the end the race never took place. Publicity from these events caused more Europeans to use the front crawl in the late nineteenth century, calling it “the Indian stroke.” Catlin’s description of the crawl stroke was plagiarized in a swimming manual in 1867. By the 1890s even recreational club swimmers in Britain were beginning to use both the crawl stroke and side breathing. In France, the crawl stroke gained ground after an Aboriginal Australian man called Tartakover gave an impressive demonstration of it in 1906, though apparently French swimmers were still holding their heads out of the water.
Variations on the crawl stroke were promoted by the Cavill brothers, who originated the “Australian crawl,” and by John Trudgen, who promoted a stroke he had learned from Indigenous people in Argentina. The Trudgen stroke was popular because you still kept your head out of the water, and because it used a scissor kick that avoided splashing. Trudgen won a race using this stroke “peculiar to Indians” in 1873, but despite that, the Trudgen was much slower than the traditional crawl with a flutter kick. The Australian crawl with a flutter kick, on the other hand, turned out to be faster than Native American versions, and soon became popular for competitions. (A younger Cavill brother later invented the butterfly, a faster variation of the breaststroke.)
But crawl strokes still met with suspicious resistance in both Europe and the United States. Even professional swimmers resisted the switch. In 1906 a prominent American swimming coach condemned variations on the Trudgen stroke, “in vogue among the inhabitants of the Hawaiian Islands, the Indian tribes of South America, and the lifeguards at our summer resort,”, as “very exhausting.” He disapproved of the association with Indigenous people, and with young people. He had to admit that the ordinary crawl stroke with side breathing was “the fastest of all known swimming strokes.” Nevertheless he opposed it:
For long distance swimming this stroke is almost useless, as it is very exhausting, owing principally to the fact that the breath must be held, excepting at intervals when the head is raised forward or at one side for breathing purposes. In addition the swimmer finds it difficult to keep a straight course.
By this time many good swimmers in both Europe and the United States were using overhand strokes, but a 1914 book on swimming still contains directions for how to swim the breaststroke—with your head held well above the water. Most American children ended up learning the crawl in the name of speed, but breaststroke is still today by far the most common swimming stroke among Europeans.
The overhand crawl stroke took so long to catch on with Europeans and European-descended people that it could be presented as a novelty by Byrd in the early 1700s, by Catlin in the 1830s, again in Harper’s Weekly in the 1880s, and still be a novelty in 1906. One British-born swimming coach recalled that in 1906 most instructors still taught the breaststroke first to beginning swimmers. “At that time,” he says, “the peculiar crawl style practiced by Pacific islanders had not been refined and was, in fact, barely known in the civilized world.” The coach overlooks that the Pacific islanders themselves had refined their stroke over thousands of years of practice. He may not have known that overarm strokes had been known at least since ancient Egypt, and were common in ancient Greece and Rome. Even modern Europeans had known about the crawl stroke for two hundred years.
But while his casual assertions are not true, they were true for him. Like many people of his time, he still thought of the breaststroke as normal and associated the crawl stroke with foreign danger. And despite the efforts of various early books on swimming, this notion prevailed well into the twentieth century. When Clarabelle Barrett wanted to attempt a swim across the English Channel in 1926, at least one newspaper’s photo caption presented her intention to use the crawl stroke as a daring innovation. In 1928 an American swimming coach was still startled to discover that people swam the crawl stroke—the “modern swimming stroke”—in ancient Greece, and that the Greeks might well have learned it from the Egyptians before them. In the 1960s, when I myself learned to swim, though the “Australian crawl” was the first stroke taught to American children, it was still regarded as slightly progressive and experimental. And even today, European children learn the breaststroke first. Unless they show promise as swimmers, they do not learn the crawl.
Excerpted from Shifting Currents: A World History of Swimming, by Karen Eva Carr (Reaktion Books, cloth, $35).
Slate receives a commission when you purchase items using the links on this page. Thank you for your support.