Karen Eva Carr, "Shifting Currents: A World History of Swimming" (Reaktion Books, 2022)


Today we are joined by Dr. Karen Carr, Associate Professor Emerita in the Department of History at Portland State University and the author of Shifting Currents: A World History of Swimming (Reaktion Books, 2022). Shifting Currents is the winner of the 2023 North American Society for Sports History Monograph Book Award. In our conversation, we discussed the historical, cultural, and geographic divisions between swimmers and non-swimmers; the reasons for the rise and fall of swimming in Northern Eurasia; and the racialization of swimming starting in the 13th century.

In Shifting Currents, Carr offers a comprehensive history of swimming from the paleolithic to the present. Over four hundred pages, and with almost one hundred images, she illustrates how a centuries long divide developed between Northern Eurasian non-swimmers and the rest of the world, including Africa, the Americas and Australia, where people swam frequently and well. She argues that since the early Iron Age, Northern Eurasian people adopted and abandoned swimming several times but never really adapted to the water as a natural site for human social engagement and play that characterized indigenous swimming.

This longstanding divide between swimmers and non-swimmers persisted not only because of the climate, but also due to long-stranding Northern Eurasian prejudices against getting in the water: namely that swimming was and is too dangerous, too improper with close connection to nudity and sex, too sacred since water was connected to the gods, and too foreign. These prejudices have surprising longevity and explain in part northern European practices such as the floating of witches, and the preference for the breaststroke.

At the same time, as Carr points out, elite Northern Eurasians began during the Iron Age to swim and they continued to swim (with waxing and waning popularity) throughout the Middle Ages and into the present. While indigenous swimming was a lifestyle practiced across class and gender, in Northern Eurasia swimming was a shibboleth to status and wealth. At times it was central to elite status. As Plato claimed, a well-educated men could be identified because they knew how to read and how to swim and by the 19th century swimming became part of a well-rounded middle-class education. At other times, it was disfavoured: Carr argues convincingly that the Mongol invasions significantly undermined swimming’s importance among northern Eurasian elites.

In the third and fourth sections of the book, “Still Swimming” and “Changing Places”, Carr shows how swimming became racialized and the damage that this racialization has done to indigenous swimming practices. African, American and Australian peoples were stronger swimmers than Europeans (who had largely forgotten how to do the crawl). Europeans viewed non-Europeans strength in the water as a sign of primitivity and used it as part of their justification for enslaving people in the global south. By the 19th century, European’s feelings about the water reversed and colonizers around the world now sought to bar people of color from swimming in the same places as white people. Carr ends on a declensionist note: Europeans and their settler-colonial descendants have largely succeeded in stamping out indigenous swimming around the world.

Shifting Currents is a very compelling history of swimming that not only charts its development around the world but does so in a way that ties together its history with larger trends in global history. Written in a very readable style, full of handsome images, Shifting Currents should be read by scholars and non-schoalrs alike interested in swimming, sport more generally, and global histories that decentre the global North/West experience.

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Keith Rathbone

Keith Rathbone is a Senior Lecturer at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He researches twentieth-century French social and cultural history.

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