Why Couldn’t European Sailors Swim In The Past?

Conny Waters - AncientPages.com -  In the Cave of the Swimmers at Wadi Sura in the Gilf Kebir, in the southwest corner of Egypt, not far from Libya and Sudan, there are 8,000-year-old cave paintings depicting humans swimming. These ancient rock art depictions are among the earliest known representations of swimming.

Why Couldn't European Sailors Swim In The Past?

While the Bedouin nomads were familiar with these rock carvings for a long time, the Western world first became aware of their existence in 1933 when desert mapper and explorer Lászlo Almásy discovered them during his explorations. These ancient artworks provide valuable insights into prehistoric societies' cultural practices and artistic expressions.

According to historical records, the earliest humans taught themselves how to swim over 100,000 years ago, driven by the need to acquire food and for recreational purposes. Evidence suggests that Neanderthals living in Italy around 100,000 years ago were proficient swimmers. Their ear bones indicate that they suffered from swimmer's ear, likely due to diving 3-4 meters deep to retrieve clamshells, which they then shaped into tools. This remarkable ability to swim and dive demonstrates the ingenuity and adaptability of our ancient ancestors.

Therefore, it is a bit surprising to learn that well into the 19th century, European sailors' inability to swim was widespread. Those unfortunate individuals who fell overboard faced a grim fate, as they lacked the essential skill to stay afloat. Remarkably, even the renowned English naval officer James Cook, who spent much of his life navigating the world's oceans in the 1700s, could not swim. Cook's lack of swimming proficiency was not isolated; it was a common trait among European sailors until the 1800s. This historical fact highlights the stark contrast between the seafaring lifestyle and the absence of a fundamental survival skill.

The sports culture historian Richard Mandell provides an informative perspective on swimming abilities during the colonial period. According to his research, most Westerners at that time lacked swimming skills. If they acquired any swimming proficiency, it was limited to the basic dog paddle technique, primarily intended for emergencies where they needed to save themselves from drowning.

One significant reason European sailors could not swim was the belief that swimming was unhealthy. Many European doctors in the past advised against swimming, as they believed that water immersion would disrupt the balance of the body's humours, leading to the development of diseases like bubonic plague, cholera, and smallpox, which devastated Europe at the time. This belief stemmed from the prevailing medical theory of the time, which held that the body's health depended on maintaining a proper balance of four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Immersing oneself in water was thought to upset this delicate equilibrium, potentially causing illness.

Why Couldn't European Sailors Swim In The Past?

Illustration from De arte natandi - The art of swimming (1595). Credit: Public Domain

Many medieval Europeans believed that water could spread infections and potentially cause epidemics. British writer George Borrow also noted that swimming was deemed unsuitable for respectable individuals: "To swim one must be naked, and what would a noble person look like without his clothes?" This cultural perception contributed to European sailors' lack of swimming skills during that era.

Swimming was viewed skeptically, particularly in the British Royal Navy and other naval forces. It was believed that teaching sailors how to swim could potentially create cowards. The rationale behind this thinking was that during battles, sailors who knew how to swim might be tempted to jump overboard and abandon the ship rather than remain on board and fight. Consequently, navies preferred their crews to be unable to swim, as this was thought to encourage them to stay and defend the vessel instead of seeking safety in the water.

Some sailors were also afraid of the water and the real and imagined creatures of the seas.

Written by Conny Waters – AncientPages.com Staff Writer

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Expand for references

Karen Eva Carr - Shifting Currents: A World History of Swimming

Nicholas Orme  - Early British Swimming 55BC-AD1719

Kevin Dawson - "Swimming, Surfing, and Underwater Diving in the Early Modern Atlantic and the African Diaspora

Howard Means - Splash!: 10,000 Years of Swimming