Black Swimming History month: ‘Undercurrents of Power’


Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora

Reviewed by Bruce Wigo.

by Professor Kevin Dawson and the University of Pennsylvania Press, is an important contribution to the history of swimming.

Kevin Dawson offers the remarkable untold history of the significance of aquatic culture in the African diaspora. Undercurrents of Power opens up a new and exciting aspect of slaves’ experience, providing a crucially important piece of the history of slave life and labor in the Americas.” —James Sidbury, Rice University

Most of the histories of swimming up to now have focused on the origins of competitive swimming and have ignored the contributions of Africans and other indigenous populations outside of Europe to our sport. While it is true that Europeans can be credited with developing swimming as a competitive sport in Europe in the early 19th Century, prior to that it was the indigenous populations of the tropical regions of the earth who excelled as watermen. It was their strokes and teaching methods that were copied by the Europeans. In “Undercurrents of Power” Professor Dawson describes Africans as people who lived along riverbanks, near lakes, or close to the ocean. In these waterways, they became proficient in diverse maritime skills, while incorporating water and aquatics into spiritual understands of the world. And that slaves carried to the Americas these West African skills and cultural values with them. What is most fascinating for me is that Kevin Dawson’s examination of water culture in the African diaspora, provides detailed proof of what Michelovic Thevenot claimed in his 1696 edition of “The Art of Swimming” — that the aquatic abilities of the indigenous people of Africa and the Americas surpassed those of Europeans and their descendants from the age of discovery until native American aquatic cultures were destroyed by disease and forced relocation, while African American aquatic culture survived until Jim Crow laws did their damage in the mid 19th Century.

Why this matters is because it corrects many misperceptions held by many people about swimming today. Namely that swimming is not part of African or African-American cultural history. Or that persons of African descent are somehow less physically equipped than European or Asian people to be swimmers.

The importance of swimming and aquatic culture of pre-colonial Africa is remarkable in its similarity to that of Polynesian Islanders, where swimming came as naturally as walking. Why I mention this is because when the Olympic Games revived in 1896, the only indigenous aquatic culture to survive the European colonial era was in the Polynesian and South Sea Islands. Their strokes and methods of learning to swim were virtually identical to those described by Dawson through the words of merchants, traders and slavers of Africans from the 1450s onward. When Hawaiians, most notably Duke Kahanamoku started to compete, they were unbeatable, without the benefit of “modern” training techniques. No one ever taught Duke how to swim. He said he had been swimming the same way as the ancient Hawaiians and he had no doubt that ” the ancient Hawaiians used every stroke we know and perhaps had better swimming form than we’ll ever have.”

We can only imagine what swimming would look like today if Africans, African-Americans and Native Americans had been treated fairly in the water and given the opportunities to compete like the Hawaiians.

Everyone interested in the history of swimming will be well served to read this book and support the idea that on the planet earth, it is the birthright of every child to experience the thrill of standing in the surf or to be in, on or near the water without the fear of drowning because they know how to swim.

“Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora” is available through Amazon.

Kevin Dawson is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Merced.