Knowing how to swim seems pretty straight forward to people in the modern world. From Mommy & me classes for infants to athletic programs that include swimming and diving in schools it's kind of mind boggling to imagine swimming as an unheard of pursuit. By the 19th century, in the growing urban areas at the very least, that was certainly the case.
As with most things, what happened by land effected sailors and, again by the 19th century, there were plenty of sea going men who literally could not swim to save their lives. In a time when lifeboats and flotation devices (aside from pieces of wreckage or other flotsam) were completely unavailable, a sinking ship was probably the most terrifying thing imaginable for at least half the people aboard her. Anything at all would be done to keep her afloat, and the fascinating lengths gone to on that score are a subject for another post.
The interesting thing to me is that the lack of swimming ability on the part of men at sea was not always the case. It's almost as if the evolution of humans in the water started to go backward at some point in the late 18th century and didn't start forward again until the 20th century reared her ugly head.
During the buccaneering days of the 17th century, a majority of people who made their living on the ocean could swim. Europeans who grew up near streams, lakes or the sea frequently swam for recreation, even in areas where the cold water would seem prohibitive. I remember swimming in Hood's Canal in Washington State as a child and thinking very little of the 60 degree water, so this doesn't surprise me in the least.
Caribbean, Gulf and Spanish Main natives swam from early childhood. European settlers told stories of Carib men, for instance, fighting off sharks and their wives nursing babies while swimming in the surf. Carib children were expected to keep up on land and in the water by the time they could walk.
People from the West Coast of Africa were similarly gifted in the water. Thomas Philips in his 1693 Journal writes of African canoe men who took people from ships to land through heavy surf. The men, he noted, were "such excellent swimmers... that they can preserve the lives of anyone they have the least kindness for" if the canoe overturned.
The Europeans and Africans in the Caribbean followed the locals and in the warm-as-milk water swam like fish. The wracking or wrecking trade - in which treasure from wrecked ships was recovered - depended on both men and women who were unafraid of open water, could swim well in many conditions, and could dive to some astonishing depths. These people - some slaves, some free - came from all genetic backgrounds.
Open water - with nothing but blue ocean all around and possibly no more than a single ship in sight - was a huge issue of course. Comfortably swimming in open water can be challenging, as anyone who has scubaed or snorkeled off a ship at anchor will tell you. The perspective is off as you bob in endless water up to your chin. Chop that seems negligible from the deck of a ship can become overwhelming when you are in the water; more than one iron clad stomach has failed at sea level, your humble hostess' included. And then there's the issue of what lurks in the dark depths (almost always nothing to worry about but the human mind can get out of control with worry fairly quickly).
It is easy to see why even strong swimmers can end up dead in an emergency situation like the wreck of a ship. Darkness, storms or high seas, debris from the ship itself and those who could not swim seeking help all conspired to drag a healthy, capable freebooter straight down to the 'od place.
To the point though, why did the swimming prowess of our ancestors seem to decline in the age of Revolution? Of course native peoples only changed their ways when forced to by settling whites or slave masters or both. Europeans seem to have shied away from the water voluntarily, however, and this remains a mystery to me.
Was it a change in mores that said getting all naked and splashing around in the water was wrong? Probably not until we hit the steel wall of the Victorian era. People were just as comfortable with their bodies in 1810 as they were in 1710 (if premarital pregnancy statistics are any indication). Was it the Royal Navy's rise to prominence combined with their dependence on the impressment of landsmen - many of whom may not have come from areas where swimming was a regular pastime? That may have been a factor but it still doesn't speak to the burgeoning American navies or the new privateers who hassled the enemies of their various nations. Was it the burgeoning of industrialization which - counter to it's original promise - gave people more to do and took away that leisure time that allowed one to learn to swim? After all, a child helping with the harvest could always take a quick dip in a nearby pond, but a child filling bobbins in a mill would be lucky just to keep all their fingers.
Who knows what did it. The fact is that swimming seemed to fall by the wayside for a century and that's odd to me. Maybe it was as simple as the firm belief that, as one sailor in the Royal Navy put it, knowing how to swim would only prolong the inevitable agony of drowning in the open sea. Given the circumstances, his logic is hard to argue with.