Wine, biscuits and overarm strokes

Wine, biscuits and overarm strokes

Colwin, Cecil

There is evidence that the Indians of North America swam a form of crawl stroke long before it was swum in either Europe or Australia. Although they may not have held formal competitions, more advanced swimming styles existed in North America as early as 1739!

At that time, William Byrd, founder of Richmond, Va., wrote in his diary. “One of our Indians 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.”

Another report of Indian swimming techniques tells of We-nish-ka-wea-bee (The Flying Gull) and Sah-ma (Tobacco), who created a memorable splash in 1844 at a specially staged exhibition in London, England, where they swam a stroke that could best be described as a crude form of crawl swimming.

In his classic book, “Swimming” (London: Sampson Low, Marston, 1904), Ralph Thomas excerpted a description of the technique of the two Indians which appeared in The London Times (April 22, 1844). The vivid report described how two Ojibbeway Indians competed for a silver medal presented by the British Swimming Society:

“The Flying Gull beat Tobacco, doing the 130 feet, one length of the bath, in less than half a minute.” (Note: Stopwatches had not yet been invented, and so this time was probably a “guesstimate” taken from an ordinary timepiece. ) “Their style of swimming is totally un-European. They lash 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.” Thomas added: “It would have been interesting to know what stroke they used under water; as to this, the reporter only gives useless generalities.”

As a result of this very brief mention in Thomas’ landmark book, the names of The Flying Gull and Tobacco found a permanent place in the literature of the sport, despite the fact that they were famous for one day only.

Starting with Ulen and Larcom’s “The Complete Swimmer” (New York: Macmillan, 1939), a reference to the now legendary The Flying Gull and Tobacco and their “totally un-European” and “grotesque antics” became almost de rigueur for any swimming book of note.

Solving a Deep Mystery

Recently, I decided to find out more about The Flying Gull and Tobacco, whose brief moment of swimming fame had always intrigued me. Despite the fact that their one-day appearance in a swimming event in London had found such a permanent place in the history of the sport, the full details of how the whole affair came about remained a deep mystery.

How did these two Indians happen to come to England to take part in a swimming exhibition, of all things? Who sponsored them? Who knew of their swimming prowess in the first place?

To my surprise, the U.S. Library of Congress as well as the National Library of Canada both came up trumps. They soon provided more details than I had ever anticipated on the visit to London of a group of Ojibbeway Indians, among whom were The Flying Gull and Tobacco.

Now I had the full report in the London Times of Monday, April 22, 1844, which describes how the swimming baths in High Holborn, “kept by a Mr. Hedgman, were crowded with private visitors and that gentleman’s friends”:

“At 12 o’clock, the omnibus, with three of the Indians outside, and the squaws, accompanied by Mr. Anderson, arrived, as also Mr. Harold Kenworthy, the well-known swimmer. In the rear of the omnibus, in full costume and on horseback, were We-nish-ka-wea-bee (The Flying Gull) and Sah-ma (Tobacco) with Mr. Green, their medical adviser, who has attended them since they have been in London, and who, on this occasion, suggested that the temperature of the water should be raised to 85 degrees.

“The Flying Gull and Tobacco were selected as competitors, the rest of the party being seated to witness the trial of skill, and the squaws being accommodated in an interior room. While the two Indians were divesting themselves of their costume, Mr. Kenworthy went through a series of scientific feats, which excited the applause of the Indians and spectators.

“At a signal, the Indians jumped into the bath, and, on a pistol being discharged, they struck out and swam to the other end, a distance of 130 feet, in less than half a minute. The Flying Gull was the victor by seven feet. They swam back again to the starting place, where The Flying Gull was again the victor. Then they dived from one end of the bath to the other with the rapidity of an arrow, and almost as straight a tension of limb.

“They afterwards entered the lists with Mr. Kenworthy, who is accounted one of the best swimmers in England, and who beat them with the greatest ease.” (Probably, after their prior exertions, the two Indian swimmers were too fatigued to offer Mr. Kenworthy much serious competition! )

“The Indians then remade their toilet, and the whole party were then shown round the extensive establishment, at which they expressed great wonder. The medal will be presented to The Flying Gull in the course of the week. Mr. Hedgman then conducted them to take refreshment in the room with the squaws, and after partaking of wine and biscuits, they returned in the omnibus to the Egyptian Hall in time to resume the exhibition.”

A Business Arrangement

The reference in the previous paragraph to their returning to an “exhibition” in the “Egyptian Hall” provided a clue as to the real purpose of the Ojibbeway visit to London. Sure enough, “Palmer’s Index to the Times of London” for the month of April 1844, under “Ojibbeways,” produced a series of reports showing that the Ojibbeway visit was the result of a business arrangement between Mr. George Catlin and a certain Mr. Rankin.

The Times (April 2, 1844) announced that “the exhibition at the Egyptian Hall of the Ojibbeway Indians, which was until a week or two the joint speculation of Mr. Catlin, who is well known to the public, and of Mr. Rankin, who held during the late rebellion in Canada a commission in the British army, and who brought the Indians over to this country, is now the sole speculation of the latter of these two gentlemen.”

Mr. Rankin and Mr. Catlin had had a falling-out over the financial arrangements concerning the exhibition. Mr. Rankin alleged that Mr. Catlin had “made a bargain by which he had secured `the cream’ of the speculation and left his co-partner the `skim milk.”‘

The heated dispute between the two men became the talk of the town. Apparently, Mr. Rankin had brought the Indian group to England to demonstrate their many crafts and skills, which included dancing, archery, horseriding (on Lord’s Cricket Grounds), foot-racing (at the Vauxhall Gardens) and, yes, even swimming in the well-appointed “baths” at High Holbum. On learning that Mr. Catlin, a renowned American authority on Indian life as well as an accomplished writer and artist on the subject, was already in town giving lectures and exhibitions on the Indians, Mr. Rankin approached Mr. Catlin with the suggestion that they combine their efforts to present a joint exhibition.

However, as a result of their disagreement, they decided to go their separate ways. But to Mr. Catlin’s intense annoyance, he suddenly found that Mr. Rankin had taken an exhibition space immediately adjoining his own display in the exhibition hall.

However, Mr. Catlin did not take so kindly a view of Mr. Rankin’s continued presence in such close proximity to his own exhibition. In a one-column advertisement in The Times, he expressed his frank views on the subject: “Mr. Rankin’s sudden and unexpected location in the room adjoining to my Indian collection in the Egyptian Hall has been, to me, a matter of much surprise, and calculated (for the time) seriously to interfere with my exhibition, and to lay me under the constant and most unpleasant necessity of explaining to dissatisfied visitors why it is they are not to see the Indians, as before, in connection with my Indian museum.”

Presented to the Queen

In the meantime, it appears that the Indians became celebrities around the town. Prior to the dispute with Mr. Rankin, Mr. Catlin had used his influence as an internationally-known figure to present the Indians at the court of the young Queen Victoria.

Socially, they were soon in great demand as confirmed by the following notice in The Times (April 2, 1844): “MARRIAGE EXTRAORDINARY-One of the Ojibbeway Indians, lately exhibited by Mr. Catlin at the Egyptian Hall, Picadilly, is about to enter into the matrimonial state with a very pretty and interesting young lady, of English birth, about 18 years of age, and of respectable connexions, resident in the neighbourhod of the New-road, Somers-town. Crowds have been attracted to this spot during the past week to catch a glimpse of the expectant bride and bridegroom. The Ojibbeway to be honoured with the fair hand of the youthful maiden is Nottenakm (The Strong Wind), and is the one who acted as the interpreter of the other Indians: he is tolerably acquainted with both the English and French languages.”

But what about their swimming styles? I could find no further reference to their swimming techniques other than the original report of the exhibition swim by The Flying Gull and Tobacco at Mr. Hedgman’s swimming establishment at High Holbum.

I asked Preston Levi, director of The Henning Library at the International Swimming Hall of Fame, if he could find further reference to the swimming of the North American `Indians in the Library’s rare book collection.To my surprise, Preston came up with what is probably the first reference to crawl swimming in the literature and one that predates other references by at least 30 years.

To Swim after the Manner of the North American Indians

From “The Manual of Swimming” (by Charles Steedman, 1873, pp. 192-193): “The stroke used by the Mandans, as well as by most of the other tribes in North America, is quite different from that usually practised in the civilised world. The Indian, instead of parting his hands simultaneously in front of the head and making the stroke outward in a nearly horizontal direction, thus causing a rather severe strain upon the chest, throws his body alternately upon the left and the right side, raising one arm entirely above the water, and reaching as far forward as he can to dip it, whilst his whole weight and force are spent upon the one that is passing under him; whilst this arm is making a half-circle, and is being raised out of the water behind him, the opposite arm is describing a similar arc in the air over his head, to be dipped in the water as far as he can reach before him, the hand bent inwards so as to form a sort of cup, and thus act most effectively as it passes in its turn underneath him. In this bold and powerful mode of swimming, which may certainly be deficient in the grace which many wish to see, there is little strain upon the breast and spine. This mode enables the swimmer to get through the water more speedily than the breaststroke does. It is, however, less rapid than the side stroke, and more fatiguing than either the breast or side stroke.”

Copyright Sports Publications, Inc. Oct-Dec 1998

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