Who was the first person to feel joy when jumping into the sea?
That’s a harder question that it might seem, since our modern swimmer’s pleasures seem to have been pretty foreign to ancient and medieval culture. Surely on a hot day fresh water would have been welcome, but the deep sea, home of monsters and tidal surges, might not have felt so enticing.
One possiblity came to me when I was finishing up Marcus Rediker’s brutal but essential book, The Slave Ship: A Human History. Rediker notes the pattern of slaves escaping by jumping overboard, even when the ships were out of sight of land. “One of the most illuminating aspects,” he notes, “was the joy expressed by people once they had gotten into the water.” Isaac Wilson, a sailor testifying in 1790, wrote about a slave who hurled himself into the sea and swam away underwater. The ship’s surgen described the escaped swimmer making “signs which it is impossible for me to describe in words, expressive of the happiness he had in escaping from us” before drowning.
Ecstasy, freedom, and death. The cultural history of immersion does not end there, but it needs to go there.