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  • Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora by Kevin Dawson
  • Douglas Booth
Dawson, Kevin. Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018. Pp. 351. Index and illustrations. $45.00, hb.

In Undercurrents of Power, Kevin Dawson expounds on the practices of swimming, diving, and canoeing among Africans during the transatlantic slave trade. Unlike Europeans who, prior to the twentieth century, generally lacked swimming skills and were afraid of the sea, African men and women were at ease with, and in, the ocean, rivers, and lakes. "Aquatics," writes Dawson, was "woven" into Africans' "spiritual beliefs, economies, social structures, political institutions, and worldviews"; ultimately, they shaped societies on both sides of [End Page 412] the Atlantic (11–12). This is a new thesis in a field dominated by historians who have long dismissed the Atlantic as a mere "obstacle over which settlers had to pass in order to play their . . . roles as conquerors, planters, or Christians" (252) and minimized African contributions to the cultural, social, and economic development of the Americas.

Rather than a single narrative, Undercurrents of Power comprises a score of arguments around swimming culture (Part I, five chapters) and canoe culture (Part II, seven chapters). Many of the arguments will interest historians of sport. Here I mention five.

Centrality of Water: Dawson argues that swimming and canoeing were inextricably entwined in African lives. The former was a form of amusement and a tool of socialization, the latter a principal means of transport. Playing with the sea and "interacting with surf, currents, and tides" was an educational experience for African youths who learned about the rhythms of the ocean and hydrography (24). In these aquatic "play spaces," they also confronted the horrors of slavery where they saw the bodies of dead slaves tossed overboard (35). As evidence of African aquatic skills, Dawson cites their use of the efficient and fast "crawl" stroke at a time when Europeans favored breaststroke, and he emphasizes European dependency on African canoemen and their specialized canoes to transfer goods and people through surf from shore to ship.

Exploitation and Opportunities: Slaveholders exploited the aquatic skills of Africans directing them to, inter alia, scrape barnacles from ship hulls, dive for treasure and salvage, harvest pearls and lobsters, and clear fisheries of debris. Paradoxically, exploitation of African aquatic labor also created opportunities for Africans with free-diving skills—the ability to dive deep with only the air in one's lungs—who maintained at least some control over their conditions of work and lives. According to Dawson, members of these "semi-fraternal orders" "enjoyed considerable mobility, weaving far-reaching networks of friendships and family as they traveled"; some even bought "freedom for themselves and their family members." Of course, the work was "arduous and dangerous," resulted in many deaths, and generated far more wealth for slaveowners than slaves (86). Interestingly, Dawson notes that neither canoe-makers nor canoeists wielded as much influence over their conditions of work. Nonetheless, in some instances, their "expertise" enabled them to negotiate "limited privileges" (171).

Cultural and Muscle Memory: Dawson proposes that aquatics "took on new meanings" across the Atlantic where it became "a cultural marker and form of cultural resilience and resistance" (36). In his eloquently phrased words, "enslaved Africans drew on the cultural and muscle memory of their liquid worlds to create new communities of meaning and value in the Americas" (22). Swimming, for example, allowed Africans to "demonstrate agility, strength, and stamina," to "express . . . personal and group identities," and to "subvert . . . slaveholders' control" (19).

Canoes: Mainstream history recounts that "Amerindians taught enslaved Africans to construct dugouts" (99) and finds no place for African canoeists or their craft in the new world. Dawson debunks this orthodoxy. He demonstrates that canoes were "central modes of transportation in New World slave societies" and that enslaved canoeists were crucial to "transporting slave-produced cash crops to river ports and sea ports and from wharves to ships at anchor" (163). He shows that Amerindians and Africans used different methods to construct their craft, which also followed different designs, and he illustrates how the songs sung by African-descended canoeists to set paddling rhythms...


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