High Holborn Bath

The story of Scyllias and Hydna

In 1844, a Canadian promoter took nine Ojibbeway Indians to London. Their appearance, wrote the promoter, “affords an opportunity, never before presented to the British public, of obtaining a personal acquaintance with the appearance, habits, manners and customs of these curious and fast-fading tribes.”

During the visit, two of the Ojibbeways were invited to give a swimming exhibition at the High Holborn Bath. The event was recorded for posterity in the Times of London:

The Ojibbeway Indians -- April 20, 1844 -- In consequence of the British Swimming Society having promised a first-class silver medal to the best swimmer of the Ojibbeway Indians, the swimming Bath in High Holborn (right), where the match was to be decided, was crowded with visitors. The Flying Gull (We-nish-kawea- bee) and Tobacco (Sah-ma) were selected as competitors, the rest of the party being seated to witness the trial of skill. At a signal they jumped into the bath, and, on a pistol being discharged, struck out and swam to the other end, of the bath, a distance of 130 ft., in less than half a minute. The Flying Gull was the victor by 7 feet. They swam back again to the starting-place, where Flying Gull was a second time the victor. The style of swimming is totally un-European. They lash the water violently with their arms, like the sails of a windmill, and beat downwards with their feet, blowing with force, and forming grotesque antics. They then dived from one end of the bath to the other with the rapidity of an arrow, and almost as straight a tension of limb. Mr. Harold Kenworthy, the well-known English swimmer, went through a series of scientific feats in the course of the day, and, after the above match, beat the Indians in swimming with the greatest ease.

There are many explanations as to why the Englishman, using the breaststroke, was able to defeat the two Ojibbeways. The Ojibbeways were British Allies during the time of Tecumseh’s War and the War of 1812. They were driven into Canada where they occupied the shores of Lake’s Huron and Superior. While swimming was still a tradition, they probably hadn’t been in the water in months or even years and the tribe in general, was beginning to lose its aquatic skills as they no longer roamed into the more temperate climates that extended their swimming season. Nor, as we have seen, were all Indians great swimmers. In London, they competed against England’s best and lost, proving to the English that the breaststroke was superior to the “uncivilized” Indian style.

Following the swimming exhibition of the Ojibbeways in London, the promoter encountered financial problems and the nine fell under contract to George Catlin, who befriended them, used them in his exhibitions, supported them and made several sketches and paintings of them in the book he subsequently wrote about them.


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