England fans’ singing of ‘Swing Low’ under review over slavery links

'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' has been a familiar song at Twickenham for more than 30 years . AFP/Adrian DENNIS

‘The RFU has stated we need to do more to achieve diversity and we are determined to accelerate change and grow awareness,’ a spokesperson said.

The Rugby Football Union is looking into the singing of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot by England fans amid suggestions many supporters are unaware of its origins as a song about American slavery.

England followers have been accused before of “cultural appropriation” when singing Swing Low both at England’s 80,000 capacity Twickenham headquarters in London, where it has become an anthem, and during away games.

But the recent Black Lives Matter protests, which included the toppling of a statue of a slave trader in the English city of Bristol, have led many British organisations to examine their historic links to slavery.

“The RFU has stated we need to do more to achieve diversity and we are determined to accelerate change and grow awareness,” a spokesperson for the English game’s governing body said on Thursday.

“The Swing Low, Sweet Chariot song has long been part of the culture of rugby and is sung by many who have no awareness of its origins or sensitivities.

“We are reviewing its historical context and our role in educating fans to make informed decisions.”

England forward Maro Itoje, one of several black and mixed race players in the current squad, recently said the background of the song was “complicated”.

Reportedly written by American slave Wallace Willis sometime in the mid 19th Century, ‘Swing Low’ is first believed to have been sung at Twickenham when Martin ‘Chariots’ Offiah (his nickname derived from the Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire) was playing in the 1987 Middlesex Sevens tournament.

It became popular with England fans the following year when Chris Oti, another black player, scored a hat-trick against Ireland at Twickenham.

But former England hooker Brian Moore, who said he could remember Swing Low being sung in junior rugby clubs during the 1970s, insisted he would have no qualms about it being banned by the RFU — even though the lyrics can currently be seen all round Twickenham.

“I have always hated it,” he told the Telegraph.

“It is not appropriate. It has slave connotations and if the RFU makes that ruling I would be pleased.”

But Daniel Hannan, a British Conservative politician and a former member of the European Parliament, said opposition to Swing Low at rugby matches was “demented”, adding no one singing the song was doing so maliciously and that no one listening to it had been hurt.

Others asked how fans would be stopped from belting out Swing Low.

Meanwhile Jack Duncan, a member of London rugby club Harlequins, tweeted that talk of a ban “felt like a dog whistle from the right-wing press to give people an excuse to turn on BLM using the whole ‘where will it end!?’ angle”.

This is not the first time rugby fans have faced calls to stop singing a favourite song.

Delilah, a hit for Welsh pop star Tom Jones in the late 1960s, is a familiar sound at Wales games.

But Chris Bryant, the Labour MP for Rhondda, has said Delilah should no longer be heard at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium because “the truth is that song is about the murder of a prostitute” and glorifies violence against women.

RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney said this week the organisation had to do more “to achieve diversity across all areas of the game including administration”, with former England women’s international Maggie Alphonsi the only black member of its 55-strong council.

For more news your way, download The Citizen’s app for iOS and Android.

today in print