The Independent employs reporters around the world to bring you truly independent journalism. To support us, please consider a contribution.

The Rugby Football Union has announced a review into the historical context of its anthem Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, due to its links to slavery and its regular presence at England internationals.

The anthem has very different connotations either side of the Atlantic Ocean, having originated in the United States as an African-American spiritual, commonly association with slavery and the continuous opression of the black race. The song was sung in the 1800s in an expression of the desire to be released from slavery, and was also frequently sung at funerals – which continues today.

In England though, the song has become well known as England’s rugby anthem, with fans happy to sing it at every Twickenham Test as well as at away games around the world.

Sharing the full story, not just the headlines

The RFU has briefly discussed its presence at Twickenham in the past, but has not taken action and regularly banners the lyrics – which can be seen below – around the stadium during matches to encourage fans to support the team.

But with a new focus cast on racial inequality following the killing of George Floyd in the US, all governing bodies are looking at how they actively tackle systemic racism within everyday life, with the RFU one of those to announce an diversity and inclusion implementation working group to “achieve diversity” and “accelerate change and grow awareness”.

The RFU has not said that it is looking to ban the song from Twickenham, but did confirm that a review will take place into the “historical context” in an effort to educate fans on the song’s origins.

An RFU spokesperson said: “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.”

Coming for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot

Coming for to carry me home

I looked over Jordan and what did I see

Coming for to carry me home

A band of angels coming after me

Coming for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot

Coming for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot

Coming for to carry me home

If you get there before I do

Coming for to carry me home

Tell all my friends I’m coming too

Coming for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot

Coming for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot

Coming for to carry me home

The song was first formally published in the 1870s for the Fisk University Jubilee Singers after being written by Wallace Willis, a Native American slave before the American Civil War. The all-black choir toured the US and Europe and staged concerts that helped spread spirituals both nationwide and overseas. In the following decades the anthem was adopted by choirs in the United Kingdom, but in the 1950s it became a symbol of the American civil rights movement as black people in the US fought for equality.

However, it also came to be a common rugby song thanks to the rude hand gestures that run with the lyrics, regularly sung after matches across England and adopted by a number of clubs as a tradition that continues today.

Eventually, it came to prominence at Twickenham, most notably when Chris Oti became the first black player to represent England in almost 100 years in 1988. Cross-coder Martin Offiah was also anecdotally linked to the song, with fans attempting to use it as a form of appreciation for their efforts rather than a racially-abusive chant. He quickly earned the nickname ‘Chariots Offiah’ in a play on the film Chariot of Fire, and was first believed to have been subjected to Swing Low being sung during a match in 1987.

The presence of the song as an official rugby anthem has divided opinion among the rugby community, but it has shocked those in the US who are fully aware of its history and real connotations.

Arthur Jones, a music history professor and founder of the Spiritual Project at the University of Denver, told the New York Times in 2017 that Swing Low should be used to tell the horrors of slavery and to educate people on what black people had to endure during oppression.

“My first reaction is absolute shock — and I actually understand it when I think about it — but that’s my first reaction,” Jones said. “I feel kind of sad. I feel like the story of American chattel slavery and this incredible cultural tradition, built up within a community of people who were victims and often seen as incapable of standing up for themselves, is such a powerful story that I want the whole world to know about it. But apparently not everyone does.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like

‘The Big One’ happens on Lap 108

Multiple Cup playoff drivers were involved in a large wreck wreck near the start-finish line with 12 laps left in the second stage Sunday at Talladega. The wreck occurred as the field raced through the frontstretch tri-oval. It began when…

‘He doesn’t give a sh*t’: Dana White says Khamzat Chimaev will fight ANYONE, as UFC struggles to lock down opponent (VIDEO)

Makhachev was due to face former UFC lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos on “UFC Fight Island” next weekend at UFC 254, but after the Brazilian tested positive for COVID-19, the rising Russian lightweight contender has been left without a fight.…

Who would win the most World Cup of World Cups?

In the build-up to a major tournament, a huge part of the excitement is imagining what might happen, and so often comes from memories of what happened before. Every competition has its historical narrative, fired by touchstone moments of past,…

‘Not a tragedy’: Russian figure skating legend Tatiana Tarasova supports ISU decision to cancel Junior Grand Prix season

On Monday the skating governing body called off all junior Grand Prix events “on the advice of the Medical Commission and the Council-appointed working group.” READ MORE: ‘Looks like I passed!’ Olympic figure skating champ Alina Zagitova takes Unified State Exam…