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English rugby stars have broadly welcomed a decision by the sport’s ruling board to review the historical context of the popular anthem “Swing low, Sweet chariot”, though most have stopped short of calling for it to be banned over its link to slavery.
The anthem, believed to have been written by a slave in the mid-19th century, has been a mainstay with England fans since the 1980s, with its lyrics displayed all around Twickenham Stadium.
However, with widespread protests against racial injustice following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis last month, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) said it wanted to educate supporters about the song’s origins.
“The RFU has stated we need to do more to achieve diversity and we are determined to accelerate change,” an RFU spokesperson was quoted as saying by British media 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,” the spokesman said. “We are reviewing its historical context and our role in educating fans to make informed decisions.”
Some facts about ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’:
Written by Wallace Willis after his emancipation. About the railroad which helped slaves escape to freedom.
The official song of Oklahoma State. It was performed at Woodstock in 1969. The Nazi party banned it for being “undesirable”.
— Tim Cocker (@cocker) June 19, 2020
The decision prompted a flurry of reactions, including from Downing Street.
Weighing in on the issue on Friday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Sky News he did not think there should be “any sort of prohibition” on singing the song.
He added: “Frankly I think what people need to do is focus less on the symbols of discrimination… all these issues that people are now raising to do with statues and songs and so on — I can see why they’re very emotive, I understand that.
“But what I want to focus on is the substance of the issue.”
England international Maro Itoje was among the first to discuss the song’s “complicated” background earlier this week.
“Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think anyone at Twickenham is singing it with malicious intent,” he told the Daily Mail. “But the background of that song is 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.
Happy Juneteenth! It commemorates the declaration of the emancipation of slaves in Texas in 1865 and is now a holiday in 49 states, with a campaign to make it a national holiday. It is customary, by the way, at Juneteenth Jamborees for everyone to sing Swing Low Sweet Chariot. pic.twitter.com/tvlOVM5ywb
— Richard Coles (@RevRichardColes) June 19, 2020
It became popular with England fans the following year when Chris Oti, another black player, scored a hat-trick against Ireland at Twickenham.
Offiah, a former rugby league and union wing, has welcomed the RFU review but said he did not want it banned either.
“It’s definitely an emotional piece of music, very emotive, it stirs up feelings and that’s probably something to do with its history,” Offiah told Radio 5 Live.
“That history is probably not that well known by a lot of people in the UK. I champion the RFU reviewing it, I wouldn’t support the banning of such a song. When you do try to ban things like that it just makes the song more divisive,” Offiah said.
He added: “If this review leads to the RFU putting a positive spin on this song, engaging with ethnic communities, looking at the rooms where decisions are made in the RFU and addressing those issues, that’s what we actually want.”
‘Always hated it’
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.
“I have always hated it,” Moore told the Telegraph.
“It is not appropriate. It has slave connotations and if the RFU makes that ruling I would be pleased,” he added.
About Swing Low, Sweet Chariot –
1. This was sung in rugby clubs when I was still a colt and well before Martin Offiah and Chris Oti played senior rugby.
2. It was sung because of the rude gestures that went with it and without any thought of its origins.
— Brian Moore (@brianmoore666) June 18, 2020
Maggie Alphonsi, who won 74 England caps between 2003 and 2014, also admitted the song no longer “sits easy” with her.
“I remember singing it a lot when I was young, throughout my England career,” she told Sky Sports News. “It wasn’t until someone told me about the song and its connections that I stopped singing it.”
Alphonsi added: “The song does not sit easy with me when I hear it, because I now know the connections with it. But I also know that people singing it today are not singing it to offend.”
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AFP)