England fans singing of 'Swing Low' under review due to slavery links


London (AFP)

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.

Fans have been accused before of "cultural appropriation" when belting out 'Swing Low' both at England's 80,000 capacity Twickenham headquarters in London, where it has become something of an anthem, and in 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 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 and tipped as a potential captain of the British and Irish Lions in South Africa next year, recently said the background of the song was "complicated".

Reportedly written by American slave Wallace Willis sometime before 1860, '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.

This week chief executive Bill Sweeney vowed to increase diversity within the RFU following the appointment of Genevieve Glover as chair of the union's diversity and inclusion implementation working group.

Former England women's international Maggie Alphonsi is the only one of the RFU's 55 council members who is black and Sweeney said: "We have undertaken some very good initiatives at the grassroots level to encourage more diverse participation. However, that in itself is not enough.

"We need to do more to achieve diversity across all areas of the game including administration."