The slavery row over England’s rugby anthem

Defiant: Swing Low gets everyone hyped up, according to one England rugby fan. © PA

As England’s rugby team go for their 19th consecutive win tomorrow, a debate has erupted over their anthem, the origins of which lie in slavery. Is ‘cultural appropriation’ a bad thing?

If you go to an England rugby match, there is one song you will hear more than any other — including “God Save the Queen.”

“Swing low, sweet chariot. Coming for to carry me home.”

To the English ear, it conjures up memories of stunning victories on the rugby field. It is a boisterous drinking anthem, dating from 1988 when it was first sung at Twickenham.

But “Swing Low” is, in fact, an American slave song, whose “forlorn lyrics invoke the darkness of slavery and the sustained oppression of a race”, according to Andrew Keh in The New York Times.

So is it right for England fans to sing a song loaded with memories of suffering and racism?

According to Josephine Wright, an American professor, the answer is “no”. She has accused rugby fans of cultural appropriation. Wright says it shows “a total lack of understanding of the historical context in which those songs were created by the American slave”.

But the RFU believes there is a sufficient disconnect between the song’s origins as a spiritual and it being sung in support of the team.

Should England rugby fans kick their song into touch?

Culturally inappropriate

“Get a grip and let us sing what we want”, say many rugby fanatics. Cultural overlap is both inevitable and a very good thing, and most England fans are well aware of the song’s origins. People must be free to broaden their horizons without being scared of the prospect of offending a few thin-skinned people. It is only a song.

It is very easy to dismiss these complaints if you are a white, English rugby fan, say others. This is a serious, mournful song, and it is clearly wrong for a bunch of boozy rugby fans to sing it without a second’s thought for its origins. They are trivialising the suffering of millions, whether they mean it or not.

You Decide

  1. Should England fans stop singing Swing low, Sweet Chariot?


  1. Write your own song to replace Swing Low, Sweet Chariot as England fans’ rugby anthem.

Some People Say...

“Offence is taken, not given.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Did previous generations care about cultural appropriation?
This is a relatively new debate. The term did not register on Google searches until 2009. In a globalised world where trade and travel are easy, there is now much more cultural interaction than there was before, which leads to questions about the extent to which different cultures should merge.

Word Watch

Six Nations
An annual international rugby tournament held between England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France and Italy.
Cultural appropriation
Using elements of another culture in your own without knowledge of their history.
The 82,000 capacity home of English rugby.
English rugby’s governing body, the Rugby Football Union.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.