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‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ – Rousing Rugby Anthem or an Ode to Slavery?

If you are a rugby fan, then you must be pretty familiar with the unofficial anthem of the sport, Swing Low Sweet Chariot. It might get your blood pumping and make the game more exciting, but did you know that the song has roots in slavery? It was actually created by African slaves way back when slavery was accepted and was adopted by England’s supporters when it was sung at Twickenham in 1988 by a couple of schoolboys during the Five Nations Cup.



A few rugby club members claim that they were the ones who started the trend; apparently, one of them started singing the song during the same match which was picked up by the crowd. However, if the former version is true then this makes the situation quite controversial due to its link with slavery. Allegedly the schoolboys sung Swing Low to mock Chris Oti, an African American rugby player. Perhaps a look at the song’s history will shed more light on the controversy.

Origins of ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’

‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ is considered an iconic song and was placed in the National Archives of the Library of Congress due to its apparent historical value. Recognised as the ‘song of the century’ by recording industries when it was rendered in 1909 by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, it has been covered by almost every musician to date. The history is a bit cloudy, but historians agree that it has its roots in slavery and was composed by slaves to give them hope of a better future.


However, some are of the opinion that the song was actually a coded message that offered escape plans and even maps that the slaves could use to escape. This was similar to the song ‘Wade in the Water’ another rugby anthem that allegedly taught slaves how to evade bloodhounds when they were escaping. Similarly, the lyrics of ‘Follow The Drinking Gourd’ provided a detailed map that lead North to freedom; the refrain comprised of specific directions such as following the Big Dipper and several lyrics such as ‘the river ends between two hills’ showed them how to reach specific landmarks.


The song was written by Wallas Willis, a freed African American slave who was inspired by the Red River since it reminded him of the Biblical river that took Prophet Elijah to the heavens on a chariot. However, regardless of its origin, the song has been sung by rugby players and fans for decades and even during drinking games. It is mostly favoured by English supporters since the schoolboys who allegedly made it popular in-game were seated there and would sing whenever a try was scored.


The rest as they say, is history. Despite its depressing origins, ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ is still sung in rugby houses, pubs and during drinking games. If you are in search of a sports bar that has the best food, great people and sports fans galore, then you need to visit Trinity Bar Venue.

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