Boris Johnson rejects any call to ban singing of 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' amid slavery links

Joe Gamp
Contributor, Yahoo News UK
Boris Johnson echoed the RFU’s stance and said there should not be “any sort of prohibition on singing that song”. (PA)

Boris Johnson has rejected any calls to ban the singing of an anthem sung by England rugby supporters due to possible links to Britain’s colonial past.

The prime minister said rugby fans should not be banned from singing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ as the sport’s governing body reviews the historical context of the song amid the current Black Lives Matter movement.

The Rugby Football Union said it is looking at the song’s use by supporters, following calls for an end to racial equality after the death of George Floyd in the US.

However, an RFU spokesperson said it was not calling for an outright ban on the song - but is reviewing the song’s historical context as it is “sung by many who have no awareness of its origins or sensitivities”.

England fans at Twickenham Stadium. (Photo by David Rogers - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

During a visit to a school in Hertfordshire on Friday, Johnson echoed the RFU’s stance and said there should not be “any sort of prohibition on singing that song” - but said he would “love” to hear the lyrics in full.

He said: “As for Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, nobody as far as I understand it seems to know the words – whenever I go to a rugby match… before we start complaining about Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, I’d like to know what the rest of the words are.

“You go ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, coming for to carry me home’, and then it all dies out. How does it go on? That’s my question.

“I certainly don’t think there should be any sort of prohibition on singing that song. My curiosity is why don’t people seem to know the rest of it – I’d love to hear the rest of it.”

It is believed the song has its roots in American slavery, with its credited author being Wallace Willis – a freed slave from 19th century Oklahoma.

Meanwhile, Maggie Alphonsi, who has won 74 caps and a World Cup with England, and currently the only black person on the RFU’s 55-person council, said the song should not be banned.

Former England international and RFU council member Maggie Alphonsi also said the song should not be banned. (Getty Images)

She told Yahoo News UK: “I wouldn’t tell people to stop singing it, because you have to educate people and let them decide for themselves. I personally don't think it should be banned but I think the RFU are right to conduct a review.

“I’m not sure how old I was, but a teammate told me about the song after a game we had played. It wasn’t a huge moment for me, but got me thinking afterwards. I used to sing it all the time as a player and a fan, but after that I stopped because it didn’t sit right with me.

“My only regret was that no one had told me about it earlier. That’s the wider issue; education. Teach people about the song, about slavery, about our country’s colonial past and let them form their opinions based on all the facts.”

England's Mario Itoje during the 2016 RBS Six Nations match at Twickenham Stadium, London.

On Tuesday Maro Itoje, one of England’s star players, spoke about the anthem in an interview with the Daily Mail Sport.

The star said: “I don't think anyone at Twickenham is singing it with malicious intent, but the background of that song is complicated. The need is to make rugby more open to all.”

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