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Why Do England Rugby Fans Sing 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot'?

Why Do England Rugby Fans Sing 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot'?
Conor Neville
By Conor Neville
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'Swing Low Sweet Chariot' is a negro spiritual song written by a freed African American slave sometime in the 1860s.

So, naturally, it has been taken up by English rugby supporters at Twickenham.

The song was written by Wallace Willis, a black slave of a Choctaw Indian. According to the African American Registry bio entry on Willis, he was inspired to write the song by the Red River in Oklahoma.

On the day he wrote the hymn, Willis looked out over the cotton field he was tilling and gazed upon the Red River in the distance. This reminded him of the Mississippi River and the plantation his master owned before moving to Doaksville, OK, Indian Territory.

Given the song's history, it seems an unlikely anthem for the hordes who cheer on England at Twickers. But that is what it is.

Apparently, the Irish rugby team's shambolic defending is partly to blame here.

English rugby was in dire shape in the mid 1980s. They finished bottom of the Five Nations in 1987, losing 17-0 to Ireland in Dublin. In the 1988 Five Nations, Wales came to Twickenham and won well.


In their final game, they trailed Jimmy Davidson's Ireland team 3-0 at half time. They had yet to score a try in the championship.

In the second half, their young black winger Chris Oti ran riot. Oti, who played for Wasps, ripped through the Ireland defence, scoring three tries. England scored six tries in all (the others coming through Rory Underwood (2) and Gary Rees) and won the game 35-3.

The match was subsequently hailed as a 'watershed moment' for the England side, akin to Ireland's win over Scotland in 2000. They would emerge as a formidable side in the early 1990s.


According to a 2006 article in the Observer, after Oti completed his hat-trick, a bunch of schoolboys from Douai began belting out 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot'.

The song had been commonly sung in schools rugby circles in England, in which the words were altered to render it sexually explicit. It was usually sung as part of a drinking game and was invariably accompanied by sexually explicit hand gestures.


So the story goes, soon after the Douai boys began their rendition, the entire crowd were belting out the song. An anthem was born. And thus did a song written by an African American slave in the nineteenth century become the anthem of the English rugby team.

Read more: Johnny Sexton Gives Revealing Insight Into The Attitude Of French Rugby Players


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