American academics have lashed out at English rugby fans for their use of the black slave anthem "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot".

The song was first adopted by rugby crowds in 1988, after England completed an impressive comeback victory over Ireland.

On that day, Chris Oti - the first black player to represent England for 80 years - scored three tries.

But the refrain is believed to have origins in the 19th century, where it is believed to refer to the secret Underground Railroad movement that helped slaves escape from captivity into free states and Canada.


It was rekindled during the US Civil Rights movements of the 1960s and has been covered by various artists over the years, including a stirring performance by Joan Baez at the legendary 1969 Woodstock festival.

But Josephine Wright, a professor of music and black studies at the College of Wooster in Ohio, has slammed the insensitivity of sports fans as "unfortunate".

"Such cross-cultural appropriations of US slave songs betray a total lack of understanding of the historical context in which those songs were created by the American slave," she told the New York Times.

Wooster's sports teams are known as the Fighting Scots.

Music history professor Arthur Jones said he was saddened that the meaning of the song is lost, when crowds chant it at sporting events.

"I feel like the story of American chattel slavery and this incredible cultural tradition, built up within a community of people who victims and often seen as incapable of standing up for themselves, is such a powerful story that I want the whole world to know about it.

"But apparently not everyone does."

In 1993, The Independent speculated that the song was "a backhanded compliment" used whenever a black athlete was playing well.

One reader apparently described it as "slightly racist, but in the best possible taste".
Obviously, not everyone agrees with that assessment.

Another story suggests that pupils at Douai School in Woolhampton, England, sang the song as part of a try celebration and the tradition caught on from there.