Rule Britannia may no longer be ruling at Proms, with musicians and academics calling for the ‘racist’ and ‘imperialist’ song to be scrapped from the show. It comes alongside a drive for change as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement. Are these claims an overreaction? Let’s take a look at the origins of the song and lyrics to find out.
Origins of Rule Britannia
The words from ‘Rule Britannia’ come from the poem of the same name by James Thomson. Music was added to the lyrics by composer Thomas Arne in 1740. It was penned during the Second Hundred Years’ War; a time of conflict between France and Great Britain. The latter used the anthem to celebrate the power of the British Empire at the time. It was even played during the ceremonial surrender of the Japanese imperial army in 1945.
Nowadays, the song is used to honour Army veterans for their years of service.
What are the lyrics?
The words “Britons never will be slaves” apparently hints at British superiority.
Chi- chi Nwanoku, a member of the BAME community who founded the orchestra ChinekeBritons, added: “Shall never be slaves implies that it’s OK for others to be slaves but not us.”
Also controversial is the line: “The nations, not so blest as thee, Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall” which seems to insinuate a sense of British superiority.
The lyrics clearly pay ode to a time of colonialism. The slave trade was a large part of the British Empire. ‘Triangular trade’ allowed British ships filled with British goods to be exchanged for Africans slaves at West African shores.
These slaves were then transported to America, where they were forced to work in plantations. Americans would repay the British by giving them products made from slave labour, such as sugar and rum which aided the growth of the Empire.
It is that context that makes it unsurprising that Rule Britannia is coming under scrutiny.
What happens next?
For years, the song has been a regular feature at Proms and a celebration of British culture for some and a ‘racist’ and outdated anthem for others. It leaves the BBC with a tough decision to make. It is no surprise that it is yet to give its judgement.
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