Learie Constantine

Harry Pearson’s article on Learie Constantine appeared in the 2021 edition of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.

When the ECB announced that the Wisden Trophy was to be replaced, a number of wise commentators suggested this might be the ideal opportunity to honour Learie Constantine, the great West Indies all-rounder. Without his intervention it’s doubtful the trophy would have come into existence.

When the Almanack reached its 100th edition in 1963, John Wisden & Co chairman Ken Medlock was keen to commemorate the milestone, and it was Constantine, a long-time family friend, who suggested a trophy for the winner of England–West Indies Test series. Constantine knew from experience how the game had the power to forge bonds and dismantle prejudice. The Wisden Trophy would be a celebration of the sporting and cultural ties between Britain and the Caribbean, of commonality rather than difference. But Medlock’s approach to MCC was politely rebuffed, and Constantine, a man whose influence stretched far beyond cricket – by then he was Trinidad & Tobago’s high commissioner in London, and had recently been knighted – petitioned the West Indies Cricket Board of Control. MCC swiftly reconsidered.

There was more to it than that, though. The trophy was inaugurated in the summer of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. In 2020, when the Black Lives Matter movement was given fresh worldwide impetus by the brutal death of George Floyd, Constantine’s achievements in battling racial injustice would have merited lasting recognition from those who run the game he loved and adorned.

Born on a cocoa plantation in rural Trinidad, and the grandson of a slave, Constantine was the first true star of Caribbean cricket. He bowled with electric pace and hostility, clobbered the ball with exuberance, and fielded with such acrobatic panache that reports from West Indies’ first tour of Australia in 1930/31 suggested he had taken a catch in the covers while turning a cartwheel. Constantine’s dash and charisma encouraged the apocryphal, and few who saw him in action ever forgot. In 1928, playing for the West Indians on their first tour as a Test team, he created a sensation against Middlesex at Lord’s, taking a seven-for with his ferocious bowling, and smashing a century in an hour – including one blow that ricocheted off Father Time. Shortly after, Constantine signed to play as the professional for Nelson in the Lancashire League, becoming one of the highest-paid sportsmen in Britain. Soon, he would be one of the nation’s first black celebrities, too.

Constantine came to play in Lancashire not only for financial betterment, but to escape the deeply rooted racial discrimination of the colonial Caribbean. In Trinidad, the darker a person’s skin, the narrower the field of opportunities. Constantine was, in the jargon of the time and place, a “black man”, and at the bottom of a hierarchy topped by whites. On the field, he was a first-class cricketer; off it, a third-class citizen.

His arrival in Nelson caused a stir: he and his family were the first black people most Lancashire folk had seen. Children queued to peep through the Constantines’ kitchen window and watch them eating. Initially, Learie found the curiosity unbearable, but his wife, Norma – always a calming influence – counselled forbearance: “They will get used to us.”

“Nearly all the prejudice I have ever encountered,” Constantine would later write, “was based on ignorance.” It was a situation he worked hard to rectify. When not playing cricket or studying for a law degree, he toured the North – often accompanied by his friend CLR James. They gave lectures about the West Indies, and made the case for home rule at a time when the prevailing opinion was, at best, that West Indians were cheerful but unruly children who needed a firm – white – hand to guide them.

Though Norma was right, in the main, prejudice did not evaporate, even in the part of Lancashire where people came to embrace Constantine as one of their own. There was a rancorous encounter with East Lancashire’s South African pro, Jim Blanckenberg, an unapologetic racist who refused to shake his hand. Meanwhile, the former Derbyshire player Archie Slater, the pro at Colne, tried to unsettle Constantine with racially charged sledging. In both cases the response was a furious barrage of bouncers that left Blanckenberg covered in bruises, and Colne seeking peace talks. 

If the actions of Slater and Blanckenberg seem unconscionable today, they reflected the attitude of certain first-class professionals of the era. When Australian fast bowler Ted McDonald left Lancashire in 1931, Constantine appeared an obvious replacement. However, after an initial approach, the club committee dropped the idea when their pros let it be known they would oppose his appointment. “It would have seemed wrong seeing a black man sitting where an Englishman should have been,” one later commented. 

His rip-roaring success at Nelson – who won the Lancashire League seven times while he was there – paved the way for scores of top-class West Indians to make a living playing in northern England at a time when there was no professional cricket in the Caribbean. Among those who benefited was West Indies’ first regular black captain, Frank Worrell, who led his side to victory in the inaugural Wisden Trophy.

Constantine’s career as an international cricketer – he played in 18 Tests, helping West Indies to their first victories over England and Australia – ended at The Oval in August 1939. When war broke out, he might have returned to the safety of Trinidad; instead, with typical integrity, he remained in England. Working for the ministry of labour as a welfare officer, he helped the great influx of Caribbean workers who had come to aid the war effort settle in an alien – and sometimes hostile – land.

He was awarded an MBE for his work, but not everybody in England was appreciative. In 1943, the Constantines tried to check into the Imperial Hotel in London, having booked a room and paid a deposit. When they arrived, however, the manager refused – describing them, within earshot, in the most offensive terms. Incensed, Constantine resolved to act. Since there were no laws against racial discrimination in Britain at the time, he sued for breach of contract. His victory in Constantine v Imperial Hotels was a landmark in the politics of the UK. He would go on to help dozens of other black and Asian immigrants bring similar cases, giving a redress against bigotry to those who had previously been powerless.

In the 1950s, Constantine returned to Trinidad and, as a key figure in the People’s National Movement, helped lead his nation to the self-rule he had so often championed to audiences in northern England. He came back to the UK as his country’s first high commissioner. In 1963, the year of the first Wisden Trophy – in the acrimonious Bristol Bus Company dispute, which had begun when the firm banned the hiring of black or Asian crews. His tactful negotiations helped end the ban, and his consultations with Harold Wilson’s Labour government during the affair led to the passing of the 1965 Race Relations Act.

In 1969, he was elevated to the House of Lords, the upper chamber’s first black member. Fittingly for a man who was a hero in both the West Indies and England, he included in his title Maraval, the village in which he had grown up, and Nelson, the cotton town he had come to think of as home.

Constantine was a sparkling cricketer, yet it was his achievements off the field as an amiable, good-humoured but forceful campaigner for equality that remain his true legacy. Like Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali and Colin Kaepernick, Learie Constantine is an athlete whose refusal to be cowed by bigotry changed the way we look at the world. Perhaps his name deserves to be attached to something more important than a cricket trophy.

Harry Pearson is the author of Connie: The Marvellous Life of Learie Constantine (Little, Brown). He lives in Hexham, the birthplace of Kent seamer Norman Graham, and is almost as tall.