Learie Constantine: local boy makes good

When cricketer and politician Learie Constantine was ennobled, he was claimed by his hometowns in Trinidad – and Lancashire

Constantine at his investiture at the House of Lords in 1969, when he became Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson. Photograph courtesy Macmillan CaribbeanConstantine was called to the bar, but had little time to practise the profession. Photograph courtesy Macmillan CaribbeanConstantine`s all-action batting style set league cricket alight. Photograph courtesy Macmillan Caribbean

In 1929, in the unlikely setting of Nelson, a smoky Lancashire mill community, the high-octane Trinidadian cricketer took his chance to become the town cricket club’s professional, and in the process to lay down the foundations of an extraordinary life in the public eye. What he did in that grimy setting over the next 20 years not only confirmed his status as a trailblazer in cricket, but in the political life of both the Caribbean and Britain, where he played a high-profile role in fostering black nationalism and the cause of racial equality.

It would be no exaggeration to say that it was Constantine’s relationship with Nelson that provided the springboard for his later achievements as a welfare worker, broadcaster, politician, author, diplomat, barrister and campaigner. Without those formative years in a northern industrial town, it’s unlikely he would have gone on to hold high office in the first government of an independent Trinidad, that he would have been honoured as Britain’s first black peer, or that he would have been able to cement his place as the most popular and high-profile black public figure in 20th- century British history.

Constantine arrived in Nelson with his wife Norma in April 1929 on the back of a personally successful West Indies tour of England the year before, when his explosive batting, combative fast bowling and astonishingly lithe fielding had captured the imagination of the British public. He was by now 27, but had been unable to engineer a good living in Trinidad playing cricket, or to make any headway in his lowly job as a law clerk in Port of Spain. He was desperate for a way to move his life forwards, and Nelson gave him the opening he was looking for.

Keen to capitalise on the interest that Constantine had generated on tour in England, Nelson offered him a contract to be their professional in the Lancashire League for the 1929 season, and he was an immediate hit.

Earning £500 a season, Constantine’s exciting brand of cricket almost doubled the match attendances of 7,000 that Nelson was accustomed to, and the extra money wiped out the club’s debts almost overnight. Although many great Test players followed in Constantine’s trailblazing league cricket footsteps, none were ever able to reach the heights of popularity he attained in his nine years at Nelson – during which time the previously moderately successful club won the league seven times and were runners-up twice.

Constantine captured the hearts of the cricketing public not just in Nelson but across Britain. Allied to his on-the-field pursuits, he was the model professional off it. But being a man of substance in a foreign land had its pressures. While Constantine was almost immediately popular on the pitch at Nelsons’ Seedhill ground, there was wariness in the town at large. While the townsfolk had hosted other professionals before him, they were unaccustomed to outsiders, and were doubly ill at ease with the sight of a black man in their midst. Constantine would often be followed by a throng of curious small boys, most of whom had never seen a black man before, while children coming home from the school opposite his home would jump up at the front window so they could get a look at the strange new couple. There was always intense interest – and a fair amount of staring – when Norma or her husband ventured out to the corner shop for provisions.

On one occasion, a boy whom Constantine had befriended met him in floods of tears after his first day at school. “Uncle Learie, you never told me you were coloured,” he said. Constantine realised his classmates “had given him a bad time when they discovered that he had a friend with a different-coloured skin.” While there were welcoming letters from ordinary members of the public, there were abusive ones too, often racist.

In truth, although there was plenty of general courtesy from the locals, there was little outward friendliness in those early days, and friendships were hard to come by. Later Constantine put much of the edginess down to ignorance and unfamiliarity rather than malice, and acknowledged that it takes time to be welcomed into such tight-knit communities.

For the second season at Nelson, he and Norma came back from Trinidad with four-year-old Gloria. Her ice-breaking presence helped to soften attitudes and make the couple more at home. The family began to go on day trips and picnics with groups of local people, and had some involvement with a social club that would draw them into dinners and summer outings. They lived in the town for the next 20 years, until well after Constantine had stopped playing for the local team, and grew to love the place.

Though he was from halfway across the world, Constantine suited Nelson, for like the locals he was not given to bravura, nor overly concerned with status. His arrival at the club coincided with the beginning of the depression, and as many of the cotton mills closed, he saw levels of poverty in Nelson that he had never witnessed so close at hand in Trinidad. While he was one of the wealthiest people around, he was always careful with his money and never given to ostentatious displays of wealth.

He also fitted in well with the nonconformist streak in Nelson by being a non-smoking non-drinker who didn’t gamble. While he certainly had charisma, he had humility too.

These qualities allowed Constantine to settle. But he was also helped by another factor – the arrival of a fellow Trinidadian in town. The intellectual CLR James had talked to Constantine about his idea of sailing to London and developing his writing. Constantine also had plans for a book about his experiences, and in 1931 he broached the subject with James, suggesting he should come to England to help him write it, living at his home in Nelson if necessary.

James took Constantine up on his offer, setting sail for England in March 1932. The move was to have a big impact on both men’s lives. “Within five weeks we had unearthed the politician in each other,” said James. “Within five months we were supplementing each other in a working partnership which had West Indies’ self-government as its goal.”

Although Nelson was thousands of miles from the Caribbean, it proved a useful cradle for their activities. James found the people of Lancashire had “an inordinate appetite for asking Constantine to come to speak to them”. Constantine began taking James along to such meetings for company and moral support, and soon James was either standing in for him or performing a double act. Audiences were keen to hear about life in Trinidad, and this inevitably led Constantine and James to talk of social and political conditions there.

Public meetings were not the only forum in which James and Constantine performed. Local people would drop by Constantine’s house for a chat, and kitchen-table conversations often revolved around the politics of the local labour movement. An energised James joined both the Independent Labour Party and the League of Coloured Peoples, a body set up in 1931 to lobby for better treatment of black people in Britain.

While Constantine discreetly signed up to the latter, he refrained from joining the former, conscious that as a professional cricketer he did not want to be seen to be taking up a consciously political role in the town. Although he valued James as a friend at this stage, he also probably saw that his new lodger could act as his proxy, expressing views that he would be less willing to make known in public.

His ally spent only a year in Nelson  – “a year of growth for both of us,”’said James – but Constantine did an inordinate amount for him, and effectively acted as his sponsor. He helped James get regular work with the Manchester Guardian, and, importantly, also paid for the publication, in Nelson, of The Case for West Indian Self -Government, a 32-page pamphlet by James that contributed to the Caribbean nationalist struggles that began from that time onwards.

While Constantine had done a lot for James, James also did something for Constantine. His fellow countryman gave him the confidence to write his first book, Cricket and I, published in 1933, which brought into the open some of the racial tensions that were undermining West Indies cricket. James’s presence in England also gave Constantine the impetus to start the studies that would set him on the long road to becoming a barrister and politician. And on a personal level, James was also a valuable West Indian companion in a town where it would have been easy to feel isolated.

Nonetheless, James quickly grew to appreciate, as much as Constantine, the warm local glow that had wrapped itself around the household in Nelson. While the cricketer’s charm, sense of fun, and easy manners had undoubtedly conquered Nelson, James saw that the Nelson people had also conquered him.

Constantine played for Nelson for almost a decade, far longer than most professionals stayed at any club. He continued to live in the town until the late 1940s, and, as its favourite son, was made a freeman of the borough in 1963. Later, in 1969, by then knighted and a pillar of the British establishment, Constantine was awarded a peerage. He claimed the honour as “a recognition for all West Indians”, and took the title of Baron Constantine of Maraval in Trinidad and Nelson in the County Palatine of Lancaster, acknowledging not just his place of birth but his love for the town where he had made his life. The Nelson Leader newspaper proudly proclaimed the news under the headline:  “Local boy makes good”.

 

This is an edited extract from Learie Constantine, one of the series of Caribbean Lives published by Macmillan Caribbean