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Learie Constantine


Learie Constantine, the son of a test cricketer, was born at Diego Martin, Trinidad, on 21st September, 1901. He worked in a solicitor's office before beginning a career in cricket. He made his test debut while touring England in 1928. The following year Constantine moved to England and joined the Nelson team in the Lancashire Cricket League.

Constantine became captain of the West Indies and led the team to their first victory in a test match in 1930. He also played an important role in West Indies winning the series against England in 1934-35. After retiring from test cricket he became a commentator for the British Broadcasting Corporation.

During the Second World War Constantine worked as a welfare officer for the labour ministry. Based in Liverpool his main responsibility was to help West Indian immigrants find employment in Britain. In 1943 Constantine was refused service in a British hotel because of his colour. He took the owners of the hotel to court and won his case. Later he wrote Colour Bar (1954), with his friend, C. L. R. James. The book dealt with the subject of racial prejudice in Britain.

After studying law Constantine gained entrance to the English bar in 1954. Later he returned to Trinidad where he became involved in politics. A member of the People's National Movement, he served in the government as minister of community works and utilities. When Trinidad gained independence he became his country's first high commissioner to London.

In 1964 resigned as high commissioner but stayed in Britain where he held several important positions. This included being governor of the BBC, a member of the Race Relations Board and the Sports Council. In 1969 Constantine became the first person of African descent to gain a life peerage.

Learie Constantine died of lung cancer in Hampstead, London, on 1st July, 1971.


Learie Constantine, Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson

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Learie Constantine, Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, original name in full Learie Nicholas Constantine, (born September 21, 1901, Diego Martin, Trinidad—died July 1, 1971, London, England), Trinidadian professional cricketer and government official.

Constantine’s play at Lord’s Cricket Ground, London, in June 1928 first made British audiences aware of the high quality of West Indian cricket. In the same year, Constantine became the first West Indian player in England to achieve the double of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets in a single season. He was a powerful hitter and one of the greatest fielders of all time.

A solicitor’s clerk as a young man, Constantine was called to the Trinidadian bar in 1955 and the next year was appointed minister of works and transport in Trinidad in the new People’s National Movement government. From 1962 (when Trinidad and Tobago became an independent nation within the Commonwealth) until 1964, he served in London as his country’s high commissioner. In 1966 he became a member of the British national Race Relations Board, and from 1968 he was rector of the University of St. Andrews (Fife) and a governor (director) of the British Broadcasting Corporation. Constantine wrote several books on cricket and one book, Colour Bar (1954), on the race problem. Knighted in 1962, he was created a life peer in 1969.


Wisden Almanack

In the winter of 1925/26 he played four times, with moderate results, against the MCC team captained by the Hon. FSG Calthorpe, but by constant application – he was teaching himself to be a really fast bowler and a superb slip fielder – his full powers became developed, and when he came to England in 1928 he jumped right into fame. True that in the three Tests to which the West Indies were then first admitted, he made only 89 runs and took no more than five wickets, but in all first-class games he was second in the batting and first in the bowling with 1,381 runs and 107 wickets. He also made 29 catches, many of them brilliant in the extreme.

Some of his all-round performances were astonishing, especially that against Middlesex in June. After the county had declared at 352-6, the West Indies lost five wickets for 79, but Constantine then made 86 in less than an hour. In Middlesex’s second innings, he took 7-57, with 6-11 in his second spell, and then won the match for his side by three wickets with 103 in an hour.

During the tour he had an enormous amount of work to do, but his stamina and enthusiasm overcame everything, and a finer season’s hitting, fast bowling and slip-fielding it is not easy to remember. At the end of it Constantine signed forms for the Nelson club in the Lancashire League, a step which, if criticised, was eminently sensible, for that form of game suited him admirably, and he was also enabled to continue his law studies in England. With him cricket has not overruled every other interest in life. In between his first two seasons with Nelson he played for the West Indies against the MCC team of 1929/30.

The West Indies side that toured England in 1928

The following winter he was in Australia with GC Grant’s team. Like the other fast bowlers, Griffith and Francis, he found the pitches less quick than he had been led to expect, but he was again the all-rounder of the side with 708 runs and 47 wickets. His slip catching was the talk of the Commonwealth. When the West Indies, still under Grant, came to England in 1933, Nelson could release Constantine for only five matches, one of which was the second Test at Manchester. In this he came off with the bat, making a smashing 64 in the second innings. The controversy about “body line” which rendered this match somewhat notorious is most illuminatingly discussed in his book Cricket and I.

It was only fitting that he who had done so much for the cricket of the West Indies should share in their triumph when, defeating RES Wyatt’s team in two of the three finished Tests of 1934/35, they won the rubber for the first time in history. His fast bowling, with that of Martindale and Hylton, was described as the best in the world, and he had a great time in the second match, which he won by dismissing Leyland when only one more ball was possible. He made 90 in the first innings, 31 in the second and took five wickets for 52 (2-41 and 3-11). All-round achievement in such matches had long eluded him. It could hardly have come at a better time.

To his doings last season and to the manner of his play at the age of 36 reference is made in other parts of the Almanack. A cricketer who will never be forgotten, who took great heed that all nature’s gifts should be, as it were, expanded by usage, a deep thinker and an athlete whose every movement was a joy to behold.

The 1939 series marked Learie Constantine’s farewell to Test cricket, but he went on to achieve much more outside the game, including becoming the first black peer to sit in the House of Lords.


Black History Month: The men who made history in Britain

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Black History Month has been marked in the UK for more than 30 years. It takes place during the month of October.

It happens because so often in the past, the contributions made by black people to the community were ignored or played down because black people weren't treated the same way as other people because of the colour of their skin.

Black History Month aims to address this unfairness, by celebrating the achievements and contributions of the black community over the years.

Read on to find out about the incredible things that these 10 men have done for Britain.

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Ignatius Sancho was a very influential figure in the arts.

He was born on a slave ship and was brought to England by his owner as an orphan, where he worked as a butler.

However, the man for whom he worked saw how clever he was and supported his creativity. Sancho wrote plays, poetry and music, and eventually ended up setting up his own shop in London, where other creative people like him could meet up.

He used his ability to read and write to speak out against the slave trade too.

Aside from his creativity, he is also the first known black British voter. Black people didn't use to be able to vote when white people could, because they were not treated the same.

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Olaudah Equiano's book about slavery is one of the earliest accounts about what it was like to be a slave - and it is one of the best-selling books about it.

Equiano was a slave himself, but he managed to buy his freedom and moved to London.

There, he became involved in the movement to abolish slavery.

In 1789, he published his autobiography called The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African.

It made him a rich man and it became an extremely important piece of work for the people who were working hard to get rid of slavery.

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Many of you may have favourite actors who you love to watch at the cinema or on television. Ira Aldridge was an extremely important actor in plays at the theatre.

He was one of the highest paid actors in the world at a time when black actors did not have the same opportunities as white actors.

He was born in New York, but moved to the UK because he wouldn't have been able to achieve his acting goals in America.

He became well-known across Europe as a brilliant actor of Shakespeare plays.

Moving into the 19th century and away from the arts, John Edmonstone was a very important figure in the world of scientific research.

He was born into slavery, but when he gained his freedom, he moved to Scotland where he met a man called Charles Waterton, who taught him the skill of taxidermy. This is the practice of stuffing animals after they have died.

After this, he became a teacher at Edinburgh University, where he taught Charles Darwin.

You might have heard of Darwin because he came up with very important ideas about how humans have developed throughout time.

Well, it could be said that Darwin couldn't have come up with his ideas without what Edmonstone taught him - so that's a pretty big deal.

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Back to the arts and this man was an important composer as we move into the 20th century.

Having studied at the very highly respected Royal College of Music in London, he went on to write many beautiful pieces of music which were enjoyed all over the world and are still enjoyed today.

It was unusual for black composers of classical music to enjoy success like he did.

He died very young as a result of pneumonia, which it is said was brought on by working so hard.

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Born in Trinidad, Learie Constantine would go on to become England's first black peer because of the work that he did for politics and racial equality.

This means he was allowed to sit in the House of Lords and take part in important political debates.

He was also a well-known cricket player.

He settled in Britain in a town in Lancashire called Nelson after he played cricket there for the West Indies in 1928. It caused a bit of a stir, as people were not used to seeing black people around.

"School children came out in their droves to see him because the only black face they'd seen before was a coal miner," explained the Mayor of Pendle, Councillor Tony Beckett. "But he endeared himself to them and would come out and play cricket with the kids in the street."

Stuart Hall is known as an important figure for multiculturalism. This is the bringing together of different cultures - the people, the ideas and the traditions.

He came to Britain from Jamaica in the 1950s and became an important figure encouraging the study of many issues that affect people and politics - for example issues about race, sexuality and how people feel about themselves.

He went on to be responsible for the first cultural studies course in Britain, which was offered by the University of Birmingham.

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Every generation has a duty to fight against racism. It will find its way into our country and into our homes. Addressing this challenge is our duty if we wish to seek a happy and prosperous existence.

Paul Stephenson , Campaigner for equal rights

Paul Stephenson was born in England and went to a school where he was the only black child.

Even though it does not feel like that long ago, at that time he was a child, being black and being English were sometimes seen as two very different things.

This is what inspired him to go on to dedicate his life to stopping racial discrimination and bringing black and white communities together.

He became Bristol's first black social worker, which improved the relationship between black and white people in the city.

He spent his life leading important campaigns that made big changes in how black people were treated, and it is said that his work played a part in Britain's first Race Relations Act in 1965.

This was an important law that took steps to give equal rights to black people.


West Indian pair inducted into ICC Hall of Fame

West Indies cricket legends Sir Learie Constantine and Desmond Haynes were inducted into the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) Hall of Fame on Sunday. They have joined the list of fellow cricketing icons who have received this prestigious honour.

The late Learie Constantine was an early pioneer of West Indies cricket and an outstanding all-rounder. He was a member of the celebrated team which played in the first Test match in West Indies history in England in June, 1928. He played 18 Test matches and made an indelible contribution to the sport and the West Indian community at home and abroad.

Haynes was one of the most successful opening batsmen in the history of the game and formed a world famous batting partnership with his long-standing teammate, Gordon Greenidge.

He was a member of the West Indies World Cup champion team in 1979. Haynes played 116 Test matches and scored 7,487 runs, including 18 centuries, at an average of 42.3. He also made 8,648 runs in 238 One-Day Internationals, which included 17 centuries.

Cricket West Indies (CWI) President, Ricky Skerritt, has paid tribute to Desmond Haynes and the late Sir Learie Constantine.

“This is another special day in West Indies cricket history as these two exemplars of the wonderful game of cricket, have been honoured globally through the ICC Hall of Fame – true indicators of their performance and their impact,” Skerritt said.

“Sir Learie Constantine was the quintessential West Indian cricketer – a lively fast bowler, attacking batsman and superb fielder, a man who took to the field on that famous day at Lord’s 93 years ago when the West Indies started the challenging but exciting journey as a Test nation.

He embodied what we as West Indians value most in our players – dedication, commitment and strength of character. After his playing days were over he also made his name as a popular lawyer and politician, with a dedication to serving and improving the lives of others.”

Skerritt added: “Desmond’s cricket career showed early promise as a member of the Barbados U-19 team. It wasn’t long before he shot onto the world stage with a sensational century and never looked back. He was an opening batsman and a close-to-the-wicket fielder par excellence, and together with Gordon Greenidge set the standard for how the new ball should be played.

Out in the middle Desmond was lion-hearted and never surrendered no matter the circumstances. As an integral and valued member of the West Indies all-conquering team, he proudly represented Barbados and the West Indies and opened doors for many others to follow.”

West Indians previously inducted into The ICC Hall of Fame:


The great British civil rights scandal: the Bristol bus boycott

As Martin Luther King pursued his dream in America, a campaign for racial equality was making waves across the Atlantic. Three leading figures in 1963's Bristol bus boycott tell Spencer Mizen how their crusade changed the face of civil rights in Britain

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Published: July 13, 2020 at 3:25 pm

Bristol, early 1963. A young man walks into an office to attend a job interview. He introduces himself to the receptionist, takes a seat and waits to be called through to meet his interrogator.

Nothing unusual in that, you might think. But this was no ordinary interview. For the young job seeker, 18-year-old Guy Bailey, was black, and the organisation with which he was seeking work, the Bristol Omnibus Company, was about to find itself in the centre of one of the biggest storms in the history of British race relations.

The late 1950s and early 60s had witnessed a significant influx of young West Indians into Britain’s major cities – many of them, like Guy Bailey, searching for work. Yet, as Guy and others were soon discovering, not all of Britain’s employers were willing to play ball. And, as much of the country would soon become aware, one of those employers was the Bristol Omnibus Company.

Fuelled by workers’ concerns that a new source of labour would drive wages down – and, so it’s since been alleged, fanned by management fears that female staff would be molested by black colleagues – the Bristol Omnibus Company was steadfastly refusing to employ black or Asian drivers. And, despite its policy being exposed in the local press and a cause of growing disquiet among Bristol’s black community, the company had been operating this colour bar with relative impunity. Yet all that was to change the moment Guy Bailey took a seat in its offices.

“We’d put a call into the Bristol Omnibus Company just an hour before the interview to confirm there were still drivers’ jobs available, and they’d said ‘Yes, there are’,” recalls Bailey, talking in his Bristol home 50 years later. “It was only when I arrived, and people in the office realised that I was black, that things started to go wrong.

Listen: Colin Grant discusses tells the stories of postwar immigrants to Britain from the Caribbean, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast

“When I told the receptionist that I was there for an interview, she said ‘No, I don’t think so’. I then overheard her telling her manager in the back office that I was black, and him replying to her, ‘Tell him there are no jobs left’.”

As far as the manager was concerned, that was the end of the matter. But what he didn’t know was that Bailey had applied for the job at the behest of local black youth worker Paul Stephenson. And Stephenson wasn’t about to take the company’s rebuttal lying down.

Paul Stephenson was born to a British mother and West African father in Rochford, Essex in 1937. He was well educated, articulate and, above all, determined to confront the racism he’d encountered both as a youngster growing up in east London, and since arriving in Bristol as a community development officer in 1962.

Stephenson had sent Bailey to the interview as a test case to establish beyond all doubt that the Bristol Omnibus Company’s colour bar was more than mere rumour. Now he had his proof, it was time to act.

That something took the form of a boycott of Bristol’s buses. Within days, Stephenson had held a series of press conferences and speaking engagements to promote the cause, and persuaded a network of fellow civil rights activists to blockade bus routes across the city. As one of those activists, Jamaican-born Roy Hackett, remembers, the protests were soon gathering momentum.

“My role was to blockade the buses coming into the city through the Fishponds area of Bristol,” says Roy, who arrived in the South West after taking a job at Hinckley Point power station in Somerset in 1957. “At first, there were no more than 10 of us standing by the road. But gradually more and more people started to join us – many of them women, both black and white, on their way back from dropping their children off at school. Things just seemed to snowball from there.

“The drivers didn’t like our protests, of course,” he adds. “But what could they do? They couldn’t run us over. So the buses just piled up.”

Heavy hitters

While the protest picked up pace on the ground, it was also beginning to register in the national consciousness – thanks, in no small part, to Paul Stephenson’s tenacity. Within a matter of weeks, he had persuaded Bristol University students to march through the city in support of the boycott and secured the backing of a range of political heavy-hitters, including Trinidadian high commissioner and cricket legend Learie Constantine, and Tony Benn, MP for Bristol South East. But surely his most significant coup was to win the support of Harold Wilson, then leader of the opposition, who told Stephenson that, should the Labour party return to government, it would introduce a law against racial discrimination.

What had once been a low-key local dispute had morphed into a cause célèbre – and, under the harsh glare of a spotlight cast by the nation’s press – the Bristol Omnibus Company’s previously implacable opposition to revoking the ban began to crumble. Its defeat was confirmed on 28 August 1963 when – on the very day that Martin Luther King delivered his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in Washington – the Bristol Evening Post announced that the Bristol Omnibus Company was to lift the colour bar.

“I never doubted we’d win – purely because of the moral force of our argument,” says Paul Stephenson. “I was obviously elated but my chief emotion was relief – relief that we’d delivered this victory for Bristol’s black community. You’ve got to remember that the boycott made a lot of black people very nervous. They were concerned that it might make their job prospects worse. They were telling me that this is a white man’s country and you can’t tell the white man what to do. To prove to them that we could confront racism, and win, was a great achievement.”

Within a few weeks of the victory, Raghbir Singh became Bristol’s first ever non-white bus conductor. Yet the Bristol bus boycott’s crowning achievement arguably arrived two years later when Harold Wilson’s government passed the 1965 Race Relations Act, outlawing discrimination on the “grounds of colour, race, or ethnic or national origins”.

“It still brings joy to my heart today to think that people of all colours have a chance of getting the job they want without being discriminated against,” says Roy Hackett.

Guy Bailey agrees, but sounds a note of caution. “Racism isn’t so blatant in 2013 as it was in 1963 but it still lives on,” he says. “There are still people who believe that, no matter how poorly qualified a white person is, he is still more suitable for a job than a highly qualified black person. It’s for that very reason that we must remember the events of 1963 today.”

Spencer Mizen is production editor of BBC History Magazine.


Wisden Almanack

The younger Constantine had played only three first-class matches before he was chosen for Austin’s 1923 team to England when he distinguished himself largely – indeed, almost solely – by his brilliance at cover point. On that visit he learnt much that he never forgot, by no means all of it about cricket: and he recognised the game as his only possible ladder to the kind of life he wanted.

As C.L.R. James has written he revolted against the revolting contrast between his first-class status as a cricketer and his third-class status as a man. That, almost equally with his enthusiasm for the game, prompted the five years of unremitting practice after which, in 1928, he came to England under Karl Nunes on West Indies’ first Test tour as an extremely lively fast bowler, hard-hitting batsman and outstanding fieldsman in any position.

Learie Constantine scored 4,475 runs and bagged 439 wickets from 119 first-class games

Muscular but lithe, stocky but long armed, he bowled with a bounding run, a high, smooth action and considerable pace. His batting, which depended considerably upon eye, was sometimes unorthodox to the point of spontaneous invention: but on his day it was virtually impossible to bowl at him. In the deep he picked up while going like a sprinter and threw with explosive accuracy close to the wicket he was fearless and quick wherever he was posted he amazed everyone by his speed and certainty in making catches which seemed far beyond reach. His movement was so joyously fluid and, at need, acrobatic that he might have been made of springs and rubber.

Although he did little in the Tests of that summer, he performed the double and in public esteem was quite the most successful member of the party. He provided splendid cricketing entertainment. Everyone who ever watched him will recall with delight his particular parlour trick – when a ball from him was played into the field he would turn and walk back towards his mark: the fieldsman would throw the ball at his back, Connie would keep walking and, without appearing to look, turn his arm and catch the ball between his shoulder blades no one, so far as can be ascertained, ever saw him miss.

Crowds recognised and enjoyed him as a cricketer of adventure: but the reports alone of a single match established him in the imagination of thousands who had never seen him play. At Lord’s, in June, Middlesex made 352 for six and West Indies, for whom only Constantine, with 86, made more than 30, were 122 behind on the first innings. When Middlesex batted again, Constantine took seven for 57 – six for 11 in his second spell. West Indies wanting 259 to win were 121 for five when Constantine came in to score 103 out of 133 – with two sixes, twelve fours and a return drive that broke Jack Hearne’s finger so badly that he did not play again that season – in an hour, to win the match by three wickets. Lord’s erupted: and next day all cricketing England accepted a new major figure.

That performance confirmed the obvious, that Constantine was, as he knew he needed to be, the ideal league professional – surely the finest of all. He wanted a part-time living adequate for him to study law. England was the only place, and cricket his only means, of doing both. His batting could win a match in an hour his bowling in a couple of overs, his catching in a few scattered moments. This was the kind of cricket nearest his heart: and he expressed himself through it. No man ever played cricket for a living – as Constantine needed to do more desperately than most professional cricketers – with greater gusto.

Learie Constantine with Sir Jack Hobbs at the Overseas House, London, circa 1939

Any club in the Lancashire leagues would have been grateful to sign him. Nelson did so with immense satisfaction on both sides. Constantine drew and delighted crowds – and won matches: Nelson won the Lancashire League eight times in his ten seasons there – an unparalleled sequence – and broke the ground attendance record at every ground in the competition. Less spectacularly, he coached and guided the younger players with true sympathy. Among the people of Nelson, many of whom had never seen a black man before, Connie and his wife, Norma, settled to a happy existence, which they remembered, with nostalgia to the end. In 1963, the Freedom of the Borough of Nelson was bestowed on the man who then was Sir Learie Constantine.

Because of his League engagements he played little more than a hundred first-class matches, in which he scored 4,475 runs at 24.05, and took 439 wickets at 20.45. In 18 Tests between 1928 and 1939 his overall figures were poor – 641 runs at 19.42 58 wickets at 30.10. On the other hand he virtually won two important Tests and shaped a third.

At Georgetown, in 1930, when West Indies beat England for the first time, George Headley made a major batting contribution but it was Constantine who twice broke the English batting with four for 35 and five for 87, figures not approached by any other bowler in the match. At Port of Spain in 1934/35 he levelled the series – which West Indies eventually won by one match – when, after scoring 90 and 31, he took two for 41 and ended his second innings three for 11 (in 14.5 overs) with the masterstroke of having as great a resister as Maurice Leyland lbw with only one ball of the match remaining. In his last Test, at The Oval in 1939, when he was 37 years old, his five for 73 took West Indies to a first-innings lead.

As he grew older he grew more astute. As his pace dropped – though he was always likely to surprise with a faster ball or deal a yorker of high speed – he developed a superbly concealed slower ball and at need he was an effective slow bowler with wrist or finger spin. He continued to play in charity matches well through his fifties when he could still make vivid strokes, bowl out good batsmen and take spectacular catches.

Sir Learie Constantine at the Trinidad and Tobago independence conference at Marlborough House, London, circa May 1962

In his younger days some thought him bouncy or unduly colour conscious if that were so, Nelson warmed him. It would have been strange if so dynamic and effective a cricketer had not bubbled over with confidence. Certainly, though, he gave unhesitating and helpful counsel, and generous praise to his amateur colleagues in the Nelson team. Meanwhile he fought discrimination against his people with a dignity firm but free of acrimony.

Half Learie Constantine’s life was spent in England and, although his doctors had long before advised him that a lung condition endangered his life if he did not return to the warmer climate of the West Indies, he died in London. He remained in England during the Second World War as a Ministry of Labour welfare officer with West Indian workers. In 1944 he fought one of the historic cases against colour prejudice when he won damages from the Imperial Hotel in London for failing to receive and lodge him.

Sir Learie Constantine’s blue plaque erected in 2013 by English Heritage at 101 Lexham Gardens, Earls Court, London

He was deeply moved – and never forgot it – when the other players – all white-skinned – elected him captain of the Dominions team that beat England in the magnificent celebratory, end-of-war match at Lord’s in 1946. He rose to the occasion in a fine forcing partnership with Keith Miller and his shrewd captaincy decided a narrow issue with only minutes to spare.

By then, however, his serious cricketing days were drawing to an end. He did occasional writing and broadcasting. Among his books are Cricket in the Sun, Cricket and I, How to Play Cricket, Cricketers’ Carnival, The Changing Face of Cricket (with Denzil Batchelor), and Colour Bar. Years of dogged study were rewarded when he was called to the Bar by the Middle Temple in 1954. Returning to Trinidad he was elected an MP in his country’s first democratic parliament became Minister of Works in the government and subsequently High Commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago in London from 1962 until 1964. He was awarded the MBE in 1945 knighted in 1962 made an honorary Master of the Bench in 1963 and created a life peer in 1969. He served various periods as a governor of the BBC, a Rector of St Andrews, a member of the Race Relations Board and the Sports Council.

A devout Roman Catholic, of easy humour and essential patience, he lived a contented domestic life with his wife and his daughter, who is now a schoolteacher in Trinidad. His outlook was that of a compassionate radical and he maintained his high moral standards unswervingly.

To the end of his days he recalled with joy the great moments of his cricket and the friends he had made. His wife survived him by barely two months: and Trinidad posthumously awarded him the Trinity Cross, the country’s highest honour.

Learie Constantine (Lord Constantine) died on July 1, 1971, aged 69.


The real black history? The government wants to ban it

W hen the enslaved African was put on a ship to be transported across the Atlantic, “that moment he became a revolutionary”, wrote the historian, campaigner and later prime minister of Trinidad, Eric Williams. He was complicating the familiar British story of abolition, in which black people who had somehow managed to get themselves enslaved were freed by the ‘Saints’ – educated white men of conscience.

In reality, both slaves and other colonial subjects in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean fought for their rights and freedom in very difficult circumstances. Those rebellions and liberation movements, along with the work of white abolitionists and critics of empire, put pressure on Britain to ultimately concede emancipation and independence. If the official history is of Britannic rule, a still-hidden history tells of black (and Asian) resistance to that rule.

So, when speaking of black history, which is also British history, we need to ditch prejudicial and misleading phrases like “victim narratives”, recently used in the Department for Education’s statutory guidance to English schools. The present government deems accounts of oppression and exploitation “divisive” and “harmful”, along with discussions of alternatives to capitalism. Using phrases like “victimhood mentality” when describing ethnic minorities stokes an unhelpful culture war and delegitimises necessary accounts of racist and colonial dispossession.

It is convenient for the powerful, of course, to demand that the spotlight be turned away from the harm they foster, whether through bigotry or predatory capitalism. Historical amnesia works in their favour.

In fact, black history contains few victim narratives, even if it tells us a great deal about victimisation and the infliction of suffering. The documents of colonial and racist barbarism are also documents of the power of protest. Black history is not just about slavery or colonialism, but in the context of Black Lives Matter and the contemporary struggle for racial and social justice, the history of black struggle teaches us something valuable about the relationship between resistance and change.

One familiar defensive response to discussions of racism today is to insist that Britain is one of the most tolerant countries in the world. Missing from that grand claim is the story of how all progress on race has been won through persistent protest and campaigning, by ethnic minorities and their allies.

Black people, both in Britain and in the colonial world, have not waited meekly for changes to take place. From the abolition of slavery to the removal of the colour bar, and from the moderate inclusion campaigns of the League of Coloured Peoples in the 1930s to more militant organising against police brutality in the 1970s, black people in Britain have defended their communities, mobilised and contributed to vital social and institutional change. As the historian Peter Fryer noted, across Britain and the British Empire black people were never just passive victims but active resisters.

Well-meaning talk of tolerance and inclusion can obscure the fact that minority ethnic communities, including those of African and Caribbean heritage, have long helped shape Britain for the better, insisting on taking their place and staking their claims. They were, of course, demonised as extremists for doing so, just as Black Lives Matter is being vilified by politicians today.

What is Black History Month?

Founded by Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, the first Black History Month in the UK was celebrated in October 1987. He conceived it as "an annual celebration of the contributions of Africa, Africans and people of African descent to world civilisation from antiquity to the present".

It took its cue from the established Black History Month that had taken place in the US every February since it was first adopted by staff and students at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970, and which had built into a national movement.

Its origins go back to 1926, when the second week in February was designated as a week to celebrate and discuss African-Americans' contribution to history.

One of the key reasons for starting Black History Month in the UK was the under-representation of Black people in the mainstream British history taught in schools, and to ensure that the history and heritage of the African diaspora was preserved and celebrated.

The predominant abolition story puts the undoubtedly important initiative of elite white men such as William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson at the centre. Yet many white British opponents of slavery – including James Stephens, Wilberforce’s brother-in-law and the architect of the 1807 Abolition Act – were aware of the frequency of “widespread and long-continued insurrections” and the “enormous effusion of human blood” it took to suppress slave rebellions.

The fiery women’s rights campaigner Elizabeth Heyrick – who advocated the boycott of slave-produced sugar and called for immediate emancipation – noted of the 1823 rebellion in Guyana that the slave was bent on “breaking his own chains and asserting his own freedom”. There were also abolitionist black preachers like the Jamaican-Scottish Robert Wedderburn, who was jailed for calling on the British working classes to fight for freedom as slaves did. The black Chartist William Cuffay, who was eventually transported to Tasmania, also connected his love of freedom to his West Indian slave origins.

In the 20th century, black communities undertook collective organising for rights and freedom. From 1900, Pan-African conferences held in Britain brought together campaigners from across the colonies. Britain had a vibrant black press which produced many bold campaigning magazines throughout the century. The African Times and Orient Review, launched in 1912 by Dusé Mohamed Ali, was supported by the outspoken black composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, an ally of the Pan-African movement.

When black and Asian workers were attacked, robbed and lynched in 1919 after unemployment caused riots in British seaports, organisations like the African Progress Union, the Negro Welfare Association and Society of Peoples of African Origin sprang up to defend them.

In the interwar period, the International African Service Bureau and other groups took up multiple causes, from workers’ rights and antiracism to freedom for British colonies, merging later with other black-run organisations to form the Pan-African Federation. One leading light was Amy Ashwood Garvey, who also ran a legendary social space in London known as the Florence Mills Social Parlour, where many key black figures came together. Several black campaigners in Britain, including Kwame Nkrumah and Nnamdi Azikiwe, went on to become national leaders in post-independence African nations.

In the postwar period, the colour bar in hotels and other public spaces was challenged by people like the famous cricketer Learie Constantine, who won a landmark judgment. Police harassment and brutality against black and Asian people, often lethal, was also challenged by self-defence groups, with resistance also coalescing in campaigns such as the Mangrove Nine and the Broadwater Farm Defence Campaign. The fight against apartheid in South Africa also galvanised antiracist campaigns in Britain as one struggle, one fight.

Unsurprisingly, black campaigners in Britain like CLR James, George Padmore and ITA Wallace-Johnson also had sharp critiques of both capitalism and empire, or racial capitalism. Far from peddling a victim narrative, these critiques made necessary connections between what was happening in the colonies and working-class conditions in Britain – and between racism and labour rights.


Learie Constantine by Godfrey Argent bromide print, 1 November 1967 NPG x21932 Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial National Portrait Gallery

This article was written by Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer.

Warning: This article uses contemporary quotes which contain offensive language that some readers may find upsetting.

  1. Learie Nicholas Constantine was born in Maraval on the island of Trinidad on the 21 st September 1901.

His first name was taken from an Irish friend of his father whose surname was O’Leary. Like many islanders born at the turn of the century he was only a generation removed from slavery. His mother’s side of the family were classed as slaves and worked on plantations until the country’s 1838 emancipation.

  1. His father, Lebrun was a cricketer who played for the West Indies and was part of a touring party to England in 1900 & 1906.

The young Learie inherited these sporting genes and such was his burgeoning talent that father and son were in the same West Indian team that contested a tournament in British Guiana (now Guyana) in 1922.

  1. When Pathe News profiled a superb individual performance by Learie against England at Lords in 1928 they dubbed him ‘The Coloured Catapult’.

On the same tour he later recalled being taunted by Oxford University undergraduates and being excluded from ‘whites only’ dances. He would stay in England joining Lancashire side, Nelson Cricket Club where he graced their Seedhill Ground for nine years. The town adopted him as one of their own, ultimately receiving the freedom of the borough.

  1. During World War Two, Constantine was employed by the Ministry of Labour as a Welfare Officer.

His role was to help settle West Indians arriving in Liverpool to work in the munition factories. He also assisted the community of West African seamen who had been living in Merseyside for many years. This led to his appointment as President of the League of Coloured Peoples where he excelled in negotiating with trade unions and employers to accept black people in their workforce and eradicate discriminatory practices. Such deeds didn’t go unnoticed and he was awarded an MBE in 1946.

  1. In July 1943 Constantine was involved in a race row that would make national headlines.

After playing at Lords he’d pre-booked rooms for himself and his family at the capital’s Imperial Hotel. His biographer David Killingray noted that, on arrival they were refused entry. The manager was then stated to have said, ‘We will not have n*****s in the hotel because of Americans if they try to stay tonight their luggage will be put out and the doors locked’. Such was the uproar that the incident was raised in Parliament by Benjamin Riley, MP for Dewsbury. The following summer Constantine won a landmark High Court case after suing for breach of contract winning the modest fee of five guineas. Acclaimed writer and fellow Trinidadian, C L R James helped chronicle these events in the seminal book Colour Bar that was published in 1954.

  1. Constantine was constantly striving to better himself and one of his lifelong ambitions was to become a barrister.

This was achieved when he was called up to the Middle Temple Bar at the veteran age of fifty-three. Constantine was also known as a cricket commentator and he was highly valued in broadcasting circles for his smooth tone and unaffected delivery. Despite various approaches he refused to engage in party politics, politely declining the offer to be nominated as Liberal candidate for the Yorkshire constituency of Shipley in the 1950 General Election.

He returned to Trinidad to join Dr Eric Williams Government in 1956 as Minister for Communications, Works and Utilities. When he was transferred to a new ambassadorial position of High Commissioner it required him to be posted in the familiar environment of London. Shortly after he was invited again to Buckingham Palace when he received a knighthood in the New Year’s Honours List.

  1. The 1963 Bristol Bus Boycott saw Constantine travel to the South-West region to lend his support.

Activist Paul Stephenson had organised the protest to end the colour bar in place against employing ethnic minorities on public transport. Despite its success in lifting these employment restrictions Constantine found himself in conflict with President Williams. The Trinidadian leader felt his actions were not in the interest of their country as it was helping mainly Jamaican and South East Asian immigrants. This event was hugely influential in the passing of the 1965 Race Relations Act. One of the tenets of the statute was the formation of Race Relations Boards with Constantine being appointed one of the first Commissioners.

  1. Several honorary privileges were bestowed on Constantine from the rectorship of St Andrews University to an appearance on ITV’s This is Your Life.

In 1969 he became the first member of the House of Lords from African descent when he accepted a Life Peerage becoming Lord Constantine of Maraval & Nelson. Fittingly he was formally introduced to the chamber by Civil Rights campaigner Fenners Brockway. The Times reported that he had “played a heraldic innings”. He would make only one Parliamentary speech in a debate on the United Kingdom joining the European Economic Community (EEC). His detailed oratory stressed the importance of not neglecting Commonwealth markets and heritage stating

“I hope to make the case that the West Indian is different from any other colonial in the world. He is a different person. In essence he is a black Englishman, because when slavery took the African into the West Indies, the owners destroyed everything that was Africa. They have not got their original names. My grandfather was a Nigerian, and my grandmother was Nigerian, but I am named Constantine. That name was collected in the West Indies”.

  1. Just months after this appearance Learie Constantine died after suffering a heart attack.

A state funeral took place in Trinidad coupled with a memorial service at Westminster Abbey for his many friends and admirers. But his memory lived on and English Heritage erected an iconic blue plaque at his former home at Lexham Gardens, Earls Court in 2013. To mark the 50 th anniversary of his peerage the House of Lords held a commemorative talk that was chaired by Baroness Benjamin who proudly hails from his native land. She said, ‘tonight is for lovers of cricket and equality’.

Oxford Dictionary National Biography Volume 13 – Learie Constantine’s biography written by Gerald Howat

Oxford Companion to Black British History – Learie Constantine’s biography written by David Killingray


Learie Constantine and a thread that runs through West Indies cricket history | Andy Bull

W hen Learie Constantine first came to Nelson in 1929, the rag-and-bone man was the only other black man living in the town. Little kids from the school over the road used to peep in through the windows of Constantine’s house, trying to steal glimpses of their local cricket club’s new pro. They pointed at him in the street, asked him if he’d been working down a mine, whether he could wash it off with soap. Hard as it was, Constantine decided that most of the racism he faced grew out of ignorance rather than spite. Most, but not all. As he found out when he met Jim Blanckenberg, the South African all-rounder he had replaced.

Blanckenberg had quit Nelson to take up a better offer from East Lancashire. There are stories about Blanckenberg. Like how, when they held a testimonial for Jack Iddon, Blanckenberg refused to drink with the great Jamaican batsman George Headley. “Where I come from,” he said, “we don’t fraternise with you fellows.”

In Constantine’s first year at the club that first game between the two teams, Nelson and East Lancashire, was the one for which everyone was waiting. A crowd of 10,000 came to watch. With everyone looking on, Constantine offered Blanckenberg his hand and Blanckenberg turned his back. Constantine – “hurt, insulted, and above all furious” – armed himself with the best weapon he had ready, the new ball. He bowled as fast as he could, shorter than he should – “bodyline,” he said, “before the term was invented”.

Blanckenberg was hard. He had made 77 before Constantine got him. But his teammates didn’t have a chance. East Lancashire were all out for 127, and Nelson won by four wickets. After the game, Blanckenberg came into Nelson’s changing room. He was wearing a raincoat, which he opened to reveal a patchwork of black and blue bruises.

“Look what that bloody pro of yours has done to me.”

Constantine didn’t apologise.

On Monday, the West Indians announced they will wear the Black Lives Matter logo on the shoulder of their kit during this upcoming series against England. It’s a good time to read about Constantine, this most extraordinary man, the grandson of slaves, the son of a plantation overseer, who rose to become the UK’s first black peer. The man who fought, and won, the groundbreaking discrimination case against the Imperial Hotel, the author of the seminal book Colour Bar, and an architect of the 1965 race relations act. The two teams play for the Wisden Trophy. They ought to cast a new one in Constantine’s honour.

Cricketer and lawyer Sir Learie Constantine (1902 – 1971) en route to the House of Lords. Photograph: Douglas Miller/Getty Images

History rhymes, and variations on that one story run right through the past hundred years of West Indian cricket when, the academic Anthony Bateman has written, the game was both an instrument of colonialism, and of resistance to colonialism. The afro-Guyanese poet John Agard put it another way in Prospero Caliban cricket: “Prospero batting / Caliban bowling / and is cricket is cricket in yuh ricketics / but from afar it look like politics.”

You hear it in the outrage at Constantine’s use of bodyline bowling against England in the summer of 1934, the very same sort of bodyline bowling England had used to beat Australia six months earlier (“Prospero invoking the name of WG Grace / to preserve him from another bouncer to the face.”) You hear it in the arguments to get Frank Worrell appointed as the team’s first full‑time black captain, 60 years after their first international tour, 32 years after their first Test. And you hear it in Clive Lloyd’s anger at the way the team were stereotyped as “Calypso cricketers”, that, in the words of Lloyd’s biographer Simon Lister, they were “simple, spontaneous, incapable of insight, planning or tactical subtlety”.

It was there in Viv Richards’ batting (“My bat was my sword, I like to think I carried my bat for the liberation of Africa and oppressed peoples everywhere”) and it was there in Michael Holding’s bowling (“It made me understand and appreciate why the West Indies cricket team’s performances mattered so much to black people in the UK. They could walk with their heads held high to their workplaces the next morning. They could look into the eyes of their colleagues and feel ‘I know I am as good as you’.”) And it was there in the way in which that bowling was condemned by English commentators, just as Constantine’s had been 50 years earlier.

Look with the right kind of eyes and you can see its legacy in the global structure of the game, a hierarchy in which England gets the benefit of Caribbean-born cricketers in our leagues, and even in our national team, but which leaves the West Indies so underfunded that many of their best players are compelled to leave to play elsewhere.

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The England and Wales Cricket Board’s chief executive, Tom Harrison, has spoken about the “massive debt of gratitude” England owes the West Indians for coming on this tour during the pandemic, even though three of their key players felt so uneasy about it that they pulled out. Let’s see how the ECB pays that debt back. Both sides deny the decision to tour had anything to do with the interest-free short-term loan the ECB made to the cash-strapped West Indian board this year. Johnny Grave, Harrison’s counterpart on the West Indies board, wants his support in his campaign for a fairer distribution of ICC revenues. From afar, it looks like politics. Now it will be there for everyone to see in close-up, on the West Indians’ sleeves.


Watch the video: 50th anniversary of the elevation Learie Constantine, as first black peer, to the House of Lords (January 2022).