MUSCULAR LEARNING: Cricket and Education in the Making of the British West Indies at the End of the 19th Century
By Ronald Austin
December 3, 2006
That stretch of historical territory extending from the abolition of slavery to the period ending in 1900 contains almost all of the social, economic and political forces which have shaped the English-speaking Caribbean society in the most profound way. For it was during this period that Caribbean society was in the grip of a benighted plantocracy, the incipient economic forces driving the region were becoming visible, the establishment of the education systems and the creation of schools were being effected, the coloured and black middle classes were emerging, the early shoots of what would become a West Indian institution, cricket, are clearly discernible and the first of many economic crises engineered by a dependence on sugar occurred. This is a highly seductive period of study and many Caribbean scholars have exercised their considerable mental talents in seeking to understand the meaning and implications of these forces, which are still animating West Indian society.
In the realm of cricket quite a few these scholars were and are decisively influenced by C.L.R. James, the noted Caribbean thinker. It was James in his brilliant autobiography, "Beyond a Boundary", who posed the question: "What do they know of cricket who only cricket knows?" In other words cricket, and especially West Indian cricket, can only be understood in the political, economic and social context in which it was born and which made it into a powerful social force. A generation of writers followed James's thinking and method, offering the particular interpretations of the significance of cricket in the Caribbean. One of them is Professor Hilary Beckles whose two volumes History of West Indies Cricket is of the highest order. Another is Michael Manley whose "History of West Indies Cricket" stands by itself. In fact, James was responsible for the emergence of scholarly writing on West Indies cricket. Before there were books by West Indian journalists, cricketers and administrators, such as Strebor Roberts, Gary Sobers and Jeffrey Stollmeyer, but these described certain historical events without seeking to understand the factors that gave rise to them.
Professor Clem Seecharan, who co-edited "Indo-West Indian cricketers" and whose "Tiger in the Stars" contains an intriguing chapter on cricket, has produced a thoughtful and scholarly account of how the successors of slaves and indentureship, mostly the latter, given the period covered, turned the tables on the imperial masters by using the indices of "Englishness" - cricket and classical education, "Muscular Learning" - to facilitate their gradual rise in the post emancipation Caribbean and in the process took themselves from being spectators beyond the boundary to the position of passionate agents for change within the boundary. Professor Seecharan concludes: "In this context, therefore, cricket could not be just a game: it was definitely an instrument of mobility, if not liberation." The exact title of the book is "MUSCULAR LEARNING: Cricket and Education in the Making of the British West Indies at the End of the 19th Century." I wish to emphasise the scholarly nature of the work. If by scholarship it is meant that a particular area of study is enriched by insight and new facts, then Professor Seecharan has produced a major addition to the academic writing on West Indies cricket.
As someone who has been reading widely about West Indies cricket, I can say that there are several interesting and new developments which Professor Seecharan has unearthed. In his passion for scholarship and accurate work he has even found his master, C.L.R. James, wanting. James in his masterpiece "Beyond the Boundary" has always placed the last minute departure of Lebrun Constantine in 1900 for England as preparatory to his hitting the first century by a West Indian at Lords. By a close reading of the autobiography of Constantine's son, Learie Constantine, Seecharan was able to show that in fact the incident recounted by James actually happened in 1906. This is his observation: "James's version, suggestive of the masses spontaneously pooling their pennies for the hero, who repays by scoring a hundred as soon as he gets off the boat - at Lord's, is a finer rendition, though embroidered."
In addition to this revelation the reader benefits from the interview published after the 1900 tour with that forerunner of great West Indian fast bowlers, "Float" Woods in which he discusses how he became a fast bowler, and mastered his art. Likewise, the report by Pelham Warner on the 1900 tour and the extract of the report on the banquet held for the West Indians at the end of the same tour are riveting revelations for any West Indian cricket lover. And this last point. I read with considerable interest that Learie Constantine was named for G.C. Learmond, who was a good friend of his father during the 1900 tour, and also that Learmond is the grandfather of our own Stephen Comacho.
If there is a common theme to all that Professor Seecharan has written, it is that the process and desire for reform which took hold of the region and its inhabitants, fertilized by the process of education and the emerging gradualist but democratic ethic, made it almost axiomatic "that what went on beyond the boundary in education and politics, had reverberations within the boundary."
What therefore was going on within the boundary? Victorian values and mores perpetuated through a system of elite schools and the spread of education would lead to a cultural landscape which still colours Caribbean life. It is sufficient to note that as early as the end of the 17th Century when Combermere College was established in 1695 to the establishment of Woolmers Boys School in 1724 in Jamaica, the English speaking Caribbean was fertile soil for "Muscular Education". And a generation of fine teachers such as Horace Deighton and Artur Sumers-Cocks, to name a few, would be responsible for spreading this type of learning to other Caribbean territories.
But while these institutions were initially limited to the children of the ruling plantocracy, they were subsequently penetrated by those of the coloured and later black middle class. Great names come to mind such as C.L.R. James himself, Sir Grantley Adams, Norman Washington Manley, Eric Williams and W. Arthur Lewis. The beneficiaries of "Muscular Learning" would become teachers and headmasters at other levels of the education system. Here was the reason for the emergence of the headmasters and teachers who became so well known throughout the region. In the meantime the spirit of education took hold in the region and a virtual revolution took place. Professor Seecharan makes the point that it was the lower middle class "who were the path finders, the architects in the making of the British West Indies, one of the most intellectually remarkable products of the colonial encounter."
Blacks could now become editors of newspapers, join the lower echelons of the civil service, the church and voluntary associations. Education stimulated the desire for representation and soon the newspapers, owned and operated by West Indians, were demanding greater civil and political rights. At the heart of it all was a democratic culture shaped by the liberal politics of the Gladstonian era in Britain. This is how Professor Seecharan characterises this phenomenon:
"A democratic political culture, inspired by Gladstonian liberal tradition, was slowly being absorbed. While its lengthy gestation in British West Indian soil bequeathed its sturdy roots in a way that it did not, possibly, could not, in most other tropical colonies with their resilient â€¦ promptings and cultivated primordial essences, the tenuous base of the reconstruction of imagined nations."
The battle for Constitutional Reform would be led by the figure of Dr. Robert Love and the programme to reject European definition of the black race would be undertaken by Dr. Albert Thorn and Dr. E.S. Scholes. It is interesting that the African fight for self definition and for a re-linking with the Continent would inspire a Guyanese intellectual, Joseph Ruhomon, who would also urge his people to embrace education as a means of escaping the prison of indentureship and liberate themselves. India would be the source of redefinition and inspiration for the descendants of the indentured labourers. In the words of Professor Seecharan: "Like Africans who had started on that road earlier, western education and cricket too, would be the key instruments to chart the journey." The foundation was being laid for the school of brilliant Guyanese cricketers consisting of Rohan Kanhai, Joe Solomon, Basil Butcher and Ivan Madray.
While the ferment was going on in education and politics beyond the boundary, equally important happenings were occurring within the boundary. Some prefatory remarks must be made. The Caribbean region must count itself lucky that there were many Englishmen who were not burdened with the ideology of race and who wanted to see cricket in the region developed on the basis of merit. The democratic ethic which was animating the politics of the region was now extended to the game of cricket. It is fortunate that those who supported West Indies cricket in its early days but who belonged to the elite of the colonial administration recognised that only a system of merit would produce good and strong cricket in the region. Two men stand out. Lord Harris, who was born in Trinidad, and who was to play an important role in the first visit of the West Indies team to England in 1900, made it known early, that he "had no time for the colour line" and advised the Caribbean to play their best cricketers "whatever may be the colour of their skin."
Another Trinidadian, Pelham Warner, would tell the region that its strength resided in playing their black cricketers. What emerges in the end in Professor Seecharan's book is that because of the particular nature of the evolution of society in Trinidad, that country would play the leading road in slaying the dragons of selection based on race and the system of social apartheid, which prevented clubs and territories from playing against each other and the ridiculous situation which allowed Hallam Cole to withdraw from the West Indies team to England in 1900, because of the presence of a so-called "professional", a black man, Fitz Hinds. The attitudes of Harris and Warner, as well as that of the Goodman family in Barbados, were indicative of changes which would pervade West Indian society and cricket
The visit of the Slade Lucas team in 1895 and that of Lord Hawkhe in 1897 would see the emergence of players of quality in the region such as Lebrun Constantine, "Float" Woods and Archie Cumberbatch. The latter two players, the first in a long line of great West Indian fast bowlers, were virtually unplayable during these tours. At the end of both tours cricket in the Caribbean had made measurable improvement:
"But at the technical level as well, exposure to the English touring team, even if the players were also exclusively white, induced rapid, incremental progress in technique and competence in the final points, a general polish that led to a discernibly higher quality of play."
The tour of the West Indies cricket team to England in 1900 was one of the high points in the history of the game. Professor Seecharan quotes the Barbados bulletin as seeing the significance of the tour in these terms:
"What will be the effects on West Indian cricket of the tour? Well, the superstition that the West Indian cricketer is inherently inferior to the English cricketer will vanish forever from the minds of West Indians. Everyone will grasp the fact that with equal advantages of training and practice, the West Indian can play the cracks of England and Australia on equal terms â€¦ This firm conviction of capacity for the accomplishment of what other people in the Empire have succeeded in doing will, in the future, be a source of great strength to West Indians. It will be an attitude of mind rendering them self respecting and ambitious in other domains of thoughts and action than cricket merely. We have so long been told by supercilious Europeans that we are inferior people, unable to wing our way in regions where superior races soar easily, that we have perhaps underrated our powers."
The West Indies cricket team and especially "Float" Woods, W.J. Burton of British Guiana and C.A. Olivierre of St. Vincent would put the world on notice that Caribbean cricket and society had become a force of some consequence. The team had won the respect of the cricket authorities in England and its performance would propel the region to higher levels of accomplishment. The tour would see the long association between Caribbean cricket and English county cricket and the beneficial exchanges between these two cricket playing nations.
The tours of Slade Lucas and Lord Hawke to the Caribbean and the West Indies tour to England would be played out against the background of a major economic crisis caused by the dependence on sugar. Indeed, "the 1890's witnessed a great depression in the sugar industry â€¦" It has a familiar contemporary ring. The Norman Commission was dispatched in the Caribbean to recommend an alternative to the dependence on sugar. The crisis in the sugar industry however created opportunities to lessen the dependence of the submerged groups.
The People's Association would wage a struggle for increased rights and Indo- Guyanese the planting of rice as a means of lessening their dependence on the Plantation.
At the end of this satisfying book Professor Seecharan said that he was a proud "inheritor of this rich legacy of muscular learning." And one can see why. It shines through the pages and chapters of this valuable edition to the literature on West Indies cricket.