He hit the ball hard, bowled very fast, and was unarguably the best outfielder of his generation. “His movement was so joyously fluid and, at need, acrobatic that he might have been made of springs and rubber,” wrote Wisden. Though his Test numbers do not make great reading, his performances for Nelson have become part of Lancashire League folklore.
1. The impact man
Constantine played 18 Tests, scoring 635 at 19 and taking 58 wickets at 30. These are not great numbers. However, one must remember that these were early days for West Indies, and Constantine did well in the first four Test wins for them.
At Bourda against England in 1929-30 he had 4 for 35 and 5 for 87. He did a restrained job at SCG with 1 for 28 and 2 for 50, but he dismissed Alan Kippax twice, and was lightning-quick in the field. Against England at Queen’s Park Oval he smashed 90 and 31 alongside 2 for 41 and 3 for 11 (to finish the Test with a single ball remaining). And finally, against them at Sabina Park he scored 34 before taking 3 for 55 and 3 for 13.
2. Grandson of a slave
Lebrun Samuel Constantine’s grandparents were slaves. In Constantine’s biography, Peter Mason mentions two things: they were among the last to take the horrific journey from Africa to the Caribbean; and the fact that the family name Constantine “almost certainly belonged to a slave master”. Mason suggests it was Jean Baptiste Constantin, a French landowner.
Note: Mason also mentions that Learie was named after “a gregarious Irishman” he had met in England in 1900.
Ali, the father of Anaise ‘Anna’ Pascall, Lebrun’s wife, was a slave as well. Anna and his brother Victor were brought to South America from West Africa as slaves. Legend goes that Ali escaped to Trinidad and lived till hundred. Learie was, thus, the grandson of a slave and the great-grandson of another.
3. Lebrun Constantine
Lebrun was a fine cricketer: in 1900 he scored the first ever hundred by a West Indian on English soil (113 in 90 minutes against Gentlemen of MCC at Lord’s); in 1906 he was the only black person on the touring party. Only 56 of his matches were given First-Class status, in which he scored 2,433 runs at 25 and claimed 46 wickets at 14.
In fact, he attained such stature in early days of West Indian cricket that VS Naipaul had a character called Lebrun in A Way in the World. According to Naipaul’s biographer Patrick French, the character was based on Lebrun Constantine. CLR James called him “the most loved and respected cricketer on the island.”
4. A cricketing family
Learie’s brothers Elias and Oswald ‘Ossie’ were both cricketers. The all-rounder Elias played 21 First-Class matches, mostly for Trinidad; Ossie’s matches for South Trinidad were not given First-Class status. Rodney, the other brother, played cricket as well, as did their sister Leonora.
Victor Pascall (Learie’s uncle, mentioned above) also played First-Class cricket. He toured England with the West Indians in 1923: the tour turned Learie into an instant star. Anna was often the wicketkeeper when Pascall toiled with his left-arm spin at the Constantines.
5. A lesson in morality
Lebrun and Anna were strict parents in every sense of the word. Moral values were injected in the children the same way as cricket. Learie once got a thrashing from Anna because he picked up an egg lying in a ditch.
6. Legal matters
Born in Petit Valley (near Diego Martin), Constantine attended St Ann’s Government School and St Ann’s Roman Catholic School, both in Port-of-Spain. At the latter he came under the tutelage of Andrew de Four, the headmaster, who had a profound impact on his cricket.
Upon graduation he took up a job as a clerk at Jonathan Ryan, a firm of solicitors, before making a change to Llewellyn Roberts. Unfortunately, with his background and skin colour, his chance of getting up the ladder in the legal profession was minimal. So he took cricket more seriously…
7. American Savannah
Constantine played for Shannon, one of many clubs in Port-of-Spain that were dominated by blacks. Of course, they were barred from playing at Queen’s Park Oval: they had to be confined to the rough Savannah. Mason describes Savannah as “a huge, picturesque open space in Port-of-Spain big enough to hold dozens of cricket pitches, most with a single large tree that acted as changing room, place of shade and clubhouse.”
Constantine rose through the ranks quickly, and was selected to play for Trinidad against British Guiana (later Guyana) at Queen’s Park Oval. Unfortunately, the local newspaper misprinted the time, due to which he turned up late for his debut First-Class match. He was left out. Thankfully, he made his debut a week later at the same ground, in the final against Barbados.
9. Family reunion
The final next year, against Barbados at Bourda, saw Lebrun and Learie Constantine take field together alongside Pascall. Lebrun scored 6 and 1 and dismissed Herman Griffith; Learie, 17 and 13, and the wicket of George Challenor; and Pascall, 92 and 0, along with 3 for 146. Unfortunately, Barbados won by an innings.
Constantine had to give up his job at Llewellyn Roberts when he was picked for the England tour. They were paid a mere 30 shillings a week, and found himself jobless on return. He moved on from one part-time job to another (for the permanent, more coveted jobs usually went to the whites), and by 1925 he eventually had to stay with his parents in Arouca.
He eventually found employment at Trinidad Leaseholds, an organisation run by HCW Johnson, who was — somewhat ironically — a white South African.
When MCC toured West Indies in 1925-26, they played two matches against a full-strength West Indies. MCC (featuring a young Wally Hammond, among others) won both matches, but were challenged in the first of the two before prevailing by a 5-wicket margin. Freddie Calthorpe asked his men to bounce Harold Austin, West Indies’ 48-year old captain.
This did not go down very well with our hero. He unleashed a bouncer barrage at Calthorpe himself. James, a friend of Constantine’s, had to restrain him: “Do not bump the ball at that man. He is the MCC captain, the captain of an English county and an English aristocrat … If you hit him and knock him down there will be a hell of a row and we don’t want to see you in any such mess. Stop it!” It worked.
12. The ultimate choice — and how he solved it
Constantine met Norma Agatha Cox, “a pretty and intelligent city girl”, in 1921. Unfortunately, Norma gave Learie a choice between her and cricket. Constantine pleaded, insisting it be both — and it worked. Norma took more interest in cricket. They got married on July 25, 1927. Their only child Gloria was born nine months later.
13. Killing Time
In Spinner’s Yarn, Ian Peebles described Constantine’s 1928 performance for West Indians against Middlesex at Lord’s as the greatest he had seen. He top-scored in each innings with 86 and 103 (the 100 came in 60 minutes). There was also a 7 for 51 in the second innings.
In the second innings Constantine broke Jack Hearne’s finger with a drive so ferocious that the poor man did not play again that season. However, the innings is more remembered for one particular shot. Harry Pearson described it in Slipless in Settle as “one blow off the back foot that flew over cover point and ricocheted off the Old Father Time vane on the roof of the North Stand.” Sounds unbelievable.
14. Nelson, forever
‘Connie’ was a giant for Nelson during his stint from 1929 to 1942. During this period Nelson won 7 league titles between 1929 and 1937 (including 4 in 4 from 1934 to 1937). They also came runners-up in 1930, 1933, and 1939. They won the Cup twice, doing the League-and-Cup double on both occasions.
For Nelson, Constantine’s 7,111 runs came at 35.91; his 884 wickets, at an absurd 9.94. His 799 League wickets remain a record, as do his 79 five-fors (including five-fors at every ground and against every club).
The achievements are too many to register, but nothing possibly beats his performance in 1934. After Nelson were bowled out for 116, Constantine returned figures of 6.5-1-10-10 (8 bowled) as Accrington collapsed to 12 in 12.1 overs. They remain the best figures in Lancashire League.
In 1933 Constantine became the first Nelson batsman (fourth overall) to score 1,000 runs in a single season. The feat was not emulated till 1977, when Larry Gomes scored 1,084. In 1937 he slammed 192 not out against East Lancashire — still a record for Nelson.
Nelson Cricket Club website has a section called History: of the 16 chapters, Chapter 6 is titledConstantine — the Legend. The section is devoted to the performance of Nelson during his tenure.
15. The lesson of life
Constantine came to England with dreamy eyes about a country full of riches. The notion, unfortunately, took a toll, when he got an idea of the poverty in England. He later wrote: “When I was a young boy in Trinidad, going to school and picking fruit and vegetables from the garden, [Harold] Hargreaves, the captain of Nelson, my exact contemporary, was working in a cotton mill … I never knew the extent of poverty [in England].”
16. Indian adventures
Constantine played in the Moin-ud-Dowlah Gold Cup of 1934-35, taking 15 wickets from 2 matches. Unfortunately, he was ineligible to play the Bombay Quadrangular: he was neither Hindu nor Muslim nor Parsee, and was not a European — then.
It was not before 1937 that The Rest were added to make it the Pentangular, paving way for Sikhs, Indian Christians, and non-European foreigners.
17. Chinese adventures
There are speculations on who invented the Chinaman and when, but the most famous incident regarding its naming involves Constantine. Left-arm wrist-spinner Ellis Achong sent down one to Walter Robins in the Old Trafford Test of 1933. The ball spun in the direction opposite to what Robins had expected; the Middlesex man was stumped.
On his way back Robins uttered in disgust: “Fancy getting out to a bloody Chinaman!”
Constantine, used to racism by then, asked back: “You mean the bowler or the ball?” And the term was coined.
18. Nelson at War
When World War II broke out, Constantine would have been safe if they had set sail for Trinidad. Instead, he chose to stay back at Nelson amidst the perils of the ongoing war: “I would have felt like a rat deserting a ship.” He was all set for the medical examination as a prerequisite of joining The Army when he was offered the post of Welfare Officer. He would be looking over West Indian immigrants in England.
During his early days in England, Constantine was a victim of racism. Mason mentions a 1933 letter written to LN Constantine Esq., Professional, Nelson CC. However, the letter started with “Dear Nigger.” It would not be the only of its kind. ‘Nigger’ and ‘black bugger’ would remain common phrases in his England days.
There was another incident, where two boys, aged six and four, shook hands with him. Constantine recollected what followed: “As I turned again to speak to their father, I heard him whisper to his brother: ‘None’s come off on me — look!’ and he held out his hand palm up. ‘Has it come off on you?’” Another child had a hard time from his classmates because he was friends with a coloured man.
20. Immoral Imperial
Gerald Howat, in Learie Constantine, mentions an appalling event. Constantine was to play back-to-back matches at Lord’s: a one-day match for British Empire XI against Guildford followed by a two-day affair for Dominions against England XI the day after.
He booked two rooms at Imperial Hotel, Russell Square well in advance. Once he reached therewith his family, he was greeted with strange reception from the manager, who allowed him nothing more than an overnight stay; when Constantine mentioned he had a four-day booking, the manager responded with “I can turn you out when I like.”
Constantine raised the matter to Arnold Watson, the man he reported to at the Ministry of Labour. Watson turned up in person. When demanded for an explanation, the manager responded: “He can stay tonight but he has to leave tomorrow morning and if he doesn’t his luggage will be put outside and his door locked.”
When Watson pressed for a reason, the reason provided was “we won’t have niggers in this hotel.” It is to be noted that by then Constantine was a British citizen. He checked out and moved to Bedford Hotel. The issue was later raised to the House of Commons. Constantine even filed a case against the Imperial Hotel — and won.
21. Political disillusionment
He returned to Trinidad in 1954 — when Trinidad needed him, for she was going through changes she had not witnessed before. By January 1956 he was named unanimously Party Chairman of People’s National Movement (PNM).
He won the parliamentary election from Tunapuna later that year, and became Minister of Communications, Works, and Utilities for the PNM Government. Unfortunately, he never enjoyed the muck, and opted out during the re-election in 1961. He preferred to serve as Trinidad & Tobago High Commissioner in London.
However, along with James, he was instrumental in the instatement of Frank Worrell as West Indies’ first fulltime black captain.
22. Penning them down
Constantine wrote as many as seven books: Cricket and I (1933), Cricket in the Sun (1947),Cricketers’ Carnival (1948), Cricketers’ Cricket (1949), Cricket Crackers (1950), Colour Bar (1954), and The Changing Face of Cricket: London (1966). The last book was co-authored with Denzil Batchelor.
23. Watch your diet!
A natural athlete, Constantine did not believe in rigorous training. Instead, he stuck to a strict diet on match days, involving oranges for breakfast, fish for lunch, and a heavy meal after the day’s play. He ran three miles a day, did light weight-training, but rarely consumed alcohol.
24. Scotch game
In November 1967 Constantine participated in the election for the Rector of St Andrew’s University, Scotland. He stood against Sir Alexander Gibson, Joseph Grimond, and Sean Connery — three men with Scottish connections — and won. He was given an Honorary Doctorate from the University the following year.
Constantine was named High Commissioner in 1961, and was knighted next year. He returned to London, where he spent his remaining years. In 1969 he was made the first black peer.
When he passed away in July 1971, his body was flown to Trinidad. He was buried in Arouca. The coffin was honoured with the national anthem and a 19-gun salute. Trinity Cross, Trinidad’s highest honour, was bestowed upon him. A memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey.
Norma passed away two months later.
3 thoughts on “Learie Constantine: 25 things about a slave’s grandson who became a Baron”
I am trying to find out if I can trace any family links to Sir Learie Constantine. My family have spoke of links to a cricketer with that surname. If you could send me details on how I can do that I would be very grateful.