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Sir Learie Nicholas Constantine

Influencing the History of his Time – Remembering SIR LEARIE NICHOLAS CONSTANTINE

Endorsed by UNESCO, the ‘Memory of the World Register’ is a repository mechanism that lists and recognizes documentary heritage recommended by an International Advisory Committee, based on selection criteria regarding uniqueness, irreplaceability, world significance and outstanding social, spiritual, community and universal values. Such is the value of the Sir Learie Constantine Collection, which is housed at the NALIS Library in Port of Spain, Trinidad and which was inducted into the Register in 2011.

Learie Constantine was destined to become one of the greatest cricket allrounders the world has ever seen from the time of his birth in Diego Martin, Trinidad, in 1901. He came from a Cricket-loving family as his father Lebrun Constantine and his mother’s brother Victor Pascall both played, the former representing both T&T and the West Indies and the latter representing T&T. Being exposed to cricket at an early age, young Constantine showed a keen enthusiasm for the game, along with great coordination and athleticism.

The Constantine Collection comprises a 19,000+ life-long collection of documents, books, magazines, articles, letters, photographs, and memorabilia covering the various spheres of Constantine’s life, particularly regarding cricket, that span approximately 51 years from 1920 to 1971. This collection, which is the largest single personal collection of “cricket” themed material in any one location, reflects Constantine’s passion for reading, writing, and documenting. In fact, many of the typescripts of speeches have annotations in his handwriting, making them invaluable primary documents. This collection is a significant treasure for historians, sociologists and researchers.

Lord Constantine came from a renowned cricketing family, originally from Maraval. He progressed through his early cricketing foundation on a plantation estate in St Ann’s and then at the St Ann’s RC School where he captained the First XI team. His interest in the legal profession began when he worked as an office boy on St Vincent Street, Port-of-Spain. Soon after, he burst into Victoria’s First XI, captained by his father. In spite of his young age, his developing talents saw him playing for Shannon, captained by Wilton St Hill (WI, 1928-1930, 3 Tests), competing against Maple/Sting, Shamrock and Queen’s Park.

a man who walked with kings without losing the common touch. – Archbishop Anthony Pantin

By the age of twenty-seven he had become a valuable member of the Trinidad and Tobago and West Indies cricket teams and was recognized as a master of the game. After 1928, he lived in Lancashire, England where he played League Cricket at the Nelson Cricket Club. At this Club, he launched his professional career as a cricketer, revolutionizing League Cricket and becoming the “highest-paid cricketer in the world and one of the highest-paid sportsmen in Britain.”

That he would go on to become the West Indies and T&T’s first global superstar (the first non-white professional in England) and role model, and play a major part in lifting his people to a new level of respect within the British Commonwealth, was unimaginable at that time. Add to that, the fact that he would become one of the greatest allrounders ever.

In fact, famous cricket writer Neville Cardus has said that “when Constantine plays the whole man plays, not just the professional cricketer part of him. There is nothing in the world for him when he bats, save a ball to be hit—and a boundary to be hit over. When he bowls, the world is three wickets, there to be sent spinning gloriously. Cricket, indeed, is Constantine’s element; to say that he plays cricket, or takes part in it, is to say that a fish goes swimming. Constantine is cricket, West Indian cricket…” Indeed, his fielding antics, (miraculous was one descriptive from some who saw him) especially, endeared him to his fans. Cricketer Sir Don Bradman rated him as the “greatest fieldsman ever.”

A study by mathematicians at Cambridge University concluded that he bowled at speeds of 85 mph, faster than even Larwood, the famous speedster at the time. In The Great Allrounders, by John Arlott, it is noted that “Constantine is probably the only all-rounder in cricket who could win his place in a Test side by fielding alone…there had been and were great all-round fieldsmen. No one had so dominated this department of cricket wherever he was placed, or decided to place himself, slip, short leg, or in the covers.” 

No doubt today’s One Day and T20 format would have been ideally suited to this “one man wrecking army.” In 1933, when his club Nelson (for which he played in nine successful seasons winning seven championships) in the Lancashire League refused to release him for the first and third Tests at Lord’s and the Oval, (both of which were lost) one lamenting fan composed a ditty to the strains of “O’ My Darling…Constantine,” which expressed the esteem in which his fans held him. When he played in the 2nd Test, his value to the West Indies at the time was shown by the fact that the West Indies held on for a draw.

He also played cricket for the Windhill Cricket Club in the Bradford League in England, and in the Liverpool and District Leagues in Ireland and Scotland. He was invited to go to India to coach and to take part in the Maharajah’s Gold Cup Tournament; he coached for three months in Ceylon and at the Trinity College in Dublin. He ended his Test career in 1939 at the Oval in England with a characteristically stage-commanding performance taking 5-75 and scoring 70 scorching runs in one hour.

This international cricketer was also considered a legend in his lifetime since he raised the professional cricketer and the coloured people in the British Commonwealth to a level of respect never before accepted in Britain at the time. His friend and protégé, writer C.L.R. James, attests to the fact that Lord Constantine “belonged to that style of the distinguished company of men who, through cricket influenced the history of their time.” 

For every story of his incredible and explosive performances with bat, ball or fielding on the field of play, there are matching exploits of the man off the field of play. Lord Constantine’s contributions extended beyond cricket as he was also a human rights advocate and politician. He was firmly against injustice and used his popular status to encourage equal opportunities for everyone. During his early days in England he campaigned tirelessly against a selection process (both internationally and at home in the West Indies) that favoured Caucasian players, regardless of talent. His efforts led to selectors being pushed towards a selection process based on meritocracy. As C.L.R. James put it: “He revolted against the revolting contrast between his first class status as a cricketer and his third class status as a man.”

His family faced racist reactions when they moved to Nelson in 1929, but his friendly demeanor, along with his professional cricketing status, eventually endeared him to the vast majority. In 1944, determined to fight racism, he successfully sued the Imperial Hotel in London for refusing to receive him. In 1946, he was elected captain of an all-white Dominion team that beat England at Lord’s in an end-of-war game.

His affinity for the legal world saw him being called to the bar in the UK in 1954 at age 53. He returned to T&T as an assistant legal adviser in 1955 for Trinidad Leaseholds (later Texaco), and joined the ruling political party where he fought and won the Tunapuna seat. He served as Minister in The Ministry of Community Works and Utilities, after which he became the first High Commissioner to London England from 1961-1964. This position allowed him to take part in T&T’s Independence talks around that time. He later had a dispute with Dr. Eric Williams, which saw the end of his political career in T&T.

He was married to Norma Cox and had a daughter, Gloria Valere. He continued to play charity matches into his fifties, at times displaying flashes of his all round talent. Lord Constantine passed away in 1971 from lung and heart complications while in Homestead, UK. At the Learie Constantine Centre in Willesden, London, lies a bronze bust of him by renowned Irish sculptor, Mary Quinn. In Trinidad and Tobago there are two landmark locations in his honour, the Learie Constantine Stand at the Queen’s Park Oval, Port of Spain and the Constantine Park, Tunapuna.

In December 2013, he was again immortalized when the English Heritage unveiled the prestigious blue plaque in his honour at his former West London home at 101 Lexham Gardens in Earls Court, where he lived from 1949-1954. He was also post-humously awarded T&T’s highest honour, the Trinity Cross. At his funeral service in the Cathedral in Port-of-Spain, Archbishop Anthony Pantin called him “a man who walked with kings without losing the common touch.”

About the author

NASSER KHAN is an author, researcher, producer and freelance journalist who has published various national works related to enhancing literacy and reading skills. His most recent book is “Shell Trinidad Through the Years, 1913-2013” which can be downloaded at www.shell.com. Nasser has an ongoing series in the Sunday Guardian newspaper, which covers a variety of personalities and topics: www.guardian.co.tt

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