Born in Trinidad, Constantine established an early reputation as a promising cricketer, and was a member of the West Indies teams that toured England in 1923 and 1928. Unhappy at the lack of opportunities for black people in Trinidad, he decided to pursue a career as a professional cricketer in England, and after the 1928 tour was awarded a professional contract with the Lancashire League club Nelson. He played for the club with great distinction between 1929 and 1938, while continuing as a member of the West Indies Test team in tours of England and Australia. Although his record as a Test cricketer was less impressive than in other cricket he helped to establish a uniquely West Indian style of play. He was chosen as one of the Wisden Cricketers of the Year in 1939.
After working during the Second World War for the Ministry of Labour and National Service as a Welfare Officer responsible for West Indians employed in English factories, Constantine qualified as a barrister in 1954, while also establishing himself as a journalist and broadcaster. He returned to Trinidad in 1954, entered politics and became a founding member of the People's National Movement, subsequently entering the Trinidad government as minister of communications. In 1961 he returned to England as Trinidad's High Commissioner, serving until 1964. In his final years, he served on the Race Relations Board, the Sports Council and Board of Governors of the BBC. Failing health reduced his effectiveness in some of these roles, and he faced criticism for becoming a part of the British Establishment. He died of a heart attack on 1 July 1971.
Early lifeConstantine was born in Petit Valley, a village close to Diego Martin in north-west Trinidad, on 21 September 1901, the second child of the family and the eldest of three brothers. His father, Lebrun Constantine, was the grandchild of slaves; Lebrun rose to the position of overseer on a cocoa estate in Cascade, near Maraval, where the family moved in 1906. Lebrun was famous on the island as a cricketer who represented Trinidad in first-class cricket and toured England twice with a West Indian team. Constantine's mother, Anaise Pascall, was the daughter of slaves and her brother Victor was also a Trinidad and West Indian first-class cricketer; in addition, a third family member, Constantine's brother Elias later represented Trinidad. Constantine wrote that although the family was not wealthy, his childhood was happy. He spent a lot of time playing in the hills near his home or on the estates where his father and grandfather worked. He enjoyed cricket from an early age; the family regularly practised together under the supervision of Lebrun and Victor Pascall.
Constantine first went to the St Ann's Government School in Port of Spain, then attended St Ann's Roman Catholic School until 1917. He displayed little enthusiasm for learning and never reached a high academic standard, but showed prowess at several sports and was respected for his cricketing lineage. He played for the school cricket team, which he captained in his last two years, by which time he was developing a reputation as an attacking batsman, a good fast-medium bowler and an excellent fielder. His father prohibited him from playing competitive club cricket until 1920 for fear of premature exposure to top-class opposition while too young; in addition, he first wanted his son to establish a professional career. Upon leaving school Constantine joined Jonathan Ryan, a firm of solicitors in Port of Spain, as a clerk. This was a possible route into the legal profession; however, as a member of the black lower-middle class, he was unlikely to progress far. Few black Trinidadians at this time became solicitors, and he faced many social restrictions owing to his colour.
Constantine's reputation continued to grow. An innings for Shannon in 1921 against renowned fast bowler George John received great local publicity, but according to the cricket writer and social historian C. L. R. James, this was the only time prior to 1928 that Constantine played in such an effective way. Constantine's father, still a formidable player, did not put himself forward for selection into the Trinidad team in 1921, in the hope that his son would replace him. The white captain of the Trinidad team, Major Bertie Harragin, recognised the younger Constantine's promise, and selected him to play in Trinidad's Inter-Colonial Tournament match against British Guiana. Unfortunately, Constantine arrived late after a newspaper advertised the wrong starting time, and did not play. However, he made his first-class debut in the following match, the final of the tournament, against Barbados on 21 September 1921. He scored a duck in his first innings, batting at number eight in the batting order. After taking two wickets at a cost of 44 runs in Barbados' only innings, he scored 24 in his second innings, batting at number three.
Constantine played for Trinidad in the next Inter-Colonial Tournament, in Guiana in 1922. Although in two games he scored only 45 runs and took four wickets, commentators considered his fielding in the covers to be exceptional, and he retained his place in the team largely as a fielder. Although Trinidad lost to Barbados in the final, the Barbados captain Harold Austin, who was also captain of the West Indies team, was impressed by Constantine. Mainly on the strength of his fielding, Austin secured Constantine's selection for the 1923 West Indian tour of England; it was a surprising choice, as there were other candidates who appeared to have stronger claims. By this time Constantine was working for Llewellyn Roberts, a larger solicitors' practice which paid better. As his new employer's longer working hours restricted Constantine's cricket practice, when he was selected for the West Indies tour he resigned his position.
Tour of England in 1923The 1923 West Indies touring team played 21 first-class matches in England, of which six were won, seven lost and the others drawn. The team's relative success, and particularly the performance of leading batsman George Challenor, persuaded English critics that West Indies cricket was stronger than previously supposed; this was instrumental in the promotion of the team to Test match status in 1928. Challenor was the biggest individual success of the tour, but Constantine impressed English critics, through his style of play more than his statistical achievements. He played 20 first-class matches on the tour, scoring 425 runs at an average of 15.74 and taking 37 wickets at an average of 21.86. Against Oxford University, he scored 77, his maiden first-class fifty; his only other half century came against Derbyshire. He also took five wickets in an innings for the first time, in the match against Kent.
Wisden Cricketers' Almanack recorded that his batting, while highly unorthodox in technique, could be very effective when he was in form. Wisden also noted that his bowling was fast. Several English players, including Jack Hobbs, singled out Constantine as an unusually talented cricketer on the strength of his performances in 1923. Pelham Warner, a former England captain and influential journalist and administrator, described Constantine after the tour as the best fielder in the world; his fielding was also praised by the press and in the pages of Wisden. James later wrote: "He is a success, but he has not set the Thames on fire, and, what is more, he hasn't tried to."
Mid-1920s careerJohn Arlott later commented that, on his first tour of England, "[Constantine] 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." When Constantine returned to Trinidad, he had no permanent job and little prospect of advancement in any suitable profession. He took several temporary jobs but was often forced to rely financially upon his family. However, his success had inspired him to pursue a career as a professional cricketer in England, and he began to practise to reach the required standard. Although he scored 167 for Shannon in 1924, and took eight for 38 for Trinidad against Barbados, Constantine's cricket was steady but not consistently successful. He was initially dropped from the West Indies team to face the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) touring team during 1926, though he was recalled for the second match, once again at the insistence of Austin, who wanted a good cover fielder in the team. In the match Constantine was involved in an incident over short-pitched bowling. The MCC fast bowlers had bowled short at the 49-year-old Austin; in retaliation, Constantine bounced the MCC captain, Freddie Calthorpe, and only stopped after James pointed out the diplomatic row which would follow if Calthorpe, a respected figure in the British establishment, was hit by the ball. Once more, Constantine's performances were not statistically exceptional, but his style impressed critics and spectators, and he came top of the West Indies bowling averages.
A new, permanent job with Trinidad Leaseholds allowed Constantine to devote more time to cricket. Constantine realised that to succeed as a professional cricketer, he needed to improve; his bowling lacked true speed and, when batting, he was often dismissed playing shots which were too adventurous. After his relative failure in 1926, he increased his level of practice, improved his fitness and trained to become a slip fielder to conserve his energies for genuine fast bowling. In the trial matches before the 1928 tour of England, Constantine secured his place on the tour by taking five for 32 and scoring 63. He left behind his wife Norma, whom he had married in 1927, and his newly-born daughter.
Tour of England in 1928Constantine's main objective on the 1928 tour was to secure a contract to play cricket professionally in England. James wrote that Constantine "had revolted against the revolting contrast between his first-class status as a cricketer and his third-class status as a man ... The restraints imposed upon him by social conditions in the West Indies had become intolerable and he decided to stand them no longer." According to James, Constantine would never have left Trinidad had he been able to live with "honour [and] a little profit". In the opening first-class match, against Derbyshire, Constantine began his second innings when the West Indians needed 40 runs to win; in seven scoring shots, Constantine hit 31 runs and took the team to a two-wicket victory. In the following match he scored his maiden first-class century, 130 in 90 minutes, against Essex. In the following matches he continued his success; the Middlesex game at Lord's brought his name to the widest attention in cricket circles.
Although struggling for fitness, Constantine chose to play knowing that he was the star attraction in a high profile game. Middlesex batted first, and reached 352 before declaring the innings closed—Constantine bowled little owing to his injury—and the West Indies were struggling at 79 for five when Constantine came in to bat. He scored 50 in 18 minutes and reached 86 in under an hour, to avert his side's follow-on. In Middlesex's second innings, Constantine took seven for 57 in a spell of extremely fast bowling and the county were dismissed for 136. The West Indies needed 259 to win; they looked likely to lose when Constantine returned to bat with the score 121 for five. He scored 103 in 60 minutes, hitting two sixes and 12 fours and guiding the West Indies to a three-wicket victory. For players and spectators this was the defining match of Constantine's career; many years later, cricket writer E. W. Swanton suggested that there were few all-round performances in the history of cricket to match it. Shortly after the game, Nelson, a cricket club in the Lancashire League, offered Constantine a professional contract.
The rest of Constantine's 1928 tour was generally successful; only in the three Test matches, the first played by the West Indies, was he less effective. Although he took the West Indies' first wicket in Test cricket, dismissing Charlie Hallows, and finished with innings figures of four for 82, he took only one more wicket during the remainder of the series and ended with five wickets at an average of 52.40; with the bat, he scored 89 runs in six innings at 14.83. Even so, Jack Hobbs said that Constantine's opening overs to him in the first Test were among the fastest he ever faced, Constantine believed his captain, Karl Nunes, over-bowled him; the pair did not get along well. When the tour ended, Constantine had scored more runs and taken more wickets and catches in first-class games than any other tourist. He was second in the team's batting averages with 1,381 runs at 34.52, and led the bowling averages with 107 wickets at 22.95. It was the manner in which Constantine played which set him apart from the restrained form of cricket generally played in England at the time: his style, aggression and entertainment value made a big impression on the crowds. According to Peter Mason in his biography of Constantine, he established a unique style of West Indian cricket and possibly established the template for West Indian cricketers for years to come.
Career during the war
During the war, Constantine continued his cricket career as a league professional; also, as a popular player who could boost crowd attendances, he appeared in many wartime charity games. However, the war ended his career in top-class cricket and signalled a change in his life's priorities. Remaining in Nelson when the war started, he initially served as an Air Raid Precautions equipment officer, and as a billeting officer for incoming evacuees. After applying for a job with the Ministry of Labour, Constantine was offered a senior position as Welfare Officer by the Ministry of Labour and National Service.
Using his familiarity with life in England, and his high profile and status as a cricketer, Constantine became responsible for the many West Indians who had been recruited to work in factories in the north-west of England for the duration of the war. Working mainly from Liverpool, he helped these men to adapt to their unfamiliar environment and to deal with the severe racism and discrimination which many of them faced. Constantine also worked closely with trade unions in an attempt to ease the fears and suspicions of white workers. He used his influence with the Ministry of Labour to pressurise companies who refused to employ West Indians, but generally preferred negotiation to confrontation, an approach that was often successful. Constantine's wartime experiences caused him to increase his involvement in the League of Coloured Peoples, sometimes referring cases to them. He particularly took up the cause of the children of white women and black overseas servicemen; these children were often abandoned by their parents. However, plans to create a children's home for them came to nothing, leaving Constantine frustrated. He remained in his post until the summer of 1946, latterly concerned with the repatriation of the West Indian workers at the end of the war.For his wartime work he was appointed a Member of the British Empire (MBE) in 1947.
During the war, at the request of the British government, Constantine made radio broadcasts to the West Indies, reporting on the involvement of West Indians in the war effort. As a result he was often asked to speak on BBC radio about his life in England. His radio performances met with critical acclaim, and he became a frequent guest on radio panel shows; he also took part in a film documentary, West Indies calling, in 1943.
Constantine v Imperial London HotelsIn August 1943 Constantine played in a charity cricket match at Lord's and had booked rooms for himself, his wife and daughter at the Imperial Hotel in London for four nights. He had been specifically told that his colour would not be an issue at the hotel. When he arrived on 30 July, he was told that they could only stay for one night because their presence might offend other guests. When Arnold Watson, a colleague of Constantine at the Ministry of Labour, arrived and attempted to intervene, he was told by the manageress: "We are not going to have these niggers in our hotel," and that his presence might offend American guests. Watson argued, to no avail, that not only was Constantine a British subject, he worked for the government. Eventually Watson persuaded Constantine to leave and stay at another hotel which, owned by the same company as the Imperial, proved to be welcoming. The Imperial Hotel incident affected Constantine deeply, both because of the involvement of his family and also because he was due to play cricket for a team representing the British Empire and Commonwealth.
In September questions were asked in the House of Commons about the incident, by which time Constantine had decided to take legal action. In June 1944 Constantine v Imperial London Hotels was heard in the High Court. Although there was no law against racial discrimination in Britain at the time, Constantine argued that the hotel had breached its contract with him. Constantine informed the court that the attitude of the hotel changed between his booking and arrival, owing to the presence of white American servicemen. The defence argued that they had met their contract by accommodating Constantine in another hotel and that he had left the Imperial voluntarily. The managing director of the hotel denied that racist language had been used. After two days of evidence, the judge found in Constantine's favour, rejecting the defence's arguments and praising the way Constantine had handled the situation. Although the law limited the award of damages against the hotel to five guineas,Constantine was vindicated. He did not pursue the case any further as he believed he had sufficiently raised the issue of racism in the public eye; the case was widely reported in the press, and Constantine received great support from both the public and the government.
Although racial discrimination continued in England, this case was the first to challenge such practices in court. Critics regard it as a milestone in British racial equality in demonstrating that black people had legal recourse against some forms of racism. According to Mason, it "was one of the key milestones along the road to the creation of the Race Relations Act of 1965."
Legal studiesWhile living and playing cricket in Nelson before the war, Constantine had made plans for a future legal career. James helped him with his studies for a short time, and he later worked in a local solicitors' office. In 1944 he enrolled as a student in the Middle Temple, London. To finance his studies, he continued his professional cricket career in Bradford until 1948, and supplemented his income by coaching: at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1946 and in Ceylon in 1953. Constantine also extended his work in journalism and broadcasting, as a cricket reporter and as a radio commentator when the West Indies toured England in 1950. He also wrote several cricket books, probably with the help of a ghostwriter. Cricket in the Sun (1947) covered his career but also discussed the racism he had encountered and suggested then-radical ideas for the future of cricket, such as a "world cup". Cricketers' Carnival (1948), Cricket Crackers, Cricketers' Cricket (both 1949) and How To Play Cricket (1951) were more traditional cricket books, which included coaching tips and opinions.
In 1947 Constantine became chairman of the League of Coloured Peoples, a position he held until the League was discontinued in 1951. In 1948 he was elected president of the Caribbean Congress of Labour, and between 1947 and 1950 was a member of the Colonial Office's Colonial Social Welfare Advisory Committee. Also in 1950, he became involved in a controversy over the interracial marriage of Seretse Khama, the future president of Botswana. Constantine lobbied the government on Khama's behalf, organised meetings and even approached the United Nations. Little was achieved, and Constantine disapproved of the approach of the Labour government and its Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, but declined an opportunity to become a Liberal parliamentary candidate.
Constantine neither enjoyed his legal studies, nor found the work easy, but was determined to prove he could succeed. His wife kept him motivated, restricted visitors to avoid distractions and forced him to study, making him continue when he was several times tempted to give up. The family moved to London in 1949; between 1950 and 1954, Constantine passed the required series of examinations, and in 1954 he was called to the bar by the Middle Temple.
Having turned down an offer in 1947 to return to his old employer, Trinidad Leaseholds, in 1954 Constantine agreed to join the same company as an assistant legal advisor. Uncertain about going back to Trinidad after living for 25 years in England, he nevertheless believed it was a good time to return, particularly as his daughter was moving there to marry. Before leaving England, he published his book Colour Bar (1954), which addressed race relations in Britain and the racism he had experienced. It also discussed world-wide racial oppression and how the lives of black people could be improved. At the time, according to Peter Mason, this was "an explosive, challenging, hard hitting tome, the more so because it came not from a known black militant but from someone who seemed so charming, so unruffled, so suited to British society". Although not viewed as radical by black audiences, it was aimed at white British readers. The British press gave it mixed reviews and criticised him for unfairness in parts of the book; other critics accused him of communist sympathies.
Return to TrinidadWhen Constantine returned to Trinidad in late 1954, he found a growing desire for independence from Britain. At Trinidad Leaseholds he felt isolated from other, mainly white, senior staff; this drew him towards political involvement. Eric Williams, leader of the newly founded People's National Movement (PNM), was aware of Constantine's popular appeal and recruited him. By January 1956 Constantine, with the full cooperation and blessing of his employers, was party chairman and a member of its executive committee. Feeling that the PNM's policies were in harmony with his views on improving the lives of black people, and encouraged by his wife, Constantine stood for election in the parliamentary constituency of Tunapuna in 1956. He won a narrow victory, which his colleagues believed few in the party could have done, and resigned from Trinidad Leaseholds. The PNM formed a government, in which Constantine became the Minister of Communications, Works and Utilities.
In his ministerial role, Constantine promoted development of Trinidad's road, rail, water and electricity infrastructure. However, in late 1958 he was accused of corruption, over a ship leasing deal. His angry response to the charge, in the Legislative Council, created a perception of arrogance among his colleagues, and suggested that he had not sufficiently adapted to parliamentary politics. According to Mason, the speech was a miscalculation which made the public, perhaps already sceptical of his commitment to Trinidad after so many years away, question his fitness for a ministerial role, a view increasingly held by commentators.
In the later 1950s, Constantine supported the campaign, led by James, to appoint West Indies cricket's first black captain; the success of black people like Constantine in attaining government positions while not permitted to captain the cricket team was a key factor in an ultimately successful campaign. While in government, Constantine assisted in the development of the West Indies Federation, as a step towards the independence of the islands, and his fame and familiarity with Britain played some part in the negotiations which led to Trinidad's independence in 1962. After he decided not to stand for re-election in 1961, Williams appointed him as Trinidad and Tobago's first High Commissioner in London.
Peter Mason writes that Constantine's political career in Trinidad was a success: he was efficient, active, respected and popular. Mason concedes that he was not a natural politician, often sensitive to criticism and that his experience abroad was a cause for mistrust in Trinidad, rather than seen as an advantage. Gerald Howat believes that Constantine's political career, while not without successes, was undermined by several factors: his age, his over-frequent references to his English experience, his rejection of political theorising and lack of debating skills. However, his personal popularity undoubtedly attracted support to the PNM.
Back to England
High CommissionerConstantine began his role as High Commissioner in June 1961. In the New Year's Honours list for 1962, he was knighted and became Sir Learie Constantine; among other accolades he received at this time was the freedom of the town of Nelson. Mason notes that Constantine had now "passed firmly into the consciousness as a British treasure". However, his tenure as High Commissioner ended in controversy. Constantine felt that his high profile required him to speak out on racial issues affecting all West Indian immigrants, not just Trinidadians. In April 1963, when a Bristol bus company was refusing to employ black staff, Constantine visited the city and spoke to the press about the issue. His intervention assisted in a speedy resolution of the affair which, according to Mason, was crucial in persuading the British government of the need for a Race Relations Act. However, politicians in both Trinidad and Britain felt a senior diplomat should not be so closely involved in British domestic affairs, particularly as he acted without consulting his government. Williams effectively withdrew his support from Constantine, who decided not to continue as High Commissioner when his term expired in February 1964.
Although as High Commissioner Constantine looked after his staff and was respected by other diplomats, Howat observes there is limited evidence that he was successful in the post: "In the one area in which he acted positively, he blundered—the Bristol affair. In the language of the game he loved ... his timing was wrong though he was full of good intentions". Howat adds that he did not increase his stature or reputation during his term of office. Mason believes that "there was too much of the welfare officer about him and not enough of the government focused diplomat."