Caribbean Bookshelf (September/October 2007)

The inaugural tour of West Indian cricketers to North America is documented in a book

The First West Indies Cricket Tour: Canada and the United States in 1886

Ed Hilary McD Beckles
(Canoe Press, ISBN 13: 978-976-8125-86-6, 78pp)

When 14 Caribbean cricketers set sail for North America in 1886 they could have had little idea of the legacy they were bestowing on the sporting world. Through cricket, the concept of West Indian nationhood was being born, and from these unheralded beginnings, a century later, their team would emerge as the game’s pre-eminent force.

The First West Indies Cricket Tour is the story of that first tentative step into the international arena.

The book is divided into two parts, the first being a scholarly and comprehensive introduction, covering a third of the work, by Beckles, a pro-vice chancellor of the University of the West Indies, principal of the Cave Hill campus in Barbados, and a professor of economic and social history. It places the tour firmly in its sociological, economic and historical context and explains why it would be hard to find two more contrasting teams than the tourists of 1886 and the world-beaters of 1986.

The amateurs, from British Guiana, Jamaica and Barbados, who embarked on this first journey were challenging 13 vastly more experienced Canadian and American club sides. The undertaking was in part an effort to reach out to the North American business communities and foster new trade links: the West Indian players were economically tied to the decaying colonial sugar industry. At the princely cost of £1,000 per person, the tour was self-funded and the participants were all white. As Beckles puts it: “The social design and political framework of the game required much cash but no colour.”

But the tourists were still pioneers, the forefathers of a great cricketing dynasty to come and, as such, the rediscovery and republication of this account of the trip by the team’s captain, Laurence Fyfe, is warranted and welcome.

Fyfe’s tour diary makes up the second section of the book and includes contemporary press articles, match reports and observations by the Jamaican himself. The stilted 19th-century prose means that, at times, the account reads like a list of sightseeing tours, dinner menus, and you-could-never-hope-to-find-a-finer-fellow thank-you messages. There are still some good lines, though, such as Fyfe’s summation of the Ottawa skipper: “Mr Coste affords, we believe, one of the few instances in which a Frenchman has taken to the game of cricket and become proficient in it.”

Similarly, although many of the cricketing descriptions lack the colour of modern-day reports, there are gems to be found. You can sense Fyfe’s moustache bristling as he exclaims, “One of [Farquharson’s] terrific smites came near removing the gaiters of a lady tennis player in a distant court.”

Few cricket enthusiasts, if any, will have known much of this inaugural West Indian cricket tour. It is a story which deserves to be told and Beckles, as befits a man who has published so widely, does this eloquently.