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This winter,grab a reminder of cricket’s long arc in the West Indies.

Written by Mini Kapoor |
October 27, 2013 4:53:34 am

This winter,grab a reminder of cricket’s long arc in the West Indies.<\i>

West Indies cricketers arrive in India any day now,and you can be sure that in some circles back in Barbados they will be shaking their heads and recalling the time back when the island contributed so many more of the cricketers in the team. West Indies is still cricket’s most precious story to assert for the game a relevance that extends beyond the rather pointless ICC rankings and the ever-creeping authoritarianism that’s rendered the international game incapable of self-analysis. We have grown up on CLR James’s incantation,what do they know of cricket who only cricket know? And a recent book,Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire,by Andrea Stuart,serves to emphasise the importance of that question. A sweeping and moving history-family memoir of migration,slavery and sugar in Barbados,the book has just a few paragraphs devoted to cricket,but it is enough at this juncture when West Indies cricket continues to struggle with a crisis of purpose and cohesion. It calls upon those to love cricket and value what West Indians brought to it to embed that game in a wider social and political history.

Stuart,who grew up in Barbados and Jamaica and now lives in Britain,catches cricket’s relevance to the West Indies story around the mid-20th century,as the sugar-growing colonies of the Caribbean increased their agitation for independence,the process paralleling their quest for dignity and democratic rights after a brutalising history of slavery and racist/colonial power structures. “Much of the Caribbean region’s restless longings for independence during this period were projected onto one sport: cricket.” Cricket,as it was organised in and around plantation life,was coded to convey the superiority of “Britishness”,but it also became a vehicle to challenge these very notions. Stuart’s uncle,Clyde Walcott,played a key role in what she calls,with no exaggeration,“a turning point in the island’s self-esteem”. Walcott was one of the famous three Ws along with Frank Worrell and Everton Weekes,and in 1950,he played the innings of his life,a 168 not-out that helped Windies to their first Test victory in England.

Her family ties to Walcott are lightly asserted,but they place him too in her family tree that together catches the history of not just Barbados but the entire slave trade and colonial plantation economy. She traces it back to 1620,and finds a record of her “white” ancestor George Ashby giving up his blacksmith’s life in England for a better deal in Barbados. She regrets that she cannot follow the line back equally long to find records of her African ancestors as they were transported on the Middle Passage to slavery in the island to work on the sugar plantations that Ashby and his heirs established. But then,she notes,“the unknowability of their past is one of many terrible by-products of slavery,when people,reduced to chattels,are written out of history and deprived of a personal past.”

That was the time when sugar was literally “white gold”,it fuelled fortunes that created so much of the architectural splendour of London and other English cities — the Tate Galleries,for instance,were funded thus,as was Oxford’s All Souls College. Its value,if not its pitiless political economy,could be gauged in a British saying of the time,“as wealthy as a West Indian”,and from the fact that when the future American president,George Washington,visited Barbados in the mid-18th century,Bridgetown was the largest city he had every seen.

Stuart’s family tree,“blending the history of both oppressor and oppressed”,provides the backdrop to trace how the Barbadian identity was developed,how first whiteness and blackness become the vital determinants of identities,and these in turn gave whites and blacks different rights in the legal code. Barbados was key because “it would become the model for the plantation system throughout the Americas”. It would later — through rebellions,political organisation,the arts and cricket — also play a vital role in winning guarantees of democratic rights across the region.

In cricket grounds around the West Indies,at least before the revamp of stadiums for the 2007 World Cup,the social history of the islands and the politics of belonging and participation could be seen in the layout and peopling of the stands. The visitors,in a Test series with higher prominence for being Sachin Tendulkar’s last,may not dwell on it. But they carry with them,by the fact of being West Indies cricketers,a different way of imagining the power of sport.

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