Jamaica, Headley And The Heyday Of Costa Rican Cricket
By Tim Willasey-Wilsey
Tim Wilsey is a former British diplomat, who served in Costa Rica.
Twenty years ago I contributed an article to Cricketer magazine called "Playing across the lines" about how the Jamaican labourers who built the Atlantic Coast railway in Costa Rica and who later worked on the banana plantations in that Central American country had developed a vigorous cricket league with over 30 teams participating Based on the recollections of some veterans, all now dead, the article charted the rise of cricket in the 1920s and 1930s culminating in the tours of Jamaica before the Second World War intervened. Now the appearance online of back copies of The Gleaner allows me to sketch in some more of the 1930’s heyday of Costa Rican cricket.
This is not really a story of cricketing prowess. It is an account of Jamaicans far from home on the steamy coast of Central America trying to keep alive their links to home. After building the railway they had originally intended to return home but the granting of small plots of land beside the railway lines for the cultivation of bananas had persuaded them to stay. Naturally these small landowners’ livelihoods were dependent on what the powerful United Fruit Company was prepared to pay for the bananas. In 1929 there was not only the Wall Street crash and the start of a global recession but also the appearance of Panama disease which affected the banana plantations. Then in 1934 there was a major strike in Costa Rica which the Jamaicans on the Atlantic Coast refused to join.
Sociologists still argue about why the Jamaicans refused to show their solidarity with the Costa Rican Communist Party. The answer is simple. It has nothing to do with a history of subservience under slavery as some academics have suggested. It was because they were upwardly mobile with better prospects than if they had stayed in Jamaica. They also had no liking for the Hispanic population which was envious of their jobs. A petition to the Costa Rican Parliament in 1941 claimed “For forty long years we Costa Ricans were displaced from the best jobs of the Atlantic Zone by Negroes. They were warehouse supervisors, chiefs of commissaries, clerks and foremen. ...They think that they are superior to us... They look down upon our language”
Little wonder that people of Jamaican origin living in Costa Rica felt cut off from their roots and not entirely welcome in the Spanish-speaking republics. In 1934 a law was passed forbidding the employment of black people in Costa Rica except in the Atlantic zone; and not until 1949 were blacks granted the right to Costa Rican nationality. So they were determined to retain their Caribbean identity. They expressed their differences in many ways; they were largely Anglican, Baptist and Methodist in a Roman Catholic country; they spoke English and showed a marked reluctance to learn any Spanish; and, as British subjects, they looked to the British Consulate in Limon for support against unfair treatment by both the Costa Rican government and the United Fruit Company. There was also the Jamaican passion for sport; soccer, cycling, boxing, baseball and cricket. Cricket especially demonstrated their sense of community identity and the United Fruit Company seems to have been willing to help foster this sense among workers now seen as more reliable than the Spanish-speakers from the central highlands.
The capital of the Atlantic coast, Port Limon, now better known as Puerto Limon, has never been the most attractive town. It has a couple of fine streets with large balconied houses and offices but its two main attributes are its railway terminus and its harbour where banana boats still load up prior to sailing to the United States and Europe. In fact the banana boats are an integral part of this story. Prime amongst them was the Elder and Fyffe Line and its fleet of some 40 ships one of which was the coal-burning Ariguani built in 1926. In 1913 E and F were bought up by the United Fruit Company although it retained its brand identity. From 1901 to 1967 one of their primary routes was Avonmouth to Jamaica and then to Limon where they loaded their bananas and raced back to Bristol with their perishable cargo. This was why Jamaican cricketers (and other touring teams) found themselves occasionally in Limon.
The SS Ariguani of the Elder and Fyffe Line
Into this small and rather febrile world arrived a star in the form of George Alphonso Headley, a cricketer of prodigious talent who had made his fame during the England tour of the Caribbean in 1930. George’s parents had left the West Indies to find work building the Panama Canal and then moved to Cuba but George had been sent back to school on his mother’s island of Jamaica, where he mastered the game as a teenager in the late 1920s. In the First Test Match of the 1930 series against England in Barbados he scored 21 and 176. In the Second in Trinidad he made a modest 8 and 39 but in the Third in British Guiana (now Guyana) he scored 114 and 112 in the West Indies’ first ever Test Match victory.
Before the fourth and final match there was a gap of almost 5 weeks and the West Indies team aboard the banana ship SS Ariguani paid visits to the West Indian communities in Colon (Panama) and Port Limon (Costa Rica). At Colon the Caribbean community hosted a reception for Headley. In a flowery speech (which ignored all the other members of the West Indian team) a community leader exulted “Although domiciled in a foreign land we are ...keenly interested in everything that attends to the material and social advancement of our homelands” so “when the news was flashed to us that you had made the magnificent score of 176 ...the jubilation of every West Indian was indescribable”. Headley was then presented with a souvenir by the well-known community activist Mrs Linda Smart Chubb.
But the Star and Herald newspaper of Panama went even further in its hero worship, “George Headley, famed cricketer....Onward to victory and achieve your goal, righting the wrongs”. The Ariguani’s next stop was Port Limon in Costa Rica further up the Central American isthmus and here too Headley was “given a hearty reception and presented with a souvenir”. When the Ariguani finally reached Jamaica Headley batted brilliantly in the Fourth and final Test Match making 10 and 223 in a drawn game.
So began ten years of cricket fanaticism along the Atlantic coast of Central America. In 1933 George Headley visited Limon again with the Jamaican team on their way back from trials in Trinidad before the 1933 West Indies tour of England. With Headley were four other Jamaican Test cricketers; Leslie Hylton, the fast bowler, Vincent Valentine (fast medium) , Clarence Passailaigue (a batsman who once scored 261 not out batting with Headley) and Oscar Da Costa (the all-rounder). This time the visitors played a match to the delight of the local community.