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.

In 1928 two cricket teams from Panama had toured Costa Rica; Bocas CC and Almirante CC from Bocas del Toro. Then in 1935 the Motive Power Club of Port Limon invited the Jamaican team Clarendon CC to visit Costa Rica in October for a series of ten matches including two “Tests.”. The tourists (supplemented by some cricketers from other Jamaican clubs) were managed by the Rev C.A. Spencer and captained by Mr A.L.Virtue (an agricultural instructor) and included two future West Indies test cricketers; H.H. Hines Johnson and R.L. “Dickie” Fuller. They had two days sightseeing in the capital San Jose (including a visit to the cemetery) and visited Cecil Lindo’s cocoa factory at Rio Hundo. Lindo was from a Sephardic Jewish family which had taken British nationality and settled in Jamaica. Cecil moved to Costa Rica and made his fortune working for United Fruit and buying land; first for bananas and then for coffee. He later owned the Appleton Estate in Jamaica and Devon House in Kingston. One of the family companies Keeling-Lindo Estates in St Catherine employed George Headley and was happy to allow him to take time off to play cricket.

The visitors from Clarendon CC, badged as Jamaica, played their first match of the 1935 tour at Carmen (a small hamlet in the heart of the banana plantations) travelling from Limon in a ten coach train crammed with 1,500 fans. Over 4,000 watched the match which was abandoned due to a heavy downpour. A similarly large crowd saw the next match against Pathfinders SC in Limon during which the Jamaican McDonald scored 102 not out, the first century ever scored on Costa Rica’s treacherous clay wickets. The United Fruit Company presented him with a commemorative bat. In reply to Jamaica’s 173, Pathfinders could muster only 27 for 6 as Johnson and Fuller ripped through their batsmen before a desperate appeal for bad light by the hosts was upheld. The next match, against the “Schemers” (The Costa Rican Burial Scheme) saw Jamaica notch up their first win. The Schemers could only manage 39 and 51 in their two innings to Jamaica’s 208 for 5 declared.

There followed a steady procession of heavy defeats for the enthusiastic but undisciplined Costa Rican teams. Wanderers SC could manage only 33 to Jamaica’s 76. Fearless SC of Limon scored just 31 to Jamaica’s 160. In the First Test Match “All Costa Rica” managed just 66 to Jamaica’s 160. In the next fixture Motive Power SC (the host team) scored 91, Jamaica replying with 92 for 4. Excelsior SC made just 64. Jamaica answered with 84. Construction SC were lucky to secure a draw after they made 39 for 9 in reply to Jamaica’s 197 for 2 in which McDonald made his second century of the tour, this time 111. Since Carmen all the matches were played on Limon’s savannah (sometimes dubbed with some optimism as the Oval) but the next contest took the Jamaicans by train to Siquirres, a delightful town in the foothills. In reply to Jamaica’s 88 for 2 declared, Siquirres managed only 36.

Musing to the Kingston Gleaner on the tour George Townsend, one of the touring party (a medium pace bowler for Lucas CC, for which George Headley also played) was enthusiastic about the “keen spirit shown in the game not only among the players themselves, but in the large number of people who watched”.  He was diplomatic about the quality of the cricket. He found Costa Rica’s bowlers “moderately good” but let down by “a clear lack of experience in placing their field”.  The fielding itself was good although the wicket keeping was generally poor with the keeper standing too far back.  Costa Rica’s batting was “definitely weak” with players hitting indiscriminately at everything. He recommended that Costa Rican batsmen should wear batting gloves and also suggested the laying of concrete wickets with matting because, with frequent rains, it was so hard to prepare a good clay wicket.

Inevitably the Costa Ricans were invited to make a return trip to Jamaica.  There had not been a cricket tour before but in 1933 some Costa Rican footballers, baseballers and boxers had visited Jamaica.  Barcelona FC, the best soccer team in Limon had also toured. And in 1934 the Excelsior Sports Club of Costa Rica sent Arthur Pearson, the cycle champion of all Costa Rica.  Pearson bemoaned the loss of training time due to the festivities before leaving Limon and the subsequent sea voyage, but promised to “do my best to clip your flashers”.  He was pitted against Jamaica’s top cyclists, L .E. Hayles, Christie and Beckford.

The cricket tour from Costa Rica to Jamaica in March 1937 included, amongst a cast of 72 “excursionists”, 14 cricketers and 2 boxers. The two Costa Rican boxers, Juan Bagas and Arturo Clarke, were expected to fight Jamaica’s Kid Silver and Pal Silver. But the cricket was the main business and arriving on the Royal Netherlands Steamship “Costa Rica”, the Captain, Stanley Dixon, made two points.  He said that Pathfinders SC did not mind being beaten at cricket.  Their main purpose was to gain experience.  However secondly he made a special plea that Lucas CC should include George Headley in their team later that week, just before he sailed to England to join Haslingden Club for the start of the English summer season. 
By the time the Pathfinders left Jamaica on the steamship “Simon Bolivar”, they had lost 8 of their 9 matches and had also lost one baseball match against Ortega Stars and all three boxing bouts at Rose Gardens.  Nonetheless no-one was downcast, least of all “Longfield”, the ever charitable cricket correspondent of the Kingston Gleaner.  His report on the tour on March 22nd 1937 was entitled “Slow Improvement” after the match at Four Paths CC.  He thought that the bowling of Ruben Brown, Stanley Dixon (the Captain) and Egbert Wade was promising.  The fielding was lively too.  Of the Costa Rican batsmen, Gabriel Gordon “batted with enterprise, showing discretion”. However he identified the poor setting of the field as a serious problem with the slips standing too far back.

On his departure Pathfinder’s President, Cleveland Clarke ventured onto politics when he told the Gleaner “But one thing our trip revealed to us is that the conditions of the working classes in Costa Rica are not as bad as those existing in Jamaica as we were previously led to think.”  Whilst complimenting Jamaica “on your good roads” he felt that “for scenic beauty and climate I think San Jose has it over Kingston”. 

This is believed to be the last surviving photo of the 1937 Pathfinders tour of Jamaica
Back row l to r. Vernon Blackshaw, Egbert Wade, Cleveland Clarke, Sylvester Cunningham, Nathan Brown, Winston Cunningham
Seated l to r..Albert Lawrence, Gabriel Gordon, Stanley Dixon, Ruben Brown, Standford Barton

He may have lacked diplomacy but Clarke had a point. Times were even harder in Jamaica. Huge sugar estates in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic had driven down the price of sugar and the level of wages. Marcus Garvey drew on the prevailing discontent to found the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and in 1929 the People’s Party. As in Costa Rica Jamaica was still controlled by a mainly white, landowning class and for the black population George Headley shone like a light in difficult times.

The building which once housed the old British Consulate in Limon

In fact Headley shone all the brighter because of earlier disappointments. The Jamaicans in Limon had taken Garvey to their hearts. He had visited Costa Rica in 1911 working on a banana estate and on a local newspaper before moving on eventually to the USA. UNIA set up a Limon branch in 1919 and Liberty Hall (built in 1922) still exists to this day.  When he set up his “Black Star Shipping Line” in 1919 and purchased an old British ship, the SS Yarmouth, this was followed with fascination in Limon (although the stated intention of returning the Afro-Caribbeans to Africa was taken with a pinch of salt).

When the Yarmouth (renamed the Frederick Douglas) docked in Limon in April 1920 the quays were thronged with celebrating onlookers. When a sister ship berthed the following April United Fruit actually transported workers to the docks as part of a tacit agreement that Garvey would not incite any strikes. However the “Black Star Line” dream quickly evaporated amidst financial difficulties and allegations of fraud.

George’s career had continued to blossom. In 1933 after the match in Limon he had toured England scoring 169 not out in the Second Test. When England returned to the West Indies in 1935 he scored 93 in the First Test, 53 in the Second and a monumental 270 not out in the Fourth on his home ground at Sabina Park. This remained the highest West Indian score against England until 1974. When the West Indies visited England again in the summer of 1939  Headley made 106 and107 in the First Test, 51 in the Second and 65 in the Third before the team had to return home early because of concerns about the imminent war. Indeed had it not been for the Second World War Headley would probably have sealed his rightful position as greatest Test batsman after Bradman. In Limon he was the greatest sporting hero until Pele emerged in the 1950s.

Before their next tour there was a major dispute in Costa Rica in the finest tradition of West Indian cricket. In the domestic league for the Frank Sheehy Cup (named after a senior executive of United Fruit Company) Excelsior SC (the winners in 1935 and 1936) and Pathfinders SC finished equal top with 4 points each. For some reason the other 4 sides in the league declared Pathfinders the winners instead of insisting on a play-off as had previously occurred. One positive aspect of this dispute was that some additional Excelsior players were included in Pathfinders next tour, including Sam Smith (an opening batsman) and Simeon Maxwell.

In April 1938 Pathfinders SC returned to Jamaica, this time bringing an orchestra amongst 60 tourists.  On the cricket field they played twice as many matches.  Stanley Dixon captained the side again but came in for heavy criticism even from Longfield for his field setting and the handling of his bowlers. Longfield added, for good measure, that both the press and the Pathfinders’ opponents had pointed out these deficiencies “but without any noticeable improvement” as the tour wore on.  However Longfield did notice significant improvement in the quality of cricket.  The main revelation was Simeon Maxwell, a slow left arm bowler “as good as any of the left hand bowlers we have in Jamaica”, who took 48 wickets on the tour at an average of only 11.12.  His best performances were 8 for 71 against West India Cold Storage, 5 for 10 versus Puros, 5 for 42 versus Wolmers and 5 for 5 against The Unknowns. There was also significant improvement in Ruben Brown’s batting which included scores of 58 and 44 not out against Railway and 40 against Wolmers.  S Campbell showed promise both with the bat and as wicket keeper.

There remained in Costa Rica a strongly partisan following for Jamaican cricket.  Cleveland Clarke commented to The Gleaner that the initial failure of the West Indies selectors to name Leslie Hylton in the1939 touring party to England “caused broken friendships and in some cases fisticuffs” in Port Limon.

Hopes ran high when Pathfinders made a third trip to Jamaica in April 1939.  However cricket in Costa Rica had suffered a serious reverse. The local government in Limon had decided to erect a hospital on Limon’s only cricket ground, The Oval.  In fact Pathfinders had only played one match since returning from Jamaica in May1938.  They were fighting hard to get a new ground and were hoping for the support of the United Fruit Company.  It is hardly surprising therefore that the Pathfinders performed poorly and were never to tour again.  The planned tour to Cuba in 1940 was called off. The Second World War ended tours in both directions and by 1945 even George Headley (by then suffering from a back injury) was no longer the toast of the Atlantic Coast.

One irony of this sudden decline is that Costa Rica’s best cricketer (with the possible exception of Simeon Maxwell) was playing for Christiana Sports Club in Jamaica prior to returning home to Costa Rica.  This was Lance Binns, a graduate of Farm School and a worker for Unifruitco.  In one celebrated match against the British Garrison at Up Park Camp in April 1939, he took 8 for 18 including the hat trick and then followed it with “a forceful knock of 111” thereby inflicting a defeat on the King's Shropshire Light Infantry. Binns was still playing a good standard of cricket in the 1980s and 1990s both as batsman and bowler.

Costa Rica would never have become a test playing nation. There were rarely more than 20,000 Jamaicans and others of Caribbean origin on the Atlantic coast of Costa Rica in the 1920s and 1930s.  However, without the intervention of the Second World War, and the denial of cricketing facilities by Spanish-speaking officials who knew and cared nothing for cricket, Costa Rica might have become like Guyana; a mainland offshoot of West Indian cricket or, at the very least, have supplied the occasional cricketer (like Maxwell or Binns) for the Jamaican team.

Cricket in Limon in 1986

Cricket is still played in Costa Rica thanks to the remarkable efforts of an English coconut planter, Richard Illingworth. Costa Rica is an affiliate member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and Limon still fields a team, which still betrays the characteristics which Longfield would recognise so well; a good eye for a cricket ball, a desire to hit every delivery for six, poor field placement and infectious enthusiasm for the game. To this day there is still a Lance Binns cup and a Standford Barton League, the latter in honour of a player who toured Jamaica on all three occasions. However the big difference is that, though intensely proud of their Jamaican heritage, the black residents of the Atlantic Coast have Costa Rican nationality, speak Spanish and have become fanatical followers of football.

©TAWW (2012)

Acknowledgements. I am grateful  to Delroy Barton for the photograph of  the old British Consulate  in Limon  and to Richard Illingworth for the Pathfinders in 1937. My thanks to City of Bristol Museum for the image of SS Ariguani. My general thanks to the Jamaica Gleaner and to the Costa Rica Cricket Federation and to the late Standford Barton, Lance Binns and Sylvester Cunningham who originally told me this story, which is for educational purposes and not for commercial gain.