The Politics Behind Trinidad Disturbances

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The Politics Behind Trinidad Disturbances
Ian Walton/Getty Images

Fifty years ago, England was touring the West Indies when disturbances marred the Test match at the Port of Spain, Trinidad. Play was halted 75 minutes early on the third day due to an invasion first of bottle and then of crowd.

On the surface the disturbances appear to have crystallised around umpiring decisions, the ill-fortune of the West Indian batting, and too great a consumption of alcohol. Needless to say, an understanding of rage requires a consideration of the social setting in which it takes part.

There have been four major instances of crowd disorder at Test matches in the West Indies. Sociologist Orlando Patterson sets these against something ingrained in the psyche of cricket followers.

Deep down, West Indians hate cricket, he argues, because it is the game of colonisers and the old elites. It functions as a reminder of the economic and racial inferiority of the black masses.

Yet 30,000 had turned out for this third day in February 1960, and scores more who couldn’t afford the admission took advantage of the numbers of trees—dubbed “freedom stands”—that provided a view from outside the ground.

They had watched Wes Hall and Chester Watson pepper the English batters with short-pitched deliveries. England’s Ken Barrington was laid low by a blow to the side of his head, and both bowlers were warned by the umpires.

Still, England managed 382.

When the West Indies came out to bat, England’s Fred Trueman sought to show that he could be just as menacing with the short-pitched delivery. The "Trinidad Guardian" noted “three of the best in the first over.”

Having closed the second day on 22-0, the West Indians had collapsed to 98-8 when Charran Singh was run out by a metre. Each of the eight wickets had been decisions made on appeal, including three LBWs and two run-outs, and the crowd became ever-frustrated with the umpiring.

A bottle was thrown from the stands, and more followed. Two men climbed over protective wire onto the field of play, and rather than just collecting the bottles, they hurled them back into the crowd.

A disturbance became a riot as people began surging onto the ground.

Patterson pointed out that when black West Indians triumph there is great rejoicing. If things go the other way, however, the hatred for the game appears. The only weapon to show frustration is violence.

Yet this violence was not aimed at the players who had remained on the field and they quickly became surrounded by the protesters.

Ex Prime Minister Michael Manley noted that the protesters vented their anger at the umpires, but in reality this was a catalyst to release other tensions with other causes. These were rooted in issues over class and race.

The Queen’s Park ground was over-crowded and thus uncomfortable. Excessive charges for refreshments inflamed the distrust between the management, who represented the old regime, and the locals.

Ultimately though, the public were disenchanted with the West Indian Cricket Board because of their refusal to appoint a black man as captain.

Leadership is associated with authority, and as a consequence the exercise of power, or the structures of power that enable such authority to exist. Historically it involves the ascendancy of class, gender, ethnicity, and inevitably nation. The denial of black leadership in cricket sat alongside the denial of black leadership in politics.

Frank Worrell was the obvious choice of leader, but as with independence for Trinidad, he had to wait a little longer.

Trinidad was gripped in the struggle for political independence against both the English and the Americans. The People’s National Movement, led by Eric Williams, was demanding that the USA leave the Chaguaramas naval base. A popular calypso had the chorus:

Both mother and daughter

Workin’ for the Yankee dollar

West Indians were passionate about their cricket, for it offered a means by which they could hit back at colonial society and display their merits on a relatively level playing field.

During the period 1960 to 1966 the captaincy was handed to those who deserved it, four British West Indian territories achieved independence, and the cricket team became the leading force in the sport.

100,000 attended the Trinidad Test match, numbers that would be the envy of today’s administrators. There are those who argue that a reason of current decline is the loss of the link between the sport and the politics in which it evolved.

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