A century of Empire
Empire Club marked its centenary last night, appropriately with a gala, black tie cocktail and awards ceremony at the Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre.
Celebrations continue through the week with various activities at its distinctive, time-honoured home tucked in between the houses on Pavilion Road, Bank Hall where it has been from the start.
A highlight of the special year is a tour of England in August that includes a match against the MCC at Lord’s, famous clubs and grounds in their own separate ways.
There is much to rejoice over. Undeterred by an outfield so small that boundary hits count for 3s and 4s, Empire has long since been globally recognised for the quality of its cricket and its cricketers.
It has produced 13 Test players, among them Frank Worrell, Everton Weekes and Conrad Hunte, all knighted for their excellence and their regard for the spirit of the game.
Worrell was the first black West Indies captain and the most revered. Eight Empire men have led Barbados, none more universally acclaimed than the belated appointment of Weekes, now at 89 still as ebullient as ever and, fittingly, patron of the anniversary festivities. Numerous others have represented the island.
The club has been strong in local football too and, in later years, in hockey, men as well as women whose entry into the membership introduced a typically energetic female influence. Both disciplines also placed several Empire members on Barbados teams.
In all three sports it has furnished Barbados with a cadre of capable administrators.
These are imposing achievements. Inevitably the passage of time tends to cloud the reasons for the club’s formation on May 24, 1914 (strangely on Empire Day that honoured the “glorious” British Empire and Queen Victoria’s birthday).
Its impact on Barbados’ entrenched divisions of race and class amidst general social and political change are consequently diminished.
The catalyst for Empire’s creation was the denial to Herman Griffith, a young, extraordinarily gifted black all-round athlete, of the opportunity for the highest level of club cricket because of a combination of his colour and his underprivileged background.
At Combermere School, which he entered on a bursary in 1903, Griffith bowled fast for the school (then in the second division competition), was a skilled, robust footballer and, in his final year, won every event in the school sports except the shot put.
It was talent too obvious to be ignored; yet it was.
The top division of the Barbados Cricket Committee that governed the game at the time comprised just four teams – Wanderers and Pickwick, both exclusively white, Spartan, comprised mainly members of the non-white professional classes, and Harrison College.
After leaving Combermere in 1909, Griffith joined the “Volunteers”, the equivalent of the modern Defence Force, where he indulged his sporting talents.
There were also Saturday afternoon friendly matches organized by Lionel Gittens, a prominent Spartan member.
Impressed by Griffith’s potential, Gittens was adamant that he deserved more and better cricket. He put up Griffith up for membership of Spartan. only for his application to be rebuffed; apparently, a junior clerk at the General Hospital was not acceptable, no matter how good a cricketer he was.
Appalled, Gittens and others who supported him left Spartan in disgust; within a couple of years they had established Empire.
This still wasn’t the end of it. Empire had yet to gain admission into its first division from the Cricket Committee; each time its submission was rejected on some specious ground.
Finally, after two years, Arthur Somers Cox, the Harrison College headmaster, used his casting vote to break a 2-2 deadlock. His team and Wanderers favoured Empire’s entry, Pickwick and Spartan were against.
It is an account that gives context to the intense hostility that existed between Empire and Spartan throughout Griffith’s career and beyond.
Empire’s admission afforded the disenfranchised, working class majority, for whom cricket was an obsession, a team of their peers they could support and previously unentitled players with whom they could identify; as the club’s bowling spearhead and categorical captain, Griffith, was pre-eminent.
He became a regular in the Barbados team for 20 years, between 1921, when he was already 27 (seven for 38 against Trinidad on debut), and 1941 when, aged 47, he was appointed the island’s first black captain for two matches against Trinidad. It might have been a token gesture but significant all the same.
Well into his 30s, he played 13 Tests, against England in the West Indies in 1930 and in England in 1928 and 1933 and in 1930-31 in Australia where he was the first man to bowl the legendary Don Bradman for 0. Such statistics reveal only Griffith’s playing record and his remarkable longevity, not his place in the democratisation of Barbados and, indeed, West Indies cricket.
“The battle of the cricket was more than cricket, much more,” Barbadian author John Wickham wrote in his perceptive assessment of Griffith’s life in the 1986 West Indies Cricket Annual. “It was both social and political in its metaphor and the thousands of spectators who ‘hailed’ their chosen heroes understood very well the logic of their partisanship.”
Around the Caribbean, Britain’s other colonies were going through the same developments.
In Jamaica, the Kingston Cricket Club was exclusively for the white elite; Melbourne was founded 22 years prior to Empire, on May 3, 1892, “for men of modest means” and Lucas in 1895 for “poor blacks”.
The all-white Queen’s Park Cricket Club, founded in 1891, ran the game in Trinidad. Shannon, Maple and Stingo were the Empire and Melbourne equivalents.
In British Guiana, as it was, the Georgetown Cricket Club, launched in 1858 and the oldest of the lot, held the paramount position. Guyana Sports Club (1896), Malteenoes (1902), the Demerara Sports Club (1912) and the East Indian Sports Club (1914), catering to that emerging ethnic populace, were alternatives.
In Barbados, Griffith was the uncompromising leader of Empire and all it stood for, his attitude fortified by the discrimination he and others like him had endured.
“Griffith had had a secondary education, called nobody mister except the captain, H.B.G Austin, and had the reputation of being ready to call anybody anything which seemed to him to apply,” was how C.L.R James summed up his no-nonsense self-confidence in his classic Beyond A Boundary.
The same might be written of a cricketer of a later generation outraged by his island’s exclusion from the mainstream of West Indies cricket for more than half a century; Viv Richards by name.
Gradually, very gradually, the barriers that obstructed Herman Griffith’s early development began to fall, as they did in all facets of the society.
Appropriately, he was the first Test cricketer from Empire; Manny Martindale and ‘Foffie’ Williams, also fast bowlers, soon followed.
After the second World War, the batting greats, Weekes and Worrell, emerged from Bank Hall, inspiring their brilliant successors, Hunte and Seymour Nurse. Another Griffith, the unrelated Charlie, arrived in the 1960s, to revive Empire’s reputation for fast bowling.
One of Herman’s sons, Harold, turned out for Barbados three years after his father’s final match; another, Teddy, played for both Barbados and Jamaica. That Teddy became president of the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) in 2003 was testament to the revolution initially triggered by Empire and his father.
Half-way through the 20th century, as political independence neared, race faded away as a criterion for club membership. In rapid succession, new entrants into the Barbados Cricket Association competitions offered what, for four decades, only Empire could.
It is a significant transformation the present generation, not particularly prone to pondering the past, would do well to reflect on during the 100th anniversary of Empire Club where it all started.
• Tony Cozier is the most experienced cricket writer and commentator in the Caribbean.