An untold chapter of Caribbean history


When I was told of my diplomatic posting to Costa Rica in 1986 my first thought was to locate the country on a map! It is not, as so many people believe, an island; it is a small, narrow, country wedged between Panama and Nicaragua on the Central American isthmus. It was then a land of some 2.7 million inhabitants, of widely varied landscapes and rich in flora and fauna. It gained its independence from Spain in 1821 and since 1948 it has had no army, remaining an oasis of peace in war-ravaged Central America. It exports coffee, sugar, bananas, flowers and plants and it has the advantage of having ports both on the Atlantic (Caribbean) and Pacific coasts.

Map showing the lines from Limon to San Jose, Guacimo and Atalanta

It never occurred to me to pack my cricket gear! Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I arrived at San Jose (Costa Rica's capital city in the centre of the country) to be told that the British Ambassador and much of the British community were not in town because they were playing cricket in Limon. I knew Limon to be the port on the Atlantic coast at the spot where Columbus had landed at the Indian village of Cariari in 1502 and had named Costa Rica; the rich coast. I also knew Limon to be populated largely by people of Jamaican origin, but I had not considered that cricket could have survived the transition to Central America over one hundred years ago. How wrong I was to be proved.

When some months later I played my first cricket match in Costa Rica (with borrowed gear) I met the Limon team for the first time. They were indeed nearly all of Jamaican origin; fit, wiry men all apparently in their early to mid forties. It was only after the match when the beer was flowing that I discovered that some of them were very considerably older. Standford Barton, their captain, was 70 as was the oldest player on the San Jose team, Lancelot Binns, also of Jamaican extraction. Several things struck me about the Limon team during that first match. Their enthusiasm for the game was radiant, manifesting itself in many ways, not least a marked reluctance to depart from the crease for anything other than clean-bowled! Their olde-worlde courtesy was delightful and they managed to combine friendliness with formality. For example, even after knowing each other for fifty years Stanford Barton and Lance Binns called and referred to each other as Mister Binns and Mister Barton. Anything else would have been inexcusable familiarity. Punctuality was another feature as indeed was precision; in a Hispanic country it is most unusual to find people who arrive on time. It is equally amazing to hear people quoting dates and figures half a century old with unfailing accuracy. From Messrs Barton and Binns and from one Sylvester Cunningham, who was seventy-two in 1986 (and had decided to retire from the game) I reconstructed the history of cricket in Costa Rica.

I have already mentioned that Costa Rica is a narrow country on the Central American isthmus. In the 19th century numerous plans were developed for creating a transit route for goods and passengers across the isthmus, thereby preventing ships from having to make the precarious voyage around the south of Argentina and Chile. Between 1850 and 1855 a railway was constructed across the isthmus in Panama and in 1880 the first attempt to build an inter-oceanic canal was made also in Panama (although a plan also existed for a canal in Nicaragua). Although narrow, the isthmus was extremely difficult to traverse, particularly in Costa Rica where the central plateau is at an elevation of some 3,800ft and descends steeply to both coasts. Furthermore the Atlantic coast was composed of almost impenetrable jungle. As a result the Spanish-speaking population of the capital and the rest of the country had had virtually no contact with the peoples of the Atlantic coast. Indeed there was not even a road for access to Limon until 1970. Much the same could be said for the Atlantic coasts of Nicaragua and Honduras which also remained largely independent of their Spanish-speaking governments to the west. In the late 17th Century and for much of the 18th and 19th centuries the British, firstly in the form of pirates and later the government itself, encouraged the largely Indian peoples of the coast to develop a separate identity and language to the "Spaniards".

By the mid to late 19th Century it was obvious to the government in San Jose that a route to the Atlantic coast would have to be opened up if Costa Rica were to trade its coffee in Europe. In August 1871 it was decided to build a railway from near San Jose to Limon and the contract was passed to one Henry Meiggs. It was in fact Meigg's nephew, Minor Keith, from New York, who played the leading role in ensuring the eventual success of the project. The railway proved to be a massive undertaking and it was not until 7th December 1890 that a steam locomotive finally made the journey from Limon to San Jose. By that time Minor Keith, who had been responsible for the railway since 1873, had seriously tested the nerves of the London banks. Furthermore the construction of the track had cost thousands of lives, some to accidents, landslides, and snake bites, others to yellow fever, beriberi and dysentery, but most to malaria and mosquitoes. Keith had tried several different races in the search for people who were resistant to malaria, and the Chinese cemetery in Limon to this day bears witness to the fact that Chinese labour, specially imported from mainland China, did not have the necessary resistance. It appeared however that Jamaicans had such resistance and as early as 1877 there were 1500 Jamaicans hard at work. It was these Jamaicans who brought cricket to Costa Rica.

The origins of cricket in the West Indies are, of course, well documented. The English had brought the game to the region and it had begun to catch on in the early to mid 19th century. In 1846 the first inter-island match was played between British Guiana and Barbados. However it was not until the 1880s that regular fixtures between the islands were played. In 1891 the triangular "inter-colonial" series started between Barbados, Trinidad and British Guiana (Demerara). Meanwhile cricket was also being played some one thousand miles away in Jamaica.

It was the decline of the sugar industry during the course of the mid to late 19th century which provided the incentive for so many West Indians, particularly Jamaicans and Haitians, to travel in the hope of finding employment elsewhere. Thousands of Jamaicans helped build the Panama Railway and the Panama Canal and tens of thousands went to Cuba in the 1920s. There are no records as to how many Jamaicans went to Costa Rica to build the railway, but it was certainly in excess of ten thousand. To this day no-one knows how many Jamaicans died building the inter-oceanic routes in Panama and Costa Rica because the contractors omitted to keep records!

Much has been written about the significance of cricket in the Caribbean. It seems clear that, to some extent, it bridged the otherwise unbridgeable gap between the large poor black and mixed-race population and the three per cent white landowners and administrators. When the Jamaicans found themselves in Costa Rica cricket became a symbol of their cultural identity in a country which was technically at least Hispanic. The United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) originally set up by Marcus Garvey had, and still has, an office in Limon. It organised self-help groups and projects and was also the focal point for cricket in Limon. At each station on the main line westwards the Jamaicans carved out cricket fields from the surrounding jungle with machetes. Many of these grounds still exist to this day, although they are now more often used for soccer matches than cricket.

A share certificate for the Atlantic Coast railway

Minor Keith was a tough, gifted, entrepreneur in the Victorian mould. While the railway was under construction he negotiated with the Government to let him use land at the sides of the tracks for the cultivation of bananas. As the railway neared completion more and more of the labour force, nearly all Jamaican, was redeployed into the banana plantations. In 1899 the United Fruit Company (La Yunai as it is known locally) was founded in Costa Rica and has since become a large multinational industrial concern. Costa Rica became the original banana republic and for a time was the world's largest producer. Although United Fruit had an unenviable reputation as an employer it did apparently encourage cricket as an activity for the workers' few moments of leisure. The British Consulate in Limon is also reputed to have helped support the game and to have provided equipment.

If the American entrepreneurs of the railway and banana companies found cricket hard to understand, the same could also be said of the Spanish-speaking peoples of the central plateau, who from 1890 now had access to the Atlantic coast. Indeed there are some curious social features surrounding the development of cricket. Standford Barton told me that, during his childhood, he and his friends were not allowed to play with Spanish-speaking Costa Ricans (or "Spaniards" as they were called on the coast) because they were thought to have lice. Furthermore the Atlantic coast paid very little attention to Costa Rican traditions and practices. No self-respecting person from the coast learned Spanish ("hablaring" as they called it) and the coast recognised only British public holidays; the two main ones being Easter Monday and the Queen's Birthday when there would be horse races and cricket matches. This prejudice between the coast people and the Spaniards was two-way. The government of President Leon Cortes decreed that railway workers and crews were not allowed any nearer to the capital city than Turrialba, some 50 miles away. This was not exactly a colour-bar but it had a similar effect. The coast people had far more in common with their ancestors in Jamaica than they did with the people of the central plateau. When supplies were needed they would send an order by the weekly mail boat to Jamaica. It would not occur to them to order the same items from San Jose.

The cricket matches during the heyday of Costa Rican cricket (from around 1910 to 1939) possessed considerable romance. The league matches were played on Sundays and Mondays. The teams would travel to and from the matches by train and therefore three leagues grew up based on the three railway lines: the Main Line from Limon to Siquirres, the Penshurst Line from Limon to Pandora and the Old Line from Cairo to Guacimo. The Limon team would leave at about 5am and the game would start shortly after arrival at their destination, usually around 10am. Lunch would usually consist of rice, peas and chicken, but leatherback or green turtle was always served when in season. Lemonade, lime and ginger, and agua dulce (sugar water) were provided as drinks. The game would finish at 4pm with iced tea, sandwiches and biscuits and the visitors would then often stay overnight as guests of the home team before travelling home on the next scheduled service in the morning. For public holidays, however, special excursion trains were laid on. The cricket matches were big news. In the 1930s all the Atlantic coast newspapers would carry accounts of each match and the scores. The main newspapers were the Atlantic Voice, published in Turrialba by Joshua Thomas, the Central American Express published in Limon by Charles David and The Gossip edited by Dolores Joseph.

Cricket teams were formed all over "the coast" (as the Atlantic coastal plain is known). In Limon itself there were three teams by 1922; Wanderers CC, Construction CC and Surprise CC. By the late 1930s there were nine teams in Limon and a further thirty-seven teams in the hinterland, divided into the three leagues based on the three railway tracks. Many of the names are redolent of tenuous past associations; Liverpool, Cuba Creek, Old Harbour, Cairo White Star, etc. Others were more obvious; Eleven Brothers CC, 24 Miles CC (at the 24th milestone from Limon), Motive Power CC etc. It is widely agreed that the best were Wanderers, Construction, Motive Power, Eleven Brothers, Excelsior, Pathfinders, Cairo and Matina, all of which were members of the Costa Rica Cricket Federation.

The league champions for much of the 1920s were Cairo, which later boasted two teams. Sylvester Cunningham, from a Jamaican family which came to Costa Rica in 1908, saw his first cricket match at the age of seven in 1921. He recalls the first foreign tours to and from the Atlantic coast. In 1928 Almirante, the Panamanian team based at Bocas del Toro travelled to Costa Rica and played three games against Siquirres, Wanderers and Construction. In 1930 the full West Indies team visited Costa Rica on its way from British Guiana to Jamaica. Cunningham vividly remembers the excitement of having Learie Constantine and George Headley in town, although he cannot recall whether they actually played a game in Limon. Sadly neither of Constantine's two cricketing autobiographies, "Cricket and I" and "Cricket in the Sun" makes mention of this brief stopover in Limon. Clearly his mind was more focussed on the forthcoming Fourth Test against England. However it was George Headley, "the black Bradman" as he would later be christened by the English press, who was the great hero on the coast and inspired a generation of youngsters. Headley was not only a brilliant player, having burst to fame in 1929 by scoring 78, 211 and 71 in three innings against the Hon L H Tennyson's XI in Jamaica but his background closely mirrored those of the Costa Rican Jamaicans. He was born on 30th May 1909 in Panama where his father was a worker on the canal (which was completed in August 1914). The family then moved to Cuba and Trinidad before returning to Jamaica in 1927. He too knew the experience of being an expatriate Jamaican in a Spanish-speaking exile.

After the visit from the West Indies in March 1930 a spate of foreign tours followed. In about 1935 the Jamaican team Clarendon visited Costa Rica and won all its matches. McDonald made two centuries during this tour. This was the same West Indies touring selection of 1935 to which Standford Barton also referred and which included H.H.Hines Johnson and R.L Fuller, both to be capped for the West Indies. This team took on a Costa Rican XI in an unofficial Test match.

At Easter 1937 the Pathfinders of Limon sent a team to Jamaica where they played ten matches, losing eight and drawing two. Matches were played against Lucas, Railway, Unifruit, Clarendon, Four Paths, Kingston, May Pen, Porus, Christiana and Kingston. The Costa Rican side was soundly beaten by the more experienced Jamaicans and could look back on just one moment of promise; when they had Railway in the parlous position of 8 for 4 before they went on to score over 300. However Stanford Barton and Lance Binns both recalled with pride that they had the chance to play against Headley. Sylvester Cunningham also toured Jamaica with Pathfinders in 1937. He was in the team purely for his fielding but he recalled vividly dropping George Headley off his brother, Winston Cunningham's, bowling. He also recalled a match in which the Jamaican bowler Fuller took all ten wickets against Pathfinders. Perhaps with some relief Sylvester Cunningham, a Seventh Day Adventist teacher, was not able to tour Jamaica again in 1938. Speaking of the 1937 tour, Sylvester Cunningham has written in the inimitable language of the coast "We took a lot of counselling, also flogging from the tops, and learned much which enabled us to return to Costa Rica and become the champs of the year".

Indeed Pathfinder CC were to remain the champions until the Second World War. On their return to Limon they challenged Excelsior to a match and bowled them out for 68 in reply to Pathfinders own score of 168 for 1 declared. In 1938 Pathfinders again visited Jamaica, this time actually winning two of their matches and playing against Port Royal and Spanish Town in addition to the old adversaries of 1937. Enthusiasm for the game was at its peak. In 1937 and 1938 the team had played matches at Bocas del Toro and Panama City on their way to Jamaica. It was now decided to play some of the Central American teams to the north of Costa Rica, namely Bluefields (on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua), Corn Island and British Honduras (now Belize). The Second World War, however, ensured that this tour never took place. While they did not realise it at the time, the War was the beginning of the end of cricket in Costa Rica.

Before we consider the decline of the game in Costa Rica, let us pause to consider some of the stars of those two decades. Stanley Dixon, a barber, founded Pathfinders and captained the teams to Jamaica. He was selling lottery tickets in San Jose in 1986 but he died in 1988 before I was able to consult him for this history. Standford Barton was the vice-captain of the Pathfinders tour to Jamaica and was a fine opening batsman and a capable spin bowler. Born in 1917 he started playing cricket in 1929. Sixty-one years later he was still the motive force behind cricket on the coast. Dr Arthur Sutton, a dispensing chemist from Trinidad, was the founder of Excelsior CC in Limon in the 1930s and was a spin bowler and a capable bat. He too died in 1988. Samuel Smith and Ruben Brown of Construction are credited with having been involved in a stand of over 100, apparently a rare event on the treacherous wickets of the coast where bowlers reign supreme. Tom Erskine of Pathfinders once stumped five batsmen in five consecutive balls against Construction. James Robinson of Pathfinders and George Brown were the two fastest bowlers. Robinson bowled off a 25 yard run. While most of the other players were of Caribbean extraction, there were two capable Chinese players who had learnt the game in Jamaica - Alberto Lam and a relative known only as Lamsic.

Lancelot Binns, still playing in 1989

One of the characters of Costa Rican cricket was Lancelot (Lance) Binns, born at Siquirres on the 18th August 1916. In 1926 he left with his parents for Jamaica, was educated at the Calabar High School and then remained in Jamaica until 1939. He remembered vividly a game in February 1936 when he played for the Schoolboy XV against a Yorkshire touring team which included Len Hutton, Maurice Leyland, Herbert Sutcliffe, Bill Bowes and Hedley Verity. He recalled scoring 34. I recently looked up the scorecard and found that Lance had opened the innings and had made 30 before being bowled by Smailes (who later played one match for England). In his second innings he was caught Wood bowled Smailes 2. The Schoolboys made 194 and 61 for 5. Yorkshire replied with 222 but the match was drawn. It is worth noting that the Yorkshire team for this match contained no fewer than eight players who had already or would soon play for England (Gibb, Hutton, Sutcliffe, Mitchell, Leyland, Wood, Smailes and Bowes; Verity was rested).

Later he played for the United Fruit Company senior team at Kingston which included six Jamaica players including H.H Hines Johnson, W.G Beckford and D.P Beckford. In 1937 he turned out for United Fruit against the Jamaica Colts and scored 86. In his vacations he would play for Manchester County and in one match he scored a century and took a hat trick against the Garrison at Uppark Camp, Kingston. After attending the Jamaica School of Agriculture he returned to Costa Rica in September 1939 at the outset of war. He had, however, played for the Pathfinders team during the 1937 tour of Jamaica, and it was here that he met those Costa Ricans who had learnt their cricket in Central America. In 1986 Lance still opened the batting for Santa Ana and Siquirres and bowled canny leg breaks.

The scorecard showing Lance Binns’ match vs Yorkshire

The Second World War did not see any actual hostilities in Central America, although Costa Rica declared for the Allies. It did however cut the Atlantic coast off from its traditional sources of cricket equipment. Then in 1942 the main cricket ground in Limon was taken over for the building of a hospital (which was never completed). Thereafter the decline was rapid. From a peak of 46 cricket clubs in the 1930s the numbers quickly diminished to single figures. Soccer and baseball replaced cricket in the imaginations of the youth. It was in particular the performance of the black Brazilian star Pele which created the passion for soccer on the coast (from where the 1990 Costa Rican World Cup hero Hernan Medford hails). It could be said that Pele did for soccer on the coast what Headley had done for cricket. Although the leagues staggered on until 1957 most of the cricket clubs played baseball in parallel with cricket. Since then various attempts have been made to revive the game. From 1946 to 1959 the United Fruit Abaca Company, which produced manila hemp, rekindled cricket in the three towns of Manila (on the branch line between Monteverde and La Perla), Pacuarito and Bataan, thanks largely to the enthusiasm of its chief clerk, one Clinton Watler, from Grand Cayman. Watler exercised positive discrimination, choosing plantation workers from amongst those who either played or wished to play cricket.

The next two attempts to revive cricket both originated in San Jose, the capital on the central plateau. They centred largely on the expatriate community of Britons and Indians. Until 1975 virtually no cricket had been played in Costa Rica except on the Atlantic coast. Bill Caines, the General Manager of Republic Tobacco Company (a subsidiary of British American Tobacco), sounded out opinion in the expatriate community in late 1974 on the establishment of a cricket club. He received an enthusiastic response and founded the Cavaliers Cricket Club. Its first match, played at the Republic Tobacco Company ground at Zapote, a suburb of San Jose, on the 10th January 1975, was most memorable because two balls, one bat and five stumps were all broken, doubtless due to having been stored unused for decades. Six weeks later the Cavaliers travelled to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, and played the expatriate Managua Cricket Club which enjoyed the initials MCC. For the previous eleven years the MCC had only had one opponent, the Fincona Cricket Club based in San Salvador. The match was dominated by a young MCC fast bowler of prodigious pace called Dickie Vaughan. He would later return to plague the Cavaliers taking 7 for 3 out of a Cavaliers total of 7 all out. In mid March 1975 the Cavaliers chalked up their first win, a five wicket victory against the visiting Royal Yacht. The match was played at the impressive Zapote ground which is the only truly flat pitch in the country and boasts some excellent turf. In spite of the drought Bill Caines authorised the company's meagre water supplies to be used to provide a green wicket. In late May the Cavaliers travelled to Siquirres to take on a team from the Atlantic coast led by Lancelot Binns. Since 1957 virtually the only cricket played on the coast had been a festival match at the Limon Carnival each October. But in spite of their lack of practice the elderly players from the coast beat the Cavaliers twice in one day!

Cricket in Costa Rica is affected by the very heavy rains which fall between April and mid November, and so it was not until January 1976 that the Cavaliers had their chance to avenge Managua, this time in San Jose. On this occasion the Cavaliers won comfortably, but were again unnerved by Dickie Vaughan's fast bowling. In a letter to the MCC in February 1976 a rather embarrassed Secretary of the Cavaliers proposed to their Captain (Dickie Vaughan's father) that Dickie must be persuaded to slow down if the fixture were to continue. Also in February 1976 the Cavaliers provided its best player, Bob Jagger, a former captain of Malvern College, for a Central American team which played the Mexico City Cricket Club. After a second visit to Managua in March 1976 the Cavaliers and MCC then took on Fincona CC in San Salvador in April. In many ways 1976 was the high point of the Cavaliers because in 1977 only two major matches were played, both against Managua. And in 1978 a triangular tournament was played in San Jose between the Cavaliers, the MCC and Fincona. At this time it was also hoped to arrange fixtures against Grand Cayman and against the Trio Club of Colon in Panama, but to no avail. In January 1979 the Managua CC paid a last visit to San Jose, but already the fighting in Nicaragua in the build-up to the 1979 Nicaraguan revolution was making cross-border travel too dangerous. No cricket has been played in Managua since 1978 and the tobacco company ground has been largely taken over by squatters. The MCC gear is still kept by Dickie Vaughan's father, Arthur, on his farm at Diriamba, south of Managua. Fincona does not seem to have lasted much beyond 1979 either. In a last letter to the Cavaliers its Secretary speaks of a wholesale exodus of Britons from San Salvador, doubtless due to the increased unrest in that country also. Deprived of opposition, and with its patron Bill Caines also leaving the country in 1978, the Cavaliers gradually wilted. Between 1979 and 1986 cricket was played only on an occasional basis.

President Oscar Arias visits the Costa Rica vs Panama match

In 1986 a new effort was made to get cricket going in San Jose. The inspiration behind the new San Jose Cricket Club came from Syed Murad, an Indian expatriate, and Ian North, the former BOAC representative in the region. The idea also had the full support of H E Michael Daly, the British Ambassador, and a British businessman, Ken Armitage. After a couple of defeats by Limon, the team took on a visiting Panama team twice on 16th and 17th August 1986. San Jose were comprehensively beaten on both days, but the event, attended by the Costa Rican President, Oscar Arias, was something of a triumph for the game. A memorable innings of 91 including six enormous sixes was played by Ken Thomas a member of the United States Air Force based in Panama who had learnt his cricket as a child in his native Trinidad. In an equally inspiring moment a San Jose player, Maurice Macphail, shattered his collarbone while taking a diving catch but hung onto the ball throughout the agonising ordeal. This fixture sparked a series of matches over the next few months against Limon, Siquirres and Matina on the Atlantic coast. Sadly the San Jose CC disintegrated shortly after the arrest of Ken Armitage in Costa Rica and subsequent legal proceedings against him in the UK.

On 6th February 1987 it was decided to form a new club in San Jose called the Santa Ana Cricket Club, to be based at a cricket ground owned by the Anglo-Costa Rican Lyon family who have lived in Costa Rica since the early 19th century. Since 1987 the Santa Ana club has played numerous fixtures against teams from the Atlantic coast and played one international match against a team from the Cayman Islands. A promising team began to develop around Bob Jagger (ex Malvern and Sussex Pilgrims), Peter Lyon (who once played at Lords), John Salisbury from Botswana, Michael Daly (a great enthusiast and a capable medium pace bowler) and the Captain, Richard Illingworth, a member of (the real) MCC and a coconut farmer from the Atlantic coast. Lance Binns is still a force to be reckoned with and the veterans from the coast are still hard to beat.

A cake presented by the Limon team to the British Ambassador

It is to be hoped that cricket will continue to prosper in San Jose. However the more important issue is the survival of cricket amongst the population of the Atlantic Coast. In the late 1980s Prime Minister Edward Seaga of Jamaica visited Limon and presented cricket equipment. The Jamaican Consul, Neville Clarke, also shows a lot of interest. The British Ambassador ordered equipment to stimulate the development of youth cricket in the region. However this has only been a partial success. Most of the Limon team are over forty years old, and many are considerably older still. Gradually the people of the coast have learnt Spanish and have integrated themselves into Costa Rica, a fact which is greatly to be welcomed. Most of the old prejudices have gone but so have many of the traditions. Fewer and fewer people speak English and fewer still care about their old cultural identity in general and cricket in particular. When I bade a sad farewell to Costa Rica in 1989 Stanford Barton was determined to start a new youth team and Sylvester Cunningham wrote to me about his wish "to start the fever of Cricket once more".

It is to be hoped that cricket will continue to prosper in San Jose. However the more important issue is the survival of cricket amongst the population of the Atlantic Coast. In the late 1980s Prime Minister Edward Seaga of Jamaica visited Limon and presented cricket equipment. The Jamaican Consul, Neville Clarke, also shows a lot of interest. The British Ambassador ordered equipment to stimulate the development of youth cricket in the region. However this has only been a partial success. Most of the Limon team are over forty years old, and many are considerably older still. Gradually the people of the coast have learnt Spanish and have integrated themselves into Costa Rica, a fact which is greatly to be welcomed. Most of the old prejudices have gone but so have many of the traditions. Fewer and fewer people speak English and fewer still care about their old cultural identity in general and cricket in particular. When I bade a sad farewell to Costa Rica in 1989 Stanford Barton was determined to start a new youth team and Sylvester Cunningham wrote to me about his wish "to start the fever of Cricket once more".