In June 1988, a series of stamps was issued to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the first Test match played by West Indies. The postmasters general of Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago had teamed up to make it possible. Each of the 15 stamps featured the same design - a bat, a ball, three stumps - and boasted the image of a celebrated cricketer. The players were carefully selected, and constituted a gallery of famous faces spanning the sweep of West Indies Test history. They ranged from George Challenor, who at Lord's in 1928 had faced the first ball bowled to a West Indian in a Test match, to Michael Holding, who had retired from international cricket only the previous year. Issued during the heyday of Viv Richards's captaincy, the stamps told a triumphant story: an ascent from scratchy, provincial beginnings to peerless, all-conquering pomp.
Cricket in the West Indies, however, reached back much further than 1928. Each of the stamps acknowledged this, featuring something more unexpected: the image of a batsman on an antique belt buckle. The shot he was playing - perhaps a leg glance - was very much not in the tradition of Worrell, or Sobers, or Richards. The ball, far from skimming across the outfield, was hitting middle stump. Beyond the boundary stood a hut and a windmill, and beyond the buildings what appeared to be tropical vegetation. Admittedly, the image was worn. But the scene, even so, seemed appropriate to a celebration of West Indies cricket. Flying stumps and palm trees: what could be more Caribbean? The buckle, however, had not been found in the West Indies. Instead, it had been unearthed nine years previously in chillier climes - beside the River Tweed on the Scottish border.
Clive Williams, a lawyer who had made the discovery while metal-detecting on holiday, had not initially appreciated just what an intriguing artefact he had found. Returning home, he consigned it to his sock drawer. Four years later, while cleaning his wife's jewellery, he gave the delicate piece of metal - "like the lid of a sardine tin" - a second polish. Now Williams could make out more precise detail. A confirmed cricket lover, he was sufficiently intrigued to take the buckle to various specialists. A botanist at Kew Gardens informed him that a leaf on the rim was most likely from a cabbage palm indigenous to Barbados. Analysis of the metal at Oxford University suggested the buckle might be pre-Victorian. An expert at the National Portrait Gallery floated the possibility that the image of the batsman was "a specific example of portraiture". But, if a portrait, then of whom? The Times repeated an astounding possibility, already mooted by specialist magazines: "According to Arnon Adams, a West Indian historian consulted by Mr Williams, the batsman looks like a well-fed, well-muscled mulatto, probably the offspring of a white overseer and a black slave mother."
If so, the implications of the scene on the buckle were becoming clear. The buildings shown on the boundary could only be a wattle-and-daub hut and a windmill used to crush sugar cane. The faded detail around the batsman's neck could only be a slave collar. The batsman himself could only be a slave. If indeed, as the growing consensus suggested, the buckle dated from some time between 1780 and 1810, then it was the oldest known cricket artefact to have originated outside Britain.
By 2012, when Bonhams said they would put it up for auction with a guide price of £100,000-150,000, the possibility that the first portrayal of a non-indigenous person playing sport in the Americas had been a black slave was hardening into an established fact. Caribbean cricket had a new icon. It was as though, redeemed from the silt of the River Tweed, a mirror had been found in which we could glimpse a scene at once familiar and repellently, terrifyingly strange: the very beginnings of cricket in the West Indies.
These - much like the beginnings of cricket itself - have long been obscure. The brilliance with which cricket has blazed in the Caribbean over the past century renders the murk of its beginnings only the more frustrating and tantalising. The research of Sir Hilary Beckles has established that the earliest known mention of a match in a West Indian newspaper appeared as late as 1809. It was to be played, so the Barbados Mercury and Bridgetown Gazette announced, "between the Officers of the Royal West Indies Rangers and Officers of the Third West Indian Regiment for 55 guineas a side on the Grand Parade on Tuesday, September 19".
That it was a military fixture comes as little surprise. Garrisons and cricket pitches were widely viewed as a natural fit; the Duke of Wellington was not alone in his conviction that battles were won on playing fields. An Englishman was likelier to take an interest in war, so the joke went, if it could be compared to a game. Cricket - "the truly British, and manly sport", according to the newspaper's editor in 1838 - enjoyed pride of place: an officer who ranked as a decent cricketer could be trusted to stand steady when faced by the French. And not only the French. There were other potential adversaries in the Caribbean.
Between the British colonies of Barbados and Jamaica lay the island of Hispaniola. Here, in 1804, a 13-year rebellion by slaves in the colony of Saint-Domingue had culminated in the overthrow of French rule, and the establishment of an independent black empire. The existence of Haiti, as its first emperor had renamed the colony, stirred contradictory emotions among the British. The Royal Navy had played a key role in the success of the Haitian Revolution, and the destruction of the French empire in the Caribbean had been a signal triumph for British policy.
Even so, the existence across the waters from Jamaica of a state founded by former slaves gave pause to plantation owners everywhere in the West Indies. It demonstrated just how far a rebellion might go, given half a chance - and how fundamental naval power was to the maintenance of slavery. Unlike the French officers in Saint-Domingue, the British officers playing cricket in Barbados could be confident of receiving reinforcements in the event of an insurrection. Cricket in the Caribbean served as a marker of military virility. It flourished, in the final reckoning, for the same reason that slavery in Barbados and Jamaica flourished: because Britannia ruled the waves.
Perhaps it is telling, then, that the enthusiastically received attempt to explain how the Barbados Cricket Buckle ended up beside the River Tweed should come with a naval tang. "Lo and behold," The Times proclaimed, "from research at the British Museum and the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich there emerged on the Tweed, upstream from where the buckle was found, a branch of the Hothams ("o" pronounced as in mother), a noted naval family with records of service in the Caribbean in the 18th and 19th centuries…"
The report did not exaggerate the prowess of the Hothams. They did indeed seem figures conjured from the pages of a Patrick O'Brian novel. A pair of cousins, Henry and William, had both played cricket to a high level as schoolboys, served during the Napoleonic Wars in the Caribbean, and were elevated to the Admiralty. They in turn had been following a trail blazed by their uncle, the 1st Baron Hotham, whose peerage had been reward for an impressive record of service: one that, like his nephews, had seen him excel at cricket, repeatedly fight the French, and patrol the waters off Barbados. Any of these three Hothams might have organised a cricket match in the Caribbean; any might have commissioned a decorated buckle to mark the occasion. Admittedly, as The Times acknowledged, the theory "must remain speculative"; and yet even without substantive proof it has served a valuable purpose.
The focus which interest in the Barbados Cricket Buckle has placed on the Hothams has drawn attention to the high profile cricket enjoyed among naval officers. That cricket served the British in the Caribbean as a marker of their identity has long been appreciated; much clearer now is the degree to which it served them too as a marker of their power. This was something to which their colonial rivals were alert. In 1778, an official in Demerara, a Dutch colony on the South American mainland (now part of Guyana), wrote to his superior in Amsterdam that English planters were settling there "who play a game with a small ball and sticks". When, 18 years later, Britain annexed Demerara, the agents of the British state were following where the cricket-playing slave owners had led.
Power in the West Indies was not vested solely in redcoats or commodores. Plantation owners, too, depended for their status on the construction of rigid hierarchies. An Englishman who transplanted the appurtenances of the motherland to the different climes of the Caribbean was not merely flaunting his wealth and privilege, but firming up the foundations on which they depended. It was no simple matter to maintain a cricket ground where sugar cane had once grown, to have a decent wicket rolled, to fashion out of some foreign field a corner that had the look of England. It required wealth; and it required labour. Lots of labour. Playing cricket in the West Indies, like taking a carriage, or hosting a ball, or attending a playhouse, was a pastime that did not come cheap. The truest mark of status, of course, was to leave the Caribbean altogether, and play cricket back in England.
Philip Dehany, vice-chair of the London Society of West India Planters and Merchants, an organisation founded in 1780 to defend the interests of British slaveholders, was an active member of the Hampshire County Cricket Club. Other members of the Society were even more passionate cricketers. The full name of a second Dehany, George, appears only once in the minutes of the Society's meetings - perhaps because he seems to have spent his summers turning out for pretty much any exclusive cricket club that would have him. In 1793 alone, he played for Surrey and Sussex, the Earl of Winchilsea's XI and England; such were the opportunities open to a planter with deep pockets. In Britain, George Dehany could feel himself not a grubby purveyor of sugar, but a sportsman, a gentleman. There were no slave huts ringing the boundary, no windmills full of crushing machines. No need to part the veil drawn by the Society of West India Planters and Merchants across what it actually meant to have made a fortune out of sugar cane.
In the Caribbean itself, of course, this was not an option. When, on June 11, 1778, Thomas Thistlewood - the owner of a 160-acre plantation in Jamaica - recorded in his diary that "Mr Beckford and Mr John Lewis, etc, played at cricket", there would have been no hiding the cost in human suffering that made such an evening possible. Thistlewood, the son of a Lincolnshire farmer, was many rungs down the social ladder from the Dehanys. He had no prospect of playing for the Earl of Winchilsea. He could not even afford a sugar plantation. Instead, he grew crops which he sold to the owners of sugar estates, and hired out the slaves he had purchased during his career as an overseer.
Thistlewood, far from closing his eyes to the systematic brutalisation on which his income and status were built, revelled in it. Even by the standards of a society founded on dehumanisation, his talent for cruelty was exceptional. Male slaves who offended him might be flayed with a whip, then have "salt pickle, lime juice & bird pepper" rubbed into their wounds; be smeared with molasses, locked in irons and exposed to mosquitoes; have other slaves shit in their mouth before being gagged. Female slaves were systematically tortured and raped. Some were murdered. All this happened without a peep of complaint or interference from the colonial authorities. The rudimentary codes which made the killing of a slave a criminal offence were simply ignored.
It made the carefully tended field on which, with his fellow plantation owners, Thistlewood "played at cricket" in the cool of the Jamaican evening a perfect metaphor for the society which the British had come to preside over in the West Indies. Inside a ground cleared of sugar cane and weeds, only whites were permitted, there to enjoy their leisure time by playing a team game redolent of England, and governed by scrupulously detailed laws. Beyond the ground, in the sugar cane fields, no laws applied, save that which allowed whites to do as they pleased to the human chattels in their possession - the "negroes", as Thistlewood termed his slaves.
Legal it may have been to starve rebellious Africans to death in cages, to break their limbs on wheels, to mutilate their corpses and leave them to rot in public. But it most certainly wasn't cricket. All of which explains why the Barbados Cricket Buckle, when it came to the attention of historians of cricket and slavery, should have attracted such excitement. If indeed it portrays a black slave, then it is a good deal more subversive than it might at first appear. "Negroes" were not allowed on cricket pitches, except to weed the outfield or to roll the wicket. During matches, their task was to stand beyond the boundary, and chase any ball hit into the sugar cane field. And when a slave found a ball, and held it in his hand? Clem Seecharan, in his aptly named study of cricket and education in the West Indies, Muscular Learning, has vividly imagined what happened next. "Many of the slaves," he writes, "were robust men with splendid physique, long-limbed, with the ability to throw the ball astounding distances. The simple motion of demonstrating this gift contained a more deep-seated, if submerged, aspiration - releasing the body, symbolically, from the thraldom of bondage and dispossession of self."
In time, during those fleeting moments when slaves were exempted from the supervision that otherwise marked their entire lives, there were some who would copy what they had seen their masters doing, and play at cricket. Reactions to this among plantation owners varied. Many - the majority, no doubt - were appalled. But some saw opportunity. It was tiring to bowl in the Caribbean heat. In the West Indies as in England, batsmanship was viewed as the lordly art, and net bowlers as cannon fodder. Why not, then, put slaves to giving their masters some batting practice? Their whole existence was toil and sweat and exhaustion, after all.
And so, for the first time, black men were given cricket balls, and encouraged to bowl them as fast as they could at white men; perhaps, if they were not sending stumps flying, they might have their masters duck, and weave, and flinch. To make a master hop was not, of course, to make him grovel - but it did hint at what a world might look like in which the traditional hierarchies of race and class had been suspended. And maybe, on rare occasions, this sense of disorientation was pushed to further extremes.
Such, at any rate, is what some wanted the Barbados Cricket Buckle to suggest. Yes, the slave is losing his middle stump. The significance of the scene, however, lies not in the batsman's performance, but in his presence at the wicket. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all. "On the cricket field," wrote C. L. R. James in Beyond a Boundary, "all men, whatever their colour or status, were theoretically equal."
No one better understood the ambivalences and ambiguities of the sport that slave-owning white men had introduced to the West Indies. He had fathomed the monstrousness of slavery so unflinchingly that even today, more than 80 years after he wrote it, The Black Jacobins remains the classic account of the Haitian Revolution. He had exposed, with the scalpel of a pathologist, the role played by cricket in upholding values to which he was opposed with every fibre of his being: racism, capitalism, empire. Yet James knew as well - as only a man in love with both cricket and the culture that had given it birth truly could - that this was not the whole story. In a slave holding a bat on an antique belt buckle he saw an image capable of "enriching the whole world". A sport introduced to the West Indies by slave owners, and played by officers who served as sentinels of empire, seemed to have provided a black slave with the chance, however fleeting, to compete with his masters as an equal.
Over the course of the two centuries that followed, centuries that witnessed the abolition of slavery, the emergence of cricket as the Caribbean's first expression of popular mass culture, and the ascent of West Indies to a pinnacle unsurpassed in Test history, the wicket provided the supreme stage on which the descendants of slaves were able to demonstrate their liberation, and to assert their humanity. Cricket, to adapt a phrase, was not just a matter of life and death. It was more important than that.
This, no doubt, is why so many should have such emotional investment in the Barbados Cricket Buckle. Too much investment, perhaps. Celebrated though Williams's discovery has become, the engraving on it is not unique. A buckle found as far as can be imagined from the River Tweed, in New South Wales, bears an identical design. The notion that the buckle is a distinctive artefact, designed originally to commemorate a distinctive occasion, and portraying a distinctive person, seems hard to sustain - and the identification of the batsman with "a well-fed, well-muscled mulatto" equally implausible.
How are such conclusions to be derived from such a faded die impression? Might the detail around the batsman's neck not be a gentleman's collar and tie? Might the hut and windmill not be bucolic details appropriate to an English scene? Might the leaf not after all be just a leaf? Were these the kind of questions, back in 2012, that prompted the withdrawal of the buckle from the Bonhams sale? It is the measure of a tradition precious to people that those who love it will yearn to know more about its beginnings than the sources afford.
"Things not known to exist should not be postulated as existing." So John Major, with the ruthlessness of the accountant he once was, dealt with the supposed evidence for the playing of cricket in the Middle Ages. Even so, the desire to believe that the beginnings of cricket can indeed be traced back to eighth-century monks, or to the reign of Edward I, is in itself suggestive. It bears witness, not to the origins of the sport, but to the hold that it has on those who love it, and to the peculiar potency of its history. What is true of cricket in England is true as well of cricket in the West Indies. Even more so, perhaps - for in the Caribbean the origins of the sport are bound up indissolubly with urgent and sensitive issues.
People have been ready to believe that the buckle found beside the River Tweed portrays a slave at the wicket because they want to believe it. Far from diminishing the significance of the artefact, it serves - if anything - to enhance it. While it may tell us nothing about the beginnings of cricket in the West Indies, it tells us a great deal about what cricket has become. Indeed, as an emblem of the ambivalences and complexities of that story, and of the anxieties and the fantasies that have shadowed it, there may be little to rival it.
In Beyond a Boundary, James describes how he "worshipped at the shrine" of two batsmen. The first, W. G. Grace, remains the archetype of the great cricketer: the man who, more than any other, transformed cricket from an elite pastime to a sport with mass appeal. The second, Matthew Bondman, would be forgotten today had James not written about him: "He was generally dirty. He would not work. His eyes were fierce, his language was violent and his voice loud." Walking the roads, he did so barefoot. To James, he embodied poverty and marginalisation. "But that is not why I remember Matthew. For ne'er-do-well, in fact vicious character, as he was, Matthew had one saving grace - Matthew could bat." At the wicket, Bondman cast off his bonds. No longer was he shackled to the legacy of slavery. He was transformed into an example of "that genus Britannicus, a fine batsman".
James's formulation was striking - and intended to be. It was a tribute paid to the origins of cricket in England, and to the status of Grace, the model of "a fine batsman", as the man who had transfigured it radically, and for good. By coupling the most famous sportsman in Victorian England with a Trinidadian bum, James was dignifying the latter, to be sure. But he was also suggesting that Bondman, like Grace, represented cricket's capacity to transform itself, to undermine hierarchies as well as to uphold them, to subvert the status quo as well as to maintain it. James, like those who enshrined the Barbados Cricket Buckle as an emblem of the sport's beginnings in the Caribbean, was joining dots that some may dispute existed. But he was at the same time articulating a perspective profound and true. A perspective without which, he might well have suggested, cricket would barely rank as cricket at all.
Tom Holland is a historian and broadcaster. His most recent book is Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. He was once described by The Times as "a leading English cricketer".