An awe-inspiring tale of perseverance, talent and hard-work to overcome the odds. Here is the amazing story of James Peters.
That the England Rugby team 2018 vintage embraces a wide ethnic diversity is barely newsworthy in an increasingly modern and post-racial sport. The West African heritage of the current team’s superstar (and captain in waiting), Maro Itoje, provides a thin thread back in history to England’s very first black player, James Peters.
A ‘pallid blackamore,’ ‘wooly haired mulatto,’ ‘honorary white man’ or simply ‘Darkie Peters.’ Various racially charged epithets were attached to England’s first International sportsman, James Peters, who debuted 112 years ago in the Calcutta Cup of 1906. Underdogs England emerged that day with a 9-3 victory, inspired by their debutante half-back pairing of Peters and Adrian Stoop, (the Stoop of Harlequins legend.) The mixed-race son of an English mother and West Indian Lion-Tamer father, Peters won five caps for England between 1906-1908, despite the disadvantage of being a working class ‘coloured’ man in an elitist game.
Peters could have been a pioneer in the sport just as baseball superstar Jackie Robinson was to prove in the 1940s, leading to the increasingly utilisation of the talent of those with mixed-racial heritage. That he didn’t says something of his own temperament and motivations; as a lover and player of the game, rather than a politician or activist. It also though asks some searching questions about rugby’s willingness historically to integrate, but that is a grand topic for a seperate time. A comprehensive biography of Peters is only now (slowly) being written, but a short biography of Peters provides a glimpse into some of the challenges he faced, from an unwelcoming hierarchy to becoming the first victim of a South African sporting boycott.
Born August 7th 1879 in Salford, the circus dominated Peters’ childhood, where he worked as a bareback rider. Following his father’s untimely demise at the jaws of his lions, Peters was abandoned aged 11, after breaking his arm in a fall. Adopted by Fegan’s children’s home in London, he proved a ‘champion athlete,’ with his love of rugby kindled by watching the local Blackheath Club.
Having outgrown the orphanage in 1898 he moved to Bristol, excelling for Dings, Bristol and by 1902 the Somerset County team. Despite obvious ability, Peters was to experience that talent was not always colourblind. He was ‘a pallid blackamore…keeping a white man out the team,’ declared ‘naive [displaying] some of the worst half back play ever witnessed,’ whilst a protesting committee member reportedly resigned. Yet, for every example of prejudice were those acknowledging his talent; notably Dings who deigned him an honoured guest at club dinners. His 1902 move to Plymouth, precipitated his starring role in the Country Championship winning Devon sides, and led to a growing clamour for international recognition. There were however additional obstacles beyond his ‘dusky’ skin. Peters was a carpenter not a gentleman, an unforgivable affront for some, given the animosity lingering from the 1895 schism with the ‘Northern Union’ over professionalism.
With his continued exclusion from the first 1906 home international against Wales The Western Times thundered: ‘Peters is sacrificed. Colour is the difficulty… pity for the chances of the English success.’ England losses to Wales and Ireland, combined with untimely appendicitis for incumbent half-back Dai Gent, led to Peters’ opportunity. He seized it masterfully, praised both individually and for his combination with Stoop. The following week a 35-8 rout of France was notable both for Peters’ try-scoring effort and France’s inclusion of two black players: Andre Verges and Georges Jerome, from French Guiana. Despite his successes selection against England’s next opposition, South Africa, was ruled impossible owing in part to the events around Devon’s fixture against the Springboks on October 17th 1906.
￼This game has spawned the most frequently repeated myth around Peters: that the Springboks refused to leave their changing room, protesting Peters’ selection, only finally persuaded out by their High Commissioner. It is a compelling legend featuring a blameless hero, contemptible foreign villains, all played out in front of the fanatical crowd. Yet the story is, at best, highly embellished. It owes more to South Africa’s late 20th century status as international pariahs than any contemporary historical evidence, (their High Commissioner was in fact in Durban!) Yet racial antipathy certainly marred the game. Springbok Bob Loubster’s memoir describes the ‘Boks attempts to injure Peters, whilst diary extracts and newspaper columns declaim how unhappy the tourists were mixing with ‘kaffirs.’ The irony that these same Springboks entered the field with a ‘Zulu War Cry,’ appears somewhat lost.
The Springboks were spared further embarrassment. Although there is no definitive documented proof of their deliberation, balance of evidence point to the RFU selection committee choosing to exclude him from international consideration. Despite being fit, in form and incumbent in the shirt, Peters was not selected for either of the two trial games. Whilst arguably Peters lost out to more talented halfbacks in final selection; Raphael Jago and Stoop; racial motives loom apparent in having denied him even a sporting chance.
His non-selection went beyond simple sporting considerations. Scheduled five years after a bitter civil war, in which four Springboks had fought on opposite sides, the tour party deliberately mixed both English and Boer settlers, intending to symbolise the new South Africa. Playing against Peters divided opinion within the Springbok team. Had he played the chances of a unified team returning were greatly diminished. The case for the RFU excluding Peters, although never morally right, thus proved overwhelming.
Peters won three further caps in 1907 and 1908, however hardship continued to stalk him. Losing three fingers to a workplace accident in 1910 forced him into early sporting retirement. Making light of the injury, he attempted a return, only to be banned as a professional for receiving money from a testimonial by an unsympathetic RFU. In 1913 he ‘went north,’ representing Barrow and St Helens before retiring in 1914 and returning to raise his family in Plymouth. His passing in 1954 is recorded with little fanfare, logged in The Times with a short paragraph.
In contrast to Jackie Robinson, and other celebrated pioneering black sportsmen, Peters’ story had all but vanished. His England caps were more an anomaly than a watershed, with a full 80 years passing before England’s next black International, Chris Oti. Peters proved one of the unlikely beneficiaries of the Stuart Lancaster era, with his story used to inspire and holding particular resonance for the Vunipola brothers. England fans would hope history repeats itself with victory again over their oldest enemy, 112 years after Peters’ inspired debut against Scotland. That this is achieved by a racial rainbow of a team would, i hope, be a source of pride for Peters.