Monday 26th June, 1876: a fine, sunny day. In the grounds of Windsor Castle, Queen Victoria settled to watch a game between two touring sides from Canada. The sport was lacrosse (then known as ‘la crosse’) and the Queen watched with interest. On the field were 14 Canadians and 13 representatives of the Iroquois Nation, the imbalance accounted for by the presence of Dr William George Beers, the Montreal dentist who had written the modern rules of the game. In her private journal, the Queen recalled her encounter with the Iroquois:
Then the Indians, who had most curious names, came up, headed by their Chief, a very tall man, and read a long address in the Iroquois language, with much emphasis, having first placed his tomahawk on the ground before me, in a sign of submission. They were strangely painted and some were very dark. […] The game was very pretty to watch. It is played with a ball, and there is much running.
The Windsor Castle game was part of several exhibition tours undertaken by the Canadians and Iroquois across Britain and Ireland in the 1870s, all designed to introduce Britons to the national game of Canada and to encourage active young men to migrate to the Prairies of Manitoba to begin the settlement of the Canadian west.
This is just a slither of the research I’ve been carrying out over the last couple of years on the development of lacrosse in Britain and Ireland in the nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth century. It was prompted by my discovery in Cardiff Central Library of a photograph of a lacrosse match being held on the fields of Cardiff Arms Park a century ago, you can see it reproduced in my book Fields of Play: The Sporting Heritage of Wales. That photograph was taken during a brief phase of popularity that followed the 1908 London Olympics, when Britain won the Silver Medal in the Lacrosse tournament. The history of the game’s presence, however, as I was later to discover, stretched back to the 1870s, to a time when Britons were becoming enamoured of all things Canadian – it included various forms of ice hockey, too, but that’s a story for another time.
British historians have been rather slow to appreciate the numerous forms of cultural transfer that took place throughout the empire. Although this scholarship has now gathered considerable pace, it remains the case that sport has only been seen from one direction, from the centre out to the dominions. I’ve never been convinced that this tells the whole story and this is driven my interest in lacrosse, ice hockey, pushball and other sports which were enthusiastically imported to Britain and Ireland from across the British Empire and its neighbours. Pushball, after all, came from the minds of Harvard students. The popularity of lacrosse was considerable in those parts of the islands that you might not expect: in Lancashire and Yorkshire, in Northern Ireland, in central Scotland, in Dublin, and in the non-metropolitan South of England. It struggled to find a place in the sporting enthusiasms, though, of Wales and the South West, and in much of Ireland, a conundrum that I’ve been grappling with for a good while.
This research found an early outlet last summer at the 9th Annual Sports History Ireland conference, held at the University of Ulster in Derry/Londonderry. There I spoke about the interactions between Britain and Ireland, of course, but also the engagement across the Atlantic, and the role of the Irish in developing lacrosse in working-class districts of Montreal. This autumn, I’ll have the chance to present my findings at an extremely exciting event: the inaugural Transnational Lacrosse Conference, the first of its kind ever held. There, I’ll be speaking alongside other scholars in the field including Professor Andy Holman of Bridgewater State in the United States, Professor Colin D. Howell of Saint Mary’s University in Canada, and Dr Donald Fisher, the author of the first scholarly treatment of the game. But perhaps the most important aspect of the conference is the opportunity to engage with members of the Iroquois and Mi’kmaq nations, the present-day inheritors of an ancestral tradition of lacrosse playing.
These days scholars seek out ways to bring their research out into the wider public domain, to draw connections between our academic interests and questions that affect the world around us, be that issues of community identity, representation, or something else. The history department here at Huddersfield is a leader in this form of public engagement. We work tirelessly with community partners both in the town and in the wider West Yorkshire region to co-produce our research in ways that impact beyond the publication of an academic article. I’m therefore especially proud of being able to carry across the Atlantic a piece of otherwise esoteric research and demonstrate the global significance of the sport of lacrosse. As the conference programme states, it ‘will address the re-appropriation of the game in the modern era by indigenous peoples and to movements for social emancipation and national recognition’. Lacrosse in Britain and Ireland was a game played by those who enjoyed cricket and rugby football, too. Recovering its history is important in shedding light on the ways in which First Nations cultural forms were appropriated by non-indigenous peoples.
Before I go, I want to say that this most transnational of public engagement has been made possible by a research partnership between me, the Centre for the Study of Sport and Health at Saint Mary’s University and its director Professor Colin D. Howell. Oh, and the promise that I’ll post back here over the next few months and let you know what I’ve been finding out!
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