Written By: Micaila Rowe
WILLIAM ALEXANDER BUSTAMANTE
The Right Excellent Sir William Alexander Bustamante, K.B., O.N.H., L1.D (Hon) is the only Jamaican to be declared a National Hero in his lifetime /Born at Blenheim, Hanover, on February 24th, 1884, to Robert Clarke, an Irish-descend book-keeper, and his wife, Mary Wilson, a dark-skinned small farmer. His paternal grandmother was Elsie Shearer, wife of Alexander Shearer, the Irish immigrant book-keeper, who was also grandfather to Norman Manley and Edna Manley.
After primary school at Cacoon, William Alexander Clarke worked as a clerk. In 1905 he began an odyssey of 29 years that would take him to Latin America and the Mediterranean, involve him in trade union activity in Cuba, military action in Morocco and as a dietitian in a New York Hospital. In 1934 he returned to Jamaica, a rangy, powerful giant of 6 feet four inches, with a flair for the dramatic, and a new name, Alejandro Bustamante changed by deed pool to Alexander Bustamante in 1944.
From 1934 until 1938 he peppered the local press with letters denouncing the social conditions and demanding a better deal for the poor and under-privileged. As a money-lender he daily heard the plight of the masses and gladly accepted an invitation of the Garveyite, St. William Grant, to address one of his regular street meetings near Victoria Park (now St. William Grant Park). Thus was born the street agitator and labour lion who would lead Jamaica for most of the three decades.
In 1937 Bustamante became treasurer of the Jamaica Workers and Tradesmen’s Union, led by future legislator, Allan George St. Claver Coombs. His audiences at meetings kept expanding, and he began visiting the scene of labour disputes across the island, offering to mediate between workers and employers.
In 1938, the workers of Jamaica exploded in a series of violent demonstrations against conditions. The going wage for unskilled lobour was 1 shilling and six pence daily, the same rate that held in 1838, at Emancipation, 100 years before. In May, the disturbances at Frome claimed the lives of 8 workers and led to a declaration of marital law. Bustamante was on the scene, speaking for the workers. On May 4th, he denounced Governor Denham at a mass meeting in Kingston, and continued agitating throughout the month.
On May 23rd he called a strike at the waterfront and led crowds through the city calling for better conditions. In a confrontation with the police, the British Inspector marshaled his troops, and gave the order to aim their rifles: Bustamante stepped forward, bared his chest and declared: “Shoot me, but leave the poor, unfortunate people alone.” The police lowered their guns, and the crowd dispersed, to re-gather near the fire Brigade Station. Bustamante and St. William Grant were arrested and charged with sedition. The waterfront was completely shut down, the entire city of Kingston was tense, as the workers refused any offer of increased pay, until “Busta” was released. For four days, the veteran legislator and Kings Counsel, JAG Smith unsuccessfully tried to free Bustamante. On May 28th, he filed a writ of habeas corpus, with Norman Manley as guarantor, and the two men were released as heroes to a massive crowd. An uneasy calm was restored and the Bustamante Industrial Trades Union was formed, with his faithful secretary, Miss Gladys Longbridge, as its secretary. In February, 1939 he called a general strike across Jamaica, but was only fully successful with the banana and waterfront workers. He resigned from the People National Party, withdrew the BITU from the Trade Union Council (TUC) and deepened the agitation. The economic damage was immense. Jamaica was in a state of apprehension and after World War 2 was declared, he was detained on September 8, 1940 along with some TUC leaders.
JAMAICA LABOUR PARTY
After release on February 8, 1942, Bustamante resumed leadership of the BITU, denounced the PNP, and formed the Jamaica Labour Party on July 16, 1943. His action in moving his Union away from the PNP and forming an alternate political Party created the system of two-Party politics in Jamaica and has been a bedrock of democracy. (Jamaica was held 13 constitutional general elections since then, with the power shifting between the parties-one of the most orderly performances among the members of the United Nations).
A New constitution granting Universal Adult Suffrage came in 1944 and in the first popular election that year, Bustamante led the JLP to victory (22-4), becoming the first leader of elected members in the Executive Council. He took the post of member for communications and Works, and started a massive programme of gully training in the capital City. Prior to this, dozens of persons were drowned and hundreds of houses were flooded by the annual rains. The massive task of paving the Sandy Gully and Grants Gully systems was not completed until his last term as leader. In 1947 he was elected Mayor of Kingston.
In 1949 the JLP was returned to power by a reduced majority, and Bustamante introduced the system whereby public sector jobs were awarded on a 60/40 basis, again ensuring that the two-party system endured. In 1953, the constitution was upgraded and he became Jamaica’s first Chief Minister and head of a Council of Ministers.
In 1955 Bustamante lost power to his cousin, Norman Manley, founding President of the PNP; and later that year he was made Knight Bachelor by the Queen and became Sir Alexander Bustamante. In 1959 he again lost the General Elections, but aged 65, he remained in the battle , which now shifted to the issue of Jamaica’s participation in the West Indies Federation.
In 1958 he had formed the Democratic Labour Party to oppose Norman Manley’s West Indies Federal Labour Party. Despite winning 12 of Jamaica’s 17 seats, the DLP lost the Federal Elections and its members, particularly Cargill of St. Mary and Lightbourne of St. Thomas were very critical of the retarded Constitutional arrangements. In 1960 the JLP withdrew support from the Federation and called for a Referendum to determine whether Jamaica would strive for Independence alone, or as a part of a Federation.
On September 19, 1961, the JLP gained a positive vote for national independence by 256,261 to 217,319 votes. The tide of public events turned, and Bustamante joined Manley as joint leaders of the delegation that met in London to negotiate Independence for Jamaica. Norman Manley magnanimously called an election for April 19, 1962 (despite having two years remaining in his 1959 mandate) to have the people say who should lead them into Independence. Bustamante’s JLP won 26-19.
On August 6, 1962 Jamaica became Independent for the first time since 1509 when Spaniards settled British rule was ended after suzerainty since 1670, and Sir William Alexander Bustamante became the first Prime Minister of Jamaica. He quickly declared that the government would work to develop both capital and labour, would stress education, roads and the rule of law. In Foreign Policy he was brief: “We are with the West” he declared.
Bustamante suffered a stroke in 1964 and never resumed office until retirement in 1967. He retired with Lady Bustamante, the former Miss Longbridge whom he married in 1962, was declared National Hero in 1970 and passed away on August 6, 1977, aged 93.
His administrations spanned 1944-1955 and 1962-1967. Among the major achievements were:
The development of the bauxite and alumina industries.
The start of industrialization through the Pioneer Industries Law of 1947.
The first modern factory, Caribbean Cement Co in 1952.
The establishment of the Jamaica Industrial Development Corporation, in 1952, which opened the first Industrial Estate, and promoted new factories, making Industry the largest contributor to gross domestic product.
In 1948 the University of the West Indies began at Mona.
The seasonal Farm Work programme to the USA continuously expanded.
He championed the advancement of women and care of children, and one of the first acts in Independence was opening the Bustamante Children’s Hospital.
With Norman Manley, Jamaica led the Caribbean in the tradition of two-party democracy and parliamentary government under the Westminster model.
The BITU continued to be the largest trade union in the West Indies, and it has worked with the other trade unions to develop systems of co operation with employers and the state to improve worker benefits and national productivity.
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