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Bustamante became PM at 78


Thursday, August 10, 2017

There are some people who are very selective with facts. For example, there is much talk about age in leadership these days, especially because Prime Minister Andrew Holness turned 45 years old last month, while in December, Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips will be 67. But in all fairness, one should remember that National Hero Sir Alexander Bustamante, the founder of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), became Jamaica's first prime minister in political independence at age 78.

“Things and times change,” you say, especially if you are in support of the ruling party. But I have heard that line all of my life when it comes to younger leadership. Yet Ronald Reagan was elected president of the USA at 69 over Jimmy Carter, who was elected at 50, and was 54 at the time of his defeat. And Donald Trump was elected at age 70. In many nations in the eastern world they will not elect someone under 75 years old.

Sir Alexander Bustamante retired as prime minister at age 83. He was ill for more than two years before he retired and Jamaica had a sort of permanent acting prime minister in Donald Sangster for over two years. Sangster led the JLP into the 1967 General Election and won. He was sworn in as prime minister shortly after, but served only 48 days before his death in a hospital in Canada. Bustamante remained leader of the JLP until 1974 when a special title of 'chief ' was conferred on him.

In February 1968, Bustamante was brought back to the House of Representatives as an honoured visitor. In his tribute, Edward Seaga, then the minister of finance, spoke of Bustamante being first elected in December 1944, at the age of 60, at a time when most men are thinking of retirement. In politics, when one wishes to make a point to their advantage, such a happening as being first elected at 60 is commendable. But when it is not to their advantage, the same set of politicians speak of being too old to start or continue.

Bustamante died on August 6, 1977, on the 15th anniversary of Jamaica's political independence. By the way, not everyone believed that. Sceptics had it to say that Busta was dead long before that, but for political reasons the announcement was made on August 6. I am sure that one day the truth will be known, even if I do not live to see that day.

Alexander Clarke, according to his main biographer George Eaton, appeared in New York in 1935 as a grandee from Spain, calling himself Alejandro Bustamanti. When he returned to Jamaica he called himself Alexander Clarke Bustamante. At this time, Bustamante's letters appeared in the press quite often. So someone asked: Who is Bustamante? And he replied giving a fantastic story of being adopted by a Spanish governor to explain his change of name to Bustamante. Norman Manley refuted that story.

Indeed, at the time of political independence a book on six great men was published. In it were biographies on Edward Jordan, George William Gordon, Marcus Garvey, Alexander Bustamante, and Norman Manley. With regard to the story about Bustamante bring adopted by a Spanish governor and taken to Spain, his cousin Norman Manley, in a letter to the press, referred to it as “carrying a joke too far”. In his unfinished biography, Norman Manley wrote that Bustamante's story would have been far more interesting had he written and spoken the truth.

Bustamante's claim to fame was largely in trade unionism, far more than his earlier letters to the press. St William Grant, the president of the local branch of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, introduced him to the masses. Allan Coombs, who founded the Northwest Industrial Trade Union (in western Jamaica), handed over the reins to Bustamante. On May 23, 1938 Bustamante combined the striking workers at the Kingston waterfront with the cane farmers in western Jamaica to form the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU).

In the meantime, there were stirrings for a political party and Norman Manley was invited to join up. This group largely came out of the National Reform Association combined with representatives of the Jamaica Agricultural Society and the National Teachers' Association as well as the trade unions including the BITU. This party, the People's National Party (PNP), was named on August 27, 1938 and launched at the Ward Theatre on September 18, 1938. Norman Manley was its first president, while Bustamante was also a member and was on the platform when the PNP was launched.

During the war, Bustamante was detained along with others. When Bustamante was released from detention in 1943 he accused the PNP of trying to take the BITU from him. He resigned from the PNP and on July 8, 1943 formed the JLP, which won the first general election under Universal Adult Suffrage in 1944. The PNP won four seats and Norman Manley did not win his contest in St Andrew Eastern.

Bustamante was the people's hero and the PNP could only beat him with superior organisation. The JLP won again in 1949, but the PNP got 3,510 more votes. The PNP won the general elections of 1955 and 1959, although the federal party it was affiliated to got less seats than the other party affiliated to the JLP in the federal elections of 1958.

There was a referendum in 1961 on the issue of the federation and the people voted to secede. There was a pre- Independence election in 1962, which the JLP won. Bustamante became the nation's first prime minister. Previously the head of government was referred to as 'premier', and before that 'chief minister'.

Although he always claimed to be, there is no evidence that Bustamante was ever baptised or received into the Roman Catholic Church. Lady Bustamante became a Roman Catholic before marrying her husband because Roman Catholic law states that marriages are done only if at least one of the two is Roman Catholic. The wedding was conducted on September 7, 1962 by the then Father Stanley Shearer (later Monsignor), a brother of the late former prime minister, Hugh Shearer.