Remembering Donald Sangster

Lance Neita

Sunday, April 15, 2018

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April 11 marked the 51st anniversary of the death of Jamaica's second Prime Minister Sir Donald Sangster. It is an anniversary not often recalled by the State, and once again we saw little if any memorial event this year.

He was prime minister for seven weeks and was incapacitated for the last three weeks of his life. Although he was deputy Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) leader, acting prime minister, House leader, minister of finance, and “Mr Commonwealth” — as he was known to Commonwealth leaders all over the globe — Sangster unfortunately lived and worked in the shadow of Sir Alexander Bustamante.

Bustamante had high regard for Sangster's loyalty, as well as technical and leadership skills, but he was not of the same political ilk of a “Busta” or a Hugh Shearer, and so “The Chief” was always hesitant to regard his top lieutenant as his successor.

The unfortunate and regretful circumstances surrounding Sangster's death on that fateful April day in 1967 included uncertainty as to who would be the third prime minister. It was a sad time in Jamaica's history. Donald Sangster was a popular national leader and had close friends and admirers on both sides of the House. He was well respected and was described by Evon Blake's Spotlight magazine in 1965, while still acting prime minister (Sir Alexander was ill during this period), as “a man who has created the image of a trustworthy person who, with full power, would hold the scales evenly balanced. He is not among the political party spoilers. Respect begets respect and the records of the legislature have yet to show a biting venomous speech by him…this clean quality kept his integrity stocks high among the community, and among the world leaders he interplayed with...”

The story goes as follows: Donald Sangster led the JLP to victory at the polls in the 1967 General Election, and set about selecting his Cabinet and preparing his budget speech — he had kept the finance portfolio — immediately after the election.

He decided to spend two days after the official opening of parliament on a retreat in Newcastle at the military bungalow, Bush Cottage, to work on the budget. He had been shaving early on Saturday morning, March 19, when he got a cerebral seizure. The maid found him on the floor and called for help. As the official car sped down the hill back to Kingston, headed for Vale Royal, the good folk in the market towns en route had no idea when the Cadillac passed them that their prime minister was lying in the back seat. Nor was the public aware of the developing crisis.

Word leaked out that Saturday morning that Sangster had fallen ill and was to be sent to Montreal Neurological Institute in Canada. We didn't take it too seriously until the days grew into weeks without any positive reports coming out of Canada on his recovery. Before leaving he had named Clem Tavares as acting prime minister and Edward Seaga to act as minister of finance.

He was accompanied to Montreal on the special jet flight immediately arranged by United States Ambassador to Jamaica Thomas Beale; Herbert Eldemire, minister of health; and private doctors Ronald Irvine and John Sandison; a nurse, Angeliota Leiba from his Clarendon constituency; and personal friend Andrew Abrahams.

With the news of his condition worsening, official visitors went back and forth. Tavares sent External Affairs Minister Hugh Shearer to join Eldemire in Montreal. The Cabinet also invited his aunt, Iris Sangster, and her son, Dr Alfred Sangster, to accompany Shearer.

The sad countdown had begun.

Now began an intense period of anxiety for the entire nation. I recall The Gleaner's headlines, 'No Improvement', 'No Change in Sangster's condition', and on April 2, 'Deterioration in Sangster's condition'.

On April 4 his press secretary, Hartley Neita, from whose biography on Sangster I have relied on for this account, issued a terse one-sentence release which said, “There has been some further deterioration, and the possibility of his survival is now even less.”

Two days later it was learnt that two nurses were constantly at his bedside and three specialists seeing him twice daily, “but unhappily at this point their examinations show no more than a statistical recoding of his heartbeat”.

From then on it was only a question of time.

Neita reported in his book that life continued in Jamaica, with the national cricket team drawing a Shell Shield match with Guyana; Renford Pinnock scoring 153 and Easton McMorris 218.

In the meantime, anticipating that Sangster could die, Governor General Sir Clifford Campbell called a meeting of all JLP elected members at King's House and asked them to discuss the issue and advise him of their choice.

A sobbing Hugh Shearer and Herbert Eldemire returned to Jamaica to take part in the voting exercise decided on to elect a new leader. It was a cliffhanger with Hugh Shearer, the reluctant candidate, receiving the casting vote. That was the night of April 5. The nation watched spellbound as cars entered and left King's House into the wee hours of the morning.

On April 7 Sangster was knighted by Her Majesty The Queen while he was in a coma. There was nary a dissident voice on that matter.

Four days later, on April 11, the prime minister died, and the nation was plunged into mourning. Four hours after his death, Hugh Shearer was appointed prime minister. Jamaica was now completely focused on plans for the funeral, and perhaps a new Cabinet. Tributes came from around the world, from The Queen, from prime ministers, from US President Lyndon Johnson, Canada, South America, India, and Africa.

Opposition Leader Norman Manley said “he was regarded with esteem and respect by all”. Official mourning was declared until April 17, the day of the funeral. Half-mast flags, street corner groups, weeping citizens, sombre music by the radio stations, and people gathering all around. Outside the Heywood Street market, a small crowd sang Nearer My God To Thee.

The body arrived in Jamaica on an aircraft of the Royal Canadian Air Force. The flag-draped casket was met by dignitaries, headed by the new prime minister, the governor general, Cabinet ministers, clergy, and family. The large, respectful crowds on the galleries stood at attention and spoke in hushed tones.

The casket was loaded on a hearse and wended its way slowly to the Montego Bay Railway station for special funeral train to carry it across the hills of St James and St Elizabeth to Maggotty, and then taken by hearse to his birthplace, Mountainside.

Mourners packed the little church all night as organists, including Evon Grant, Iris Whittaker, and his political rival B B Coke, filled the church with appropriate music.

From Maggotty the following day it travelled slowly to Chapleton, his constituency headquarters, for a further lying in state. This was my opportunity to get into the swing of things as I took the bus from May Pen to Chapelton to join the mourners and to take a last look at the prime minister. It was a sad moment.

The next day it went into Kingston for lying in state at Kingston Parish Church. Now here, literally thousands filed past the casket. Almost immediately after the doors were opened, people started filing inside in two lines extending from the church, down King Street to Barry Street, and going onto Temple Lane.

The Monday afternoon service drew similar large crowds. Canon R O C King eloquently expressed the nation's praise for its noble departed son. Massed bands led the procession to the music of the “Dead March”.

As the cortège passed Gordon House a great wail went up from some of the women on the sidewalk. They were not ashamed to cry. The nation wept as Sir Donald was laid to rest at National Heroes' Park.

It happened in April 1967, lest we forget.


Pat Anderson — Mr Sports

Speaking of fallen brethren, I was saddened to hear of the passing of my late friend and bauxite colleague Pat “Bunny” Anderson. Rather than speak of his death I will more remember his life and career when, for many years, he was the voice of Alcan's sports and youth development administrative programmes.

Pat retired from Alcan as safety administrator, but even in his retirement he continued to be recognised as “Mr Sports” in Manchester, the Alcan chain across the island, and the Jamaica Football Federation and Jamaica Athletics Administrative Association as former president.

He simply carried on working, salary or no, in the interest of sports and the young people who looked to him for mentorship. His name was synonymous with Kirkvine Sports Club, an institution that may well bear his name. That's where I met him in the 1970s when he was club president (for life, it seemed) and we worked together as foundation members, club rivals, and executives of the Bauxite Sports Council.

Together with other foundation members, Dudley Morris (Kaiser), Winston Hutchinson (Reynolds), Fitz Christie (Revere), Garth Burke-Green (Alcoa), Keith Brown and Howard Chevannes (Alpart), we worked long hours organising competitions in athletics, cricket, football, netball, dominoes, tennis, and even bridge to build sports and employee recreation across the industry.

Pat always chuckled when we recalled one particular meeting at Halse Hall in Clarendon, writing a constitution only to be cautioned by the security guard who reminded us that the May Pen bridge would be closed to traffic in 15 minutes (it was 11:45 am), so you can imagine the scuttling to get out of the meeting and find our way home to our respective locations in St Elizabeth, Manchester, Clarendon, and St Catherine.

We disagreed sometimes about points gained questionably in his determination to claim victory, particularly in athletics, but remained great friends over the years with mutual respect for each other.

Pat's contribution is long-lasting, generous, and unselfish. One man who made a difference.


Lance Neita is a public relations writer and consultant. Send comments to the Observer or

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