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Founder of the Jamaica Labour Party and the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union, Bustamante is honoured here as a champion of the poor and oppressed, for his role in organizing labour, and for his part in furthering the nationalist movement by his challenge to colonial authority.
‘Busta’ as he was affectionately referred to by everyone, was born at Blenheim, a community in the parish of Hanover on the 24th of February 1884, the son of a modest pen-keeping family and was christened William Alexander Clarke.
His education and opportunities were limited and in 1903, like tens of thousands of his compatriots, he left Jamaica in search of adventure overseas. He lived and worked in many countries, acquiring a dashing Latin style of dress and behaviour as well as the name Bustamante by which he was known thereafter, formally changing his name by deed poll in 1944.
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Historians have however not yet managed to totally untangle the reality from the myths and legends of Bustamante’s foreign sojourn.
He returned to Jamaica for good in 1933 and tried his hand at several occupations, eventually becoming a money-lender and was well into his fifties when he entered public life.
He first attracted
attention by a series of letters he wrote to the newspapers attacking
the social and political conditions of colonial Jamaica. Soon he began
speaking on public platforms, particularly at meetings at North Parade in Kingston (in association with St William Grant).
In 1937 Sir Alexander Bustamante got into the business of organizing the labour force and his charismatic personality soon won him a huge mass following.
As Sylvia Wynter has expressed it (in Jamaica’s National Heroes): ‘if the word "charisma" had not existed, the eruption of William Alexander Bustamante on the Jamaican scene in the 19305 would have caused some political scientist or other to have invented it . . . In the life and time of William Alexander Bustamante we see the word "charisma" made flesh.’
For his role as the spokesman and champion of labour, he was imprisoned during the island wide riots of 1938 in Frome, Westmoreland. He also spent 17 months (1940-42) in detention camp during the Second World War.
By the way, it was during the 1938 labour ferment that Bustamante formed the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU). In 1944, Jamaica’s first general election was held under Universal Adult Suffrage granted by a new constitution.
Sir Alexander Bustamante formed the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) to contest the election and led it to victory, gaining 23 out of 32 seats.
He thus became Jamaica’s first chief minister. The JLP held power until 1955 in which year Bustamante was knighted by the Queen.
Jamaica became a part of the West Indies Federation that was established in 1958 and Bustamante was Jamaican leader of the Democratic Labour Party that came to power in the Federal elections.
However, he soon changed his policy and advocated the withdrawal of Jamaica from the Federation and a move towards National Independence From Colonial Rule.
Jamaicans voted to secede from the Federation in a special referendum and the island became Independent in 1962.
The JLP won the election held that year (1962)and Bustamante became the first prime minister. In that year, he married his private secretary of many years, Miss Gladys Longbridge.
Bustamante retired from active politics in 1967, but until his death in 1977 continued to be an influential figure in both the party and the labour union.
Sir Alexander Bustamante was proclaimed a National Hero Of Jamaica during his lifetime, and the to date, the only living National Hero Jamaica has had.
Port Bustamante, Bustamante Children’s Hospital and Bustamante Bridge (St Thomas) are among the places named in his honour. (See Places Names After National Heroes)
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