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130 years of Bustamante

Michael BURKE

Thursday, February 27, 2014    

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BY his own account, this past Monday, February 24, marked 130 years since the birth of William Alexander Bustamante, Jamaica's first prime minister. Born as William Alexander Clarke, he changed his name by deed poll in 1944. All stories of him being adopted by Spanish governor have been deemed as fictitious by his first cousin Norman Manley and by his biographer George Eaton. He was knighted in 1955 and came to be known as Sir Alexander Bustamante.

Alexander Bustamante provided the energy, by way of worker strikes, that would make it easier for Norman Manley to push for self-government. Bustamante jumped on the platform at St William Grant and proceeded to form the BITU in 1938. He was certainly the most popular labour union leader and his union, the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU), had more followers than any other. Bustamante's strong points were that he believed in justice, he looked out for women, and he loved children.

When the People's National Party (PNP) was established in 1938 Bustamante was a member and he was very much on the platform inside the Ward Theatre at the inauguration. In 1940, Bustamante was arrested under war-time regulations. The PNP kept its BITU affiliate alive during the years of Bustamante's incarceration. When Bustamante was released in 1942, he accused the PNP of trying to take the BITU from him and resigned from the PNP, taking the union with him. On July 8, 1943, Bustamante established the Jamaica Labour Party.

Most leaders who bring about change anywhere in the world are eccentrics. Norman Manley was also an eccentric. Bustamante was certainly a very colourful and very charismatic politician. In 1963, Evon Blake wrote of Bustamante that if he had his own way he would have been a dictator. It is true that very few of his second-tier leaders dared to stand up to him. Evon Blake would write in Spotlight Magazine in the early 1950s that it was only Rose Leon — when she was in the JLP — from among the members of the House of Representatives that would stand up to Bustamante.

Not much is known of the early life of Alexander Bustamante. In 1968, on the occasion of the joint houses of Parliament honouring him one year after his retirement from representational politics, then Opposition Leader Norman Manley said that no one knew Bustamante better than he did. I have not heard or seen anyone who disputed that statement by the elder Manley.

Indeed, for a time Bustamante and Norman Manley had grown up in the same house. After his father, Thomas Manley, Norman and his siblings, along with his mother Margaret Ellen Shearer Manley, went to live with his maternal grandfather, Alexander Shearer. There it was that Alexander Clarke — as he then was — would come

on visits.

Apparently, on one occasion Norman Manley had the scare of his life because he almost accidentally shot his sister. There was a rule in the house of Alexander Shearer that the rifles should be emptied after being used to hunt and shoot. Norman was playing with a rifle, thinking it to be empty, and nearly shot his sister.

Their cousin, Alexander Clarke, who was eight years older than Norman Manley had borrowed the rifle to shoot birds or something and did not empty the guns when he came back. That was typical of Alexander. He was defiant, at worst, and at the very best reluctant to abide by rules, unless he made them himself. And he also would not join anything unless he was the leader.

I do not know if it was a rule of Alexander Shearer's household that guns should not have been played with or if Norman broke the rule being the stubborn "hard ears" child that he was also. But I hope that everyone reading this will teach children not to play with guns, knives or any sharp implements.

In all of my visits to the Sir John Golding Rehabilitation Centre over the last 40 years, I have known of many instances where people were shot and injured as a result of playing with guns. Some of them fatally. These guns were either left carelessly in their reach by parents or they were from the inner city where guns are available.

As a young man Alexander Clarke lived in Cuba. In 1935, according to George Eaton, the author of Alexander Bustamante and Modern Jamaica, Alexander Clarke showed up in New York and introduced himself as Alejandro Bustamanti, a grandee from Spain. On his return to Jamaica he called himself Alexander Clarke Bustamante and created the fantastic story of being adopted by a Spanish governor.

When Bustamante returned to Jamaica, he was an avid letter writer, although it is widely believed that he dictated the letters to his secretary, Miss Gladys Longbridge. In 1962, when Miss Longbridge was 50 and Bustamante was 78 and prime minister of Jamaica, they married in the Roman Catholic archbishop's chapel on Hopefield Avenue in St Andrew.

Although Bustamante wrote of himself as being Roman Catholic, he was never baptised in the Roman Catholic Church. He had asked Father Stanley Shearer (later monsignor) to perform his wedding to Miss Longbridge. Monsignor Shearer told me that he explained to Bustamante that for him to do the wedding one of the parties would have to be Roman Catholic, Bustamante instructed Miss Longbridge to take the Catholic instructions.

I heard, in recent times, from someone that Sister Bernadette Little (recently deceased) witnessed Bustamante being confirmed in the Roman Catholic Church. In the same breath, I was told that Sister Bernadette was too ill for me to see her to corroborate the story. I was also told that the late Archbishop McEleney might have simply done it in his chapel without recording it. I am still not convinced that Bustamante was ever a Roman Catholic.

ekrubm765@yahoo.com

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