The Alexander Bustamante/Norman Manley alliance

By Lance Neita

Saturday, April 30, 2016

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It is not generally known that following the upheaval of the labour riots in May 1938 and the subsequent incidents of strikes and violence that erupted across the country, Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante formed a partnership that travelled from Negril to Morant Point to restore calm to the island’s trouble spots.

Together they went from milepost to milepost, cane field to sugar factory, street corners to town plazas, indefatigable in their mission to represent the interest of the working class by seeking immediate improvements in wages and working conditions. Sometimes they ran into opposition from the very people they were trying to serve. At one famous stop they addressed banana and outport workers in Port Maria only to find that the promise of higher wages was not sufficient to induce them to return to work.

Bustamante was the natural leader who had sprung to the fore to dramatise the poverty and subhuman conditions which characterised the lot of the labouring poor in Jamaica. Manley’s was the more eloquent voice that joined his cousin in articulating the plight of the people and provided the mediation necessary to organise a platform for the workers to present their case to the colonial administration for a better standard of living.

The collaboration was the start of an out-of-character alliance between the two first cousins that was to change irrevocably the course of Jamaica’s history. It emerged out of the turmoil of the revolt and protest of the labouring classes against crushing poverty, which saw the upheaval reach its peak point on May 23 with 8,000 demonstrators in the streets. As the leader of the march, Busta’s defiance of police orders to disperse and move on led to his arrest the following day.

But his arrest only served to stir up more agitation, as workers crowded the street and demanded that he be released. Finally, having been prevailed upon by Manley that the longer Bustamante was detained the more incensed the crowd would become, the governor, Sir Edward Denham, agreed to the release.

Busta expressed his gratitude to all those who had worked for his release and had a special word about his cousin. "I was glad that Mr Manley came down to enter the breach. He came at a time when I really needed his services. He volunteered to help get me out of the penitentiary and I appreciate it sincerely. If he had waited until I asked him, I would not have appreciated it so much; and when he told me that his wife, Mrs Manley, was doing something to help you, the workers, I was overwhelmed."

According to George Eaton’s biography of Bustamante, it was then that the partnership started. Busta and Manley became a familiar twosome in the weeks that followed as they toured the island calming the angry workers.

It is probably true to say that the strikes and riots bewildered the labour movement of the day as profoundly as they did the colonial administration. Neither was equipped to cope with a national protest that was swiftly assuming a revolutionary force. And had the Busta-Manley partnership not responded as quickly as it did, Jamaica could have witnessed a repetition of 1865, but on a larger, more violent and tragic scale.

With the assumption of the role of leadership and responsibility by the two men, Jamaica was set on a new course that would propel the country into self-government and Independence. The spontaneous working-class protest which Bustamante and Manley now controlled was to become channelled into a highly organised level of trade union and political awareness.

The two first cousins were to become political rivals and often went toe-to-toe over differences and conflicts which, in many instances, were to lead to violent disorder among their followers. But, in spite of their rivalry, each very clearly valued the respect and mutual sense of responsibility which they shared, and regarded as fundamental to the development of Jamaica’s political process. Both saw the aspirations of the people being met by the actions and decisions they took as leaders.

As Manley himself reflected in later life, "The political shape of this country and the political potential derived from a Manley-Bustamante span covered the political life of our country and profoundly influenced its economic structure. For 29 years I led the PNP (People’s National Party). For 24 years Bustamante led the Jamaica Labour Party. For all 29 years the roles of the two movements interlocked. From 1938 to 1941, I helped to build up the BITU (Bustamante Industrial Trade Union), and I took a leading part in all events since 1938, since May 24 of that famous year which was the beginning of the new Jamaica.

"He (Bustamante) was a member of the PNP. He left it to form his own party. He opposed self-government till he could see clearly the inevitability of Independence. We shared in the formation of the Federation. And then we split on that very issue. We began it, but his party followed in the development of organised politics based on discipline and party loyalty."

"I built up the BITU"? Yes, sounds strange, but true. Just as he did when Busta was first incarcerated for four days by the governor on May 24, 1938, Manley again offered his services, this time during Busta’s period of detention at Up Park Camp, September 8, 1940 to February 8, 1942, to help keep the BITU vibrant.

According to Lady Bustamante in her biography, "The Chief accepted Manley’s offer, and Manley brought in some of his most effective PNP organisers to work with the BITU team. They included Ken Hill, Noel Nethersole, Florizel Glasspole, Frank Hill, Richard Hart, Ken Stirling."

Manley made regular progress reports to Busta and the BITU grew from strength to strength, but according to Lady Bustamante, the original BITU stalwarts like L G ‘Doc’ Newland, Edith Nelson, Cyril Mallet began to feel left out and indicated to Busta that he was being undermined.

This is what led to the split between Busta and Manley, as after his release, and in a colourful chapter in Jamaica’s union history, Busta turned up unexpectedly at his union office and fired all his detractors.

"You can’t fire we! More than one coffin going come out here today," the officers declared.But at that point, says Lady Bustamante, "the Chief rose to his full height, grabbed a chair and began swinging at them. The chair broke on one back and they all fled the room, never to return to 61 ½ Duke Street." Talk about instant dismissal!

And so began the rivalry between PNP and JLP, and by extension, Bustamante and Manley. Manley’s truncated biography starts off by telling us that "the political leadership of Jamaica was divided between Bustamante and myself during that time. We worked together and violently disagreed. But we had known each other from the early part of the century and were cousins belonging to two families very closely associated with each other for over 40 years".

The early alliance and mutual support that commenced in 1938 had endured for several years. When Busta’s BITU was making strides, but was met with strong opposition from the employer class, it was Manley who rose to his defence by saying, "Bustamante is Jamaica’s labour leader by the only test that matters: and that is the confidence and support of labour."

On the other side of the coin, cousin Norman had taken up the leadership of the political movement that was advancing in Jamaica. Manley felt that a trade union like the BITU could influence but not enact the legislation necessary to bring about the desired changes they both envisioned for Jamaica.

Busta was in full accord with the formation of the PNP, which was launched at the Ward Theatre on September 18, 1938. He had a prominent seat on the platform. Interestingly, the original plan was that the new party would be called the Jamaica Labour Party. But a seven-man task force, which included Howard Cooke, made a last-minute change to embrace the words ‘national’ and ‘people’, as it was felt that the word ‘labour’ would appeal only to the working class.

Of historical interest, when it came to naming the Bustamante-formed party in 1942, Busta told his colleagues that he wanted two words, ‘labour’ and ‘people’. And thus it was that the same name the PNP rejected became the banner of the first islandwide people’s movement, the JLP.

The political split between the two men widened as the years rolled on. But while they were miles apart on political policies, they were closely aligned as cousins in the flesh who looked after each other’s back. A little known story is that in the first general elections held in 1944, Busta had purposely refused to nominate a candidate against Manley in the St Andrew Eastern constituency. However, Doc Fagan offered to fill the total slate and, without expecting him to win, Busta allowed the nomination. Fagan won, Manley lost, and Busta was not amused.

Five years later, while the results were coming in for the second election, Busta was at his Shanty Town headquarters in Mocho, in his own constituency, when the Gleaner’s Trueman and Trottman came over and broke the news of Busta’s victory. "How is Manley doing?" was Busta’s first response. "Manley is safe and leading comfortably in all the boxes opened with only a handful left unopened," was the reply. Busta then explained joyfully, "Thank God he has won."

Lance Neita is a community and public relations consultant and writer. Comments to the Observer or to lanceneita@

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