The war years and Norman Manley


Saturday, January 10, 2015

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For nearly 30 years the political direction taken by Jamaica was charted by two cousins: Alexander Bustamante and Norman Manley. Those three decades marked the critical period of a journey that started with the stirrings towards nationalism and self-government fostered in the 1930s and leading up to the achievement of Independence in 1962.

Over those years a series of dynamic and turbulent circumstances tested and vindicated the temperaments and capacities of these two outstanding gentlemen as they held sway over the political fortunes of Jamaica.

Both were extraordinary individuals and indeed giants among men. Both had enough space to isolate themselves from the revolutionary movement that gave birth to organised labour and political development. They sprang from the plantocracy class, were high-coloured brown people, and enjoyed social and economic security. Their call to arms and to lead the mass movements that overran Jamaica in the 1930s was not born of need for money, but out of a deep concern that oftentimes impels men to leave the safety and comfort of their chosen occupations to act as spokesmen and leaders for those undergoing hardships.

On the night of May 24, 1938, when Kingston was on the verge of full-scale rioting, with vast armies of the leaderless roaming the streets, Norman Manley, the brilliant and most sought-after lawyer in Jamaica, made a decision to put his legal and lucrative cases aside to try to negotiate for the people and settle their grievances.

His diary records: "I felt very strongly that somebody had to intervene and take charge of things in the interests of the workers of Jamaica. I had a profound feeling that I was going to make an offer that had unforeseeable consequences."

At the same time, Bustamante, who in a letter to the press described himself as enjoying the privileges of "possessing an irreproachable character, excellent health and a fair amount of wealth", decided at the age of 55 years when most men would be looking forward to retirement, to throw in his lot with the workers and to offer leadership to the labouring classes.

The biographies of the two national heroes are well known. Manley the intellectual, and Busta the flamboyant character, provided contrasts in style and leadership that led to the creation of the two-party system in Jamaica.

Speaking in Gordon House on February 28, 1968, in a parliamentary tribute to Busta on his retirement, Manley confirmed that fact of history when he reflected: "And there came the time, Mr Speaker, when Sir Alexander made what history may record as his greatest contribution to democracy in Jamaica, and that was the formation and creation of the Jamaica Labour Party, which led to the establishment of the two-party system in Jamaica.

"I dare make bold to say, Mr Speaker, if Sir Alexander and I had continued together to belong to the same party, there never would have been another party in Jamaica."

What is not generally known or studied are the formative years of these two founders of the nation. Busta's early adventures are sometimes difficult to pin down, as he had a meteoric and dazzling career outside of Jamaica before coming home in 1934 to take up his public calling.

Norman Manley, however, outside of his well-known early life at Belmont in St Catherine, and his outstanding athletic and sports career at Jamaica College, lived through a traumatic experience some 100 years ago on the battlefields of Europe, when he was exposed to the horrors of World War I.

His autobiography, cut short by ill health and published both by Rex Nettleford in his Manley and the New Jamaica, and the Institute of Jamaica's Jamaica Journal, gives an explicit picture of a period of his life that the biographical sketches -- which merely refer to him as a gunner in the British Army -- have failed to do.

The in-depth story adds a special new dimension to any assessment of Manley's persona, great physical strength and mental powers, as well as the emotional drainage incurred upon him by the war.

On a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford in 1914, he enlisted in the British army with his younger brother Roy. In short order, they found themselves on the battlefields of France in 1916. They were trained as gun layers, which involved moving guns into position for firing and taking up new positions in the trenches. They fought for over four months at Sommes in one of the bloodiest battles of the time, and then retuned to Ypres to prepare for the greatest offensive of the war timed for June 1917.

As gun carriers and loaders they followed waves of infantry across unfriendly and dangerous terrain, crawling miles and miles to secure positions for building dugouts for the guns and ammunition.

"Preparation was hard work", says Manley. "For about one month about thirty of us used to leave camp at 5:00 pm to walk 10 miles to retrieve shells which were then moved a further two miles to the gun pits. The Germans knew very well what we were doing and all the roads were constantly and heavily shelled by enemy artillery."

It was while setting up gun positions in a wood glade one evening that his squadron came under terrific German gunfire. "In five minutes, half our men were dead or wounded. Those who could, ran out, and among them was my brother Roy, 23 years, carrying on his back a man thought to be wounded -- it turned out he was dead -- and then he too fell, killed by a fragment that sent a casing into his heart."

Roy was buried thousands of miles away from his home in a barren winter's field, wrapped in a blanket. It was the most poignant moment of the war for Norman. "I cannot speak how I felt. We were good friends, and I would be lonely for the rest of the war."

Shortly after he was again engaged in an assault, this time surrounded by thousands of guns making an unforgettable sound that remained inside him all his life. "Sounds like a great wave drowning every feeling and every emotion, sounds broken every minute by the vast roar of our own machine gun fire." Worse still, they had no dugouts, no shelter, were exposed to merciless rain for 11 days, and under siege from the enemy advances that twice nearly took his life. Once when a shell split the air and he dived just in time to escape, ending up in the bottom of a crater made by the shell.

On another occasion he was on guard duty when a sudden shower of gas shells exploded. "My duty was to wake up everyone and see that they ran out of danger. This was done, but next morning I found my sleeping area upset and riddled with fragments of the shell which exploded right beside my lean-to shelter. If I had been there, and not on duty, I would have been as riddled as my blankets were."

There are many stories in his narrative that bring the horrors of war close to the reader. A famous battle at Paschendale Ridge lasted five months and is estimated to have cost the British 750,000 men. At one stage during the melee Norman's squadron came under attack from a surprise onslaught launched during the early morning fog. "I loaded my rifle and prepared to sell my life dearly, not in the cliché sense, but for the practical reason that I was half negro and the stories of what happened to coloured men taken prisoners of war were very grim and, of course, believed by us implicitly."

In retreat following this episode, the army travelled light, with very little food and water, and living off the French countryside as they tried to keep away from the still advancing Germans. They slept each night until 2:00 am and then woke nearly frozen to walk until dawn. "We eventually stopped at a little town comparatively near to Paris. We had been on the go for 11 days on starvation diet with little sleep."

They came across a Red Cross advance station, totally exhausted from lack of sleep, and were offered a drink by the hospitable workers. Manley records that he went down to the cellar "where stood some dozen small barrels of white wine...I drew a pail and drank till I could hold no more. What happened after that is only known to me by what I was told. Our unit all got drunk, and at midnight when the guns were to take part in the start of a new battle we managed to fire one shell only, and I found myself behaving most dangerously and disagreeably until 5:00 am".

Came Armistice Day, and Manley, now on leave, was in Hyde Park, London, with a crowd of some 1,000,000. "It was over, but I couldn't get a sense of joy. Long anticipation of some events leaves you cold and practical when they arrive.

"I remembered my fallen friends, but the number was so great that each loss was reduced by some strange feeling".

Manley eventually returned to Jamaica with his bride Edna and first son Douglas and settled down to a brilliant career as an outstanding lawyer. He returned as a war hero, having earned a military medal. He settled down to a great deal of work, but also immersed himself in music, boxing, cricket, and racing, while Edna gathered the budding artists and poets around her at their Drumblair home and started the modern art movement in Jamaica.

The compass was set. History would have it no other way. Enter the incidents of 1938 and, without any compulsion from anyone, Manley took on the mantle of speaking up for the poor and depressed and championing the road to self-government.

The story of the war years adds another side to Norman Manley, contributing to a broader, more understandable picture of this national hero.

In another column, the many sides to Alexander Bustamante.

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

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