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Jamaica yes! Federation no!

JLP was first to call for Independence

with Lance Neita

Friday, August 03, 2012    

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All Jamaicans who can recall the dramatic events that took place during the years immediately leading up to Independence will agree that this was a period unmatched for the action, debates, controversies, surprises, triumphs and disappointments which characterised the political landscape.

Jamaica went to the polls five times between 1955 and 1962. Three of those elections were closely linked to the unfolding events that were preparing us for Independence.

The People's National Party (PNP) won the 1955 elections. A bare three years later the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) won the majority of available Jamaica seats in the first Federal Parliament.

The 1959 general elections went to the PNP. In 1961 the referendum battle was won by the JLP. And on April 11, 1962, the JLP made it 3-2 by winning the elections to lead Jamaica into Independence. The referendum was undoubtedly the defining moment in the sequence of events at the turn of the decade.

George Eaton, from whose book Alexander Bustamante and Modern Jamaica I have drawn some reference for this series, asked the question what would have happened if Norman Manley had become prime minister of the West Indies or if the PNP had won the Federal Elections in Jamaica in 1958.

"It is quite possible", he says, "that Alexander Bustamante might have bowed to Federation as the inevitable and would have been content to put up a vigorous fight to ensure protection of Jamaica's interest."

With the 1959 loss behind him, however, Busta went to war against Federation with the outright declaration that his party opposed the union.

The night of May 30, 1960, was to prove a pivotal moment in Jamaica's history. The JLP's Edwin Allen had been chosen to contest the West Indies by-election in St Thomas to fill the vacancy created by JLP's Robert Lightbourne's resignation from the Parliament. A meeting was called by Bustamante to make the official decision. There are different versions of what transpired but the outcome was a terse statement authorised by Busta that the JLP would not be contesting, thus implying that the party had finally decided to withdraw from Federation.

The following morning Manley read the JLP's statement in the newspaper and on what many thought to be an impulsive move, immediately announced that a referendum would be held for the people to decide. But it wasn't until August 3, 1961 - 51 years ago today - that he announced the date to be September 19, 1961.

The campaign was hot. The old war horse Bustamante, in Opposition for seven years, jumped at the leash and took on the PNP all over the island in a whirlwind campaign that played on the emotions of a sell out to overseas leadership (from Trinidad) and unfair taxation burdens on Jamaicans.

The JLP had actually started campaigning from March, and the PNP launched their campaign on June 17, 1961. It was Bustamante who again seized the headlines when he aimed his guns at Dr Eric Williams, Trinidad's premiere, asking in the House: "If I or the Premiere (Manley) died, there would be no one to lead the West Indies in Federation but that contemptible Eric Williams - what Jamaican who is not a traitor to his country would want Williams to rule over us?"

That did not go down well, but Busta, as mentioned in a previous article, brooked no friendship with the Eastern Caribbean leaders, and had once called Williams "that little deaf ears man", in mischievous reference to the ear plug permanently attached to the good doctor's head.

Following the uproar at Busta's statement, the JLP's L G Newland then moved a historic amendment of a motion by Manley to seek acceptance of a Lancaster House White paper on Federation by rejecting the London report and "requesting Her Majesty's Government to take immediate steps to introduce legislation to grant Jamaica's Independence on May 23, 1962."

It took the ball right out of Manley's court and awarded Bustamante's party the credit for being the first to call officially for Jamaican Independence - a claim described by Eaton as "consistently agonising to Manley and the PNP frontiersmen who had long declared their objective of full self-government from the stormy days of 1938".

When the votes were counted on the night of September 19, the people had voted by a majority of 38,942 to say 'no' to Federation. The Caribbean had followed the results by radio around the basin. Dr Eric Williams summed up the disappointment in his famous pronouncement: "One from 10 is naught." Jamaica's decision meant that the Federation was dead, and now Jamaica would go it alone.

But even as the bells were ringing at Tucker Avenue and tolling at Washington Drive, more fast paced action was on the cards. The referendum results signaled independence ahead. And that meant a general election to decide who would lead Jamaica into that state of affairs.

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