Sir Alexander Bustamante

Sir Alexander Bustamante

William Alexander Bustamante (1884-1977) was Jamaica's first Prime Minister. He campaigned for workers' rights, and he was imprisoned for standing up for his beliefs. He founded the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union [BITU], the first trade union in Jamaica. Later he founded the Jamaica Labour Party [JLP]. Son of an Irish planter named Robert Constantine Clarke and a coloured Jamaican woman , Mary Clarke. He was registered William Alexander Clarke but later changed his name by deed poll. Bustamante attended Primary school at Cacoon and Dalmally and also did private studies

Life and History

William Alexander Bustamante left Jamaica in 1905 and lived in countries such as Cuba, Panama and the USA. On his return to Jamaica in the mid-1930s he set up a money lending business which was very successful. It was during this time that he became fully aware of the abject poverty of the mass of the people.

Between 1934-1938 Bustamante did not hesitate to expose these extremely bad social and economic conditions in the numerous letters he wrote to "The Daily Gleaner" and occasionally to British newspapers.

Bustamante felt that he was destined to lead his country some day. At fifty (50) years of age, he had reached a point in life where he felt he had developed to lead his country forward to a better way of living.

Between 1935-1937 he was involved in every activity which highlighted the terrible plight of the majority of the population. For example, between 1935-1936 he carried out an "anti-water metre protest", and in January 1937 he intervened in a strike at Serge Island Estate, offering his services as a mediator. Later in 1937 he became treasurer of the Jamaica Workers and Tradesmen Union, founded in 1936 by AGS Coombs.

Bustamante's activities were not confired only to the people of Jamaica. He had earlier identified with the workers' cause with regard to disturbances in Trinidad, Barbados and other West Indian islands in the 1930's. Bustmante and AGS Coombs travelled around the country promoting their union and gave hope to struggling workers.

Bustamante was aware of the leadership vacancy and he was ready to fill it. As a result of his wide travels and natural intelligence, he had gained much experience in a variety of occupations. In addition he had the power to hold an audience spellbound. His towering height, bushy hair and his dramatic gestures were important elements, which drew people to him. He was able to relate to the people right at their level. In 1938 when he was attacked by the "Jamaica Standard" newspaper, Bustmante told a crowd of 2,000 at North Parade, I want the 'Standard' to know that I represent the lower and middle-class people in Jamaica; they have confidence in me."

It was this confidence which took him to Frome after the disturbances that had left six dead, 50 wounded and 89 charged with rioting. The disturbances at Frome were also the start of a series of strikes and demonstrations in which Bustmante stamped his name indelibly as the people's champion. Wherever there were labour problems throughout Jamaica he was with the workers.

Bustamante claimed that Britain, the "Mother Country", was not aware of the state of affairs in Jamaica, because he was badly informed or mis-informed by Governor Denham. The labour leader denounced Denham at a meeting attended by over 700 persons at the Parade on May 4, 1938. In May 1938 at Heroes Park, Bustamante told a crowd, "Long live the king, but Denham must go." He told his audience that the Government was planning to arrest him because he had exposed the evils in Jamaica to the British parliament. On May 23, 1938 Kingston port workers supported a strike called by Bustamante. Their demand was for higher wages. The following day Bustamante addressed a large meeting at the corner of Duke and Harbour streets. He told the people that what was taking place in Jamaica was a "mental revolution." They had now become conscious of how they had been exploited all these years, and how little or nothing was done to alleviate their condition. The Jamaican people were no longer prepared to believe that there was no better for them.

They recognised that they had remained silent for too long and allowed themselves to almost deteriorate into passive acceptance of their condition. These very people through the instrumentality of leaders like Bustmante and Norman Manley finally realised that they could emancipate themselves from their economic and political bondage.

Bustamante and St William Grant addressed workers at rallies in May 1938. At one of these rallies when the Security Forces threatened "to open fire" on the crowd, Bustamante unbuttoned his shirt, thrust his chest forward and invited the soldiers to leave the people alone and shoot him. On that memorable day Marcus Garvey's words of "leadership means everything - pain, blood death", and "men who are in earnest are not afraid of consequences", must have sounded loud and clear to Bustamante. In addressing subsequent rallies Bustamante told his followers that there were people in the society who were clamouring for his arrest, but they should be careful. He assured his followers that he was above his detractors, and while they want to live forever, he was prepared to die any day. The crowd was always very friendly towards Bustamante. He told them that he was more powerful than the governor. They sang, "We will follow Bustamante till we die."

The Labour Movement

Bustamante and St William Grant were arrested and charged for causing disturbances in the country, which could lead to overthrow of the Government. Some waterfront workers who were on strike refused to return to work before Bustamante's release; regardless of what other terms were offered. On May 28, 1938 both men were freed on bail. Later the charges were dropped.

Bustamante saw the need to organise the Labour Movement in a legal way, and he worked closely to this end with Norman Manley, Noel Nethersole and others who were about to lead a new political movement, the People's National Party (PNP). Bustamante gave his full support to the party founded in September 1938, just as the Party gave its support to his Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU), founded in May 1938.

Bustamante had predicted that 1939 would be a year of serious problems on the labour scene. The members of the Security Forces kept a very close eye on him and the workers. This charismatic labour and political leader declared, "I have made up my mind to fight for the workers of this country. No longer are the workers afraid of bayonets. They are prepared to fight for their rights."

Bustamante's involvement with the PNP did not last long. He left the PNP and concentrated on the Labour Movement. In late February 1939, Bustamante called a general strike. The governor, Sir Arthur Richards, declared a state of emergency, alerted the military and sternly warned against law breakers. At this time, too, Norman Manley as a legal advocate was very busy on behalf of Bustamante. Manley got assurance from Governor Richards that if the strike was settled immediately no disciplinary action would be taken, but failing that Bustamante would be sent to prison. Bustamante accepted the compromise deal negotiated by Manley. He, however, consoled himself that he alone controlled the masses, and if he was tested again there would be great trouble in Jamaica. There was a period of relative calm, but this was broken when Bustamante called at least three major strikes in less than one year. He was placed in detention at Up Park Camp on September 8, 1940 for alleged violation of Defense of the Realm Act.

Birth of the J.L.P.

He was released from detention on February 8, 1942. For a while Bustamante behaved with great restraint, but then he lashed out against the PNP leaders, claiming a betrayal of trust. The political movement was split and Bustamante founded the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), in 1943 to prepare for Jamaica's first general election under universal adult suffrage. When the election was run in December 1944, the JLP won 22 seats in the 32 member House of Representatives; the PNP four seats, and independent candidates, six. Bustamante who won the Western Kingston Constituency by a large majority, was appointed Minister of Communication and Works. He was also the principal Government spokesman in the House of Representatives.

In the 1949 general election, the second under universal adult suffrage, the JLP again won under the leadership of Bustamante. By then Bustamante had left Western Kingston and won the South Eastern Clarendon seat by a large majority. The JLP lost power to the PNP in the general election of January 1955 and so Bustamante became leader of the Opposition. In 1955 the Queen conferred on Bustamante the title Knight Bachelor. From this date he was officially addressed as "Sir."

During the closing years of the 1945-55 JLP administration, Jamaica took the first steps towards joining a federation of the British West Indian islands. West Indians' demand for federation increased considerably following the labour disturbances of the mid 1930s which led to the establishment of strong trade unions and political parties. Even at this time the mass of British West Indians were unable to vote, so the cause of federation after the disturbances became identified with the movement for universal adult suffrage, self-government for better and improved working conditions, therefore, gaining more mass support than it had before. Of great importance was that Barbados and Jamaica entered the mainstream of the federal movement since labour and political leaders like Grantley Adams and Norman Manley were federationists. Manley as head of the People's National Party (PNP) supported federation.

Federation was also seen as the means whereby the British colonies jointly could develop and implement plans to deal with their common, social and economic problems that were being experienced in education, health, communication and employment. West Indians saw federation as a means by which they would attain a greater degree of self-Government not possible on an individual basis. The British also seemed to have taken the view that federation would provide the best means by which West Indians could be prepared for independence within the British Commonwealth.

The formal agreement on federation was completed by the Manley Government and Jamaica became a founding member of the federation in 1958. Initially Bustamante attacked the federation as a "federation of paupers" and so when he was elected leader of the Democratic Labour Party of the West Indies in the Federal Parliament, he did everything to protect the Jamaican interest. He did not see a bright future for Jamaica as a member of the federation and so announced that he would withdraw Jamaica from the federation when next the JLP won power. Bustamante as well as others did not regard federation as a necessary step towards their achievement of self- Government or even independence. These were other issues such as freedom of movement within the federation and a customs union which remained unresolved to trouble future relations among the members of the federation. With these uncertainties Bustamante was not happy to take Jamaica into the federation.

Manley called a referendum to let the people decide on Jamaica's future regarding the federation, i.e. whether or not Jamaicans wanted to remain in federation. Jamaicans voted against federation when they voted on September 1, 1961. This allowed Jamaica to withdraw from federation and assume independence on its own.

"Federation is the best thing for these islands. However, I cannot decide that my countrymen should remain in the federation. They all will have to make that decision for themselves. I am, however, prepared to guide them into seeing that federation will be good for Jamaica."

You are free to think and say what you will. If we remain in the Federation our workers would have absolutely nothing to gain. Federation is against the interest of our workers. Jamaicans!

Vote "NO" to Federation!


"Busta" or "The Chief" as he was affectionately called, received numerous honours from many countries. A life-size statue of him is erected at South Parade, the place where he carried out much of his activities, his insignia appears on the Jamaican one dollar coin; his birthplace is a national shrine, and even a "sweet" bears his name. In addition, Newport West, East and adjoining port areas were renamed Bustamante Port in keeping with the National Heroe's long association with the labour movement. The children's hospital which Sir Alexander had converted from an old army hospital was named the Bustamante Hospital for Children.

Tn 1979 a 30 foot monument in honour of Sir Alexander was unveiled in the National Heroes Park. The May Pen bypass road is also named the Bustamante Highway in memory of "The Chief." On August 6, 1977 Bustamante died, exactly 15 years after Jamaica got its independence and his appointment as the country's first Prime Minister. The country continues to honour his memory and there are countless Jamaicans who continue to say "We will follow Busta till we dead."

Bustamante was a member of the Joint Parliamentary Committee led by Premier Norman Manley that drafted the independence constitution. He was also one of those who signed the independence agreement when it was concluded in London. In a general election on April 10, 1962, the JLP was returned to power with 26 of the 45 seats in the House of Representatives and Bustamante was appointed premier. When Jamaica became independent on August 6, 1962, he was named the new nation's first Prime Minister. Two years after taking office Bustamante became ill. Donald Sangster was appointed Acting Prime Minister. Bustamante never returned to active involvement in the affairs of state. He officially retired in 1967. After that time he was appointed a National Hero.