Sir Alexander Bustamante

About Sir Alexander Bustamante

Born William Alexander Clarke, in the parish of Westmoreland, Jamaica 1884, the son of an Irish planter Robert Constantine Clarke and a Jamaican mother, Mary Clarke, although he is to have stated that his mother was actually Taino.

Not much is known about his early life, he left Jamaica in 1905 and allegedly took the name ‘Bustamante’ from an Iberian sea captain who he befriended on his travels (although there are stories that he was adopted by the Spaniard). He spent time in Spain and was educated there, before joining the Spanish army. He went on to travel to Cuba and then New York, where he became moderately wealthy as a money lender following the stock market crash of 1929.

On his return to Jamaica in 1932 he set up a money lending business. He was aware of the poor working and economic conditions and poverty and spent his time over the following years to speaking out, writing letters, organising rallies and protests. He involved himself in a range of activities, speaking, mediating and organising, in support of the worker’s struggles, which sometimes took him to other Caribbean islands, including Trinidad, Barbados, among others. By 1937 he had become treasurer of the Jamaica Workers and Tradesmen Union.

He had become a charismatic and influential speaker and had gained much experience through his travels and activities. He organised and supported numerous strikes and drew large crowds when addressing union rallies. In May 1938 at Heroes Park, he famously told the 700 strong crowd, ‘Long live the king, but Denham must go!’. He argued that Britain was not aware of the poor working conditions, accusing the Governor of mis-representation and incorrect or false information.

That same year he founded the first trade union in Jamaica, the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU), in May 1938, and was hailed ‘Workers Champion’. Bustamante had become a strong political figure and began working with his cousin Norman Manley. He gave full support to the new political movement and the People’s National Party (PNP).

By this time Bustamante was a thorn in the side of the British governors and tensions ran high. When Bustamante called for another strike in February 1938 the governor, Sir Arthur Richards, declared a state of emergency. This time it was Manley who was the mediator, who sought assurance that if the strikes were stopped instantly there would be no action taken against Bustamante, if not he would be taken to prison.

Bustamante accepted deal, and calm was restored, however it was not long before he was calling for workers strikes. The labour riots that followed led him to be jailed. He was detained at Up Park Camp on September 8, 1940 until his release in February 1942, for alleged ‘violation of Defense of the Realm Act.’

Soon after his release he clashed with other PNP leaders and went on to successfully found the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) in 1943. The elections took place the following year in December 1944, the JLP won majority seats in the 32 member House of Representatives, elected by universal suffrage. In the 1949 general election was held (the second under universal suffrage) under Bustamante’s leadership, the JLP won again.

Bustamante becoame the unofficial government leader (as Minister for Communications) until the position of Chief Minister was created in 1953. He kept his position until the general elections of January 1955, when the JLP lost power to the PNP, making Bustamante the leader of the Opposition.

He was honoured by the Queen later that year, with the title Knight Bachelor and was officially addressed as ‘Sir’. Bustamante remained politically active and when Jamaica gained full independence on August 6, 1962 he was named the nation’s first Prime Minister.

Two years after taking office Bustamante health deteriorated, and Donald Sangster was appointed Acting Prime Minister. Sadly Bustamante never returned to active politics and officially retired in 1967.

Bustamante died on August 6, 1977 at the age of 93 and has since become one of Jamaica’s National heroes for his immense contributions to Jamaican politics and dedicating his life and campaigning for workers’ rights.