Wild-haired and brutishly handsome, Sir William Alexander Bustamante’s physical stature, charismatic appeal and legendary appetite for women earned him a fond notoriety in the ribald world of Jamaican politics. Born Alexander Clarke on February 24, 1884, into an impoverished family working on the Blenheim estate, Bustamante rose to political prominence through a mixture of insight, cunning and cynical manipulation of the illiterate populace who worshiped him as “Busta” or simply “Chief”.
The Union Years
Bustamante left Jamaica at 19 in search of better prospects, and his years away are veiled in mystery, though he’s said to have laboured and cut cane alongside other migrants. He returned nearly thirty years later with an assumed surname and enough wealth to become a small-time moneylender, a shrewd move that gave him clandestine influence before he entered the political arena. The Jamaica that Bustamante returned to was still languishing under Britain’s firm imperial grip. Working conditions for those lucky enough to have a job were abysmal, and the polarities between the ruling class of whites and mixed race “browns” and the black majority were as sharp as ever. Settling in Kingston, Bustamante began to win workers’ support through outspoken condemnation of inequality. By 1938 his “fire and brimstone” warnings of racial violence and black revolution (designed to scare the colonial authorities into action) were almost realized; fanned by Bustamante’s inflammatory rhetoric, a violent confrontation between police and workers broke out at the West Indies Sugar Company in Frome, Westmoreland, sparking a wave of strikes that brought the island to a near standstill. Eclipsing the tentative support for black nationalist labour leader St William Grant, Bustamante formed the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union – still the main union today – and became the leader of the labour movement among the rank and file.
The Jamaica Labour Party
In 1940, distressed at the volatility of his speeches, the government seized on Bustamante’s union involvement and imprisoned him as the ringleader of the 1938 unrest. On his release in 1942, he formed the Jamaica Labour Party and swept to victory in the island’s first election in 1944, trouncing his first cousin Norman Manley’s People’s National Party so decisively that Manley lost even in his own constituency. Though the PNP enjoyed a few years of power between 1955 and 1961, it was the JLP that ruled through independence in 1962, and Sir Bustamante (he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1954) who danced with Princess Margaret during the ensuing celebrations. He remained active in politics until 1967 and died a National Hero on August 6, 1977, at the age of 93.