Life & Legacy: Jamaica’s Prime Ministers Over 58 Years

CNW Reporter

Jamaica House

Since Jamaica’s independence on August 6, 1962, this beautiful island nation has been led through the subsequent 58 years of glorious highs and devastating lows by nine individuals—eight men and one woman—who, as prime ministers have all made significant contributions to the development of the country.

Three of these prime ministers were reelected for subsequent terms. The tenure of one was very brief, and another served for a record four consecutive terms. Of the nine who were democratically elected to lead independent Jamaica, five are now deceased.

The Right Excellent Sir William Alexander Bustamante, G.B.E., LL.D (Hon.):
August 6, 1962 to February 27, 1967

At one minute after midnight on the early morning of August 6, 1962, Sir William Alexander Bustamante, GBE, LL.D (Hon.), Jamaica’s former premier elected in general elections on April 29 of that year, became independent Jamaica’s first prime minister.

Bustamante, the founder and president of the Jamaica Labor Party (JLP) along with his cousin, Norman Washington Manley, co-founder and president of the People’s National Party (PNP) were both instrumental in Jamaica gaining its peaceful political independence from the British and both are considered the Fathers of the Nation.

Born in Hanover, Jamaica on February 24, in 1884, Bustamante was 78 years old when he became the nation’s first prime minister, and has been Jamaica’s oldest prime minister over these 58 years.

Sir Alex, or “Busta,” or “Chief,” as he was popularly known to Jamaicans, was a charismatic leader, who was outstanding for his height, said to be 6 feet 5 inches, a shock of silver-gray hair, and black, bushy eyebrows. 

Busta entered the Jamaican political scene in the late 1930s and was an immediate champion for the cause of Jamaican waterfront and sugar workers and the poor masses, against the British colonial masters. In 1938 he founded the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU) and in 1943 founded the JLP.

He led the JLP to victories in 1944, 1949, and 1962. But, where the history of Jamaica’s emergence as an independent nation is concerned, his most remarkable political victory was achieved on September 19, 1961 when he led the JLP in winning the referendum against Jamaica remaining in the West Indies Federation, dealing a devastating blow to Norman Manley, who was the Premier of Jamaica and a leader in the West Indies Federation.

Buoyed by the referendum victory, which meant Jamaica leaving the Federation, Bustamante’s political relevance was restored, and he campaigned aggressively for Manley to call elections, arguing that the referendum results had cost Manley and the PNP their mandate. 

Against the advice of party insiders, Manley relented to Bustamante’s pressure, but was confident of victory. However, Manley misread the mood of voters, particularly voters in rural Jamaica, and Bustamante won the elections held in April 1962.

In 1955, Her Royal Highness, Queen Elizabeth II, conferred on Bustamante the title of Knight Bachelor.

In 1969, he was designated Jamaica’s only living National Hero.

In 1964, age 80, Sir Alex’s health waned, and he stepped away from the day-to-day role as prime minister, and appointed then minister of finance, Donald Sangster as acting prime minister. However, although Bustamante was mostly confined to his residence at Irish Town, as his sight failed, he continued to be instrumental in the leadership of the JLP, and several aspects of the administration of the government. He officially retired as prime minister after the JLP won the 1967 general elections.

According to the Jamaica Information Service (JIS) Sir Alex was “known for his terse and telling phrases that cut to the quick of things, and for remarkable stamina that made him work tirelessly all over the island… He tended to have a dictatorial style, marked nevertheless with sparkling magnanimity.”

He married Gladys Longbridge (Lady B) in 1962. Sir Alexander, the co-Father of the nation died on Jamaica’s 15th anniversary of independence on August 6, 1977, at age 93. 

The Most Honorable Sir Donald Burns Sangster, ON, KCVO:
February 22, 1967 to April 11, 1967

Sir Donald was born in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica on October 26, 1911. He has been considered by some Jamaicans as the “quiet gentleman” of Jamaican politics, and has often been referred to as more of a technocrat, a specialist financial administrator, than as a politician, although he was a deputy leader of the JLP from 1949 to 1967, and also represented the South St. Elizabeth constituency from 1949 to 1955, and North-East St. Elizabeth from 1955.

Sangster first served as minister of social welfare from 1950 to 1953, and minister of finance, 1953 to 55, and again held that portfolio when the JLP was reelected in 1962, and was also named deputy prime minister. In 1964 he acted as prime minister when Sir Alexander Bustamante was ill, and again in 1965 until the 1967 general elections when the JLP was reelected and he became Jamaica’s second prime minister on February 22. 

However, shortly after naming his Cabinet, Sir Donald was stricken with a neurological disorder, and was rushed to a hospital in Montreal, Canada. Unfortunately, he never recovered and died on April 11. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II on his deathbed.

His sudden death, and brief tenure as prime minister, after years of dedicated service as a minister and deputy prime minister, placed Jamaica into a period of deep mourning, because he was greatly admired, loved and respected as a leader of utmost integrity. Thousands of Jamaicans of all classes, filed pass his open casket at the Kingston Parish Church to pay their respects prior to his internment at the National Heroes Park as he laid in state for several days. 

The international airport in Montego Bay is named in his honor, and his image appears on the Jamaica one hundred dollar note.

The Most Honorable Hugh Lawson Shearer, ON, OJ:
April 11, 1967 to March 2, 1972

hugh shearer

Hugh Lawson Shearer, born in Martha Brae, Trelawny on May 18, 1923, was said to be a distant cousin of both Sir Alexander Bustamante and Norman Manley, who were also cousins.

Before entering representational politics in 1949, when he lost his bid for the West Kingston seat on behalf of the JLP, he was very active as a trade unionist on behalf of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU), where he was also editor of the union’s newspaper, “The Jamaica Worker.” In 1953 he was appointed island supervisor of the BITU, and in 1955 was elected as a member of parliament, although the JLP lost the general elections. He lost his seat in the 1959 elections, but in 1960 was elected vice-president of the BITU, second to Sir Alexander Bustamante.

In the 1967 general elections, he won the South Clarendon seat formerly held by Sir Alex, and was appointed minister of external affairs by Prime Minister Sir Donald Sangster, not knowing fate destined him to become prime minister within a few weeks. 

Some historians refer to Shearer as Jamaica’s “reluctant prime minister,” as when the JLP met to elect a successor to Sangster, it was generally considered the position would go to Clement Tavarez, then minister of housing, but, in what was a surprise to some, Shearer won the appointment, defeating Tavarez by one vote. It was speculated, though not confirmed, that the winning vote was made by Bustamante, who was in support of Shearer’s ascendancy. Shearer was sworn in as prime minister on April 11, 1967.  

He was appointed as a member of the Privy Council of England by Queen Elizabeth in 1969.

Under Shearer’s administration, the Jamaican currency was decimalized from the former British sterling (pound, shilling and pence) currency system to the implementation of the Jamaican dollar.

Shearer’s tenure as prime minister was regarded as Jamaica’s most prosperous since independence, with strong growth in the agriculture, mining and tourism sectors. He also presided over the development of the nation’s educational system in collaboration with the then minister of education, Edwin Allen. The Shearer government designed the New Deal Education Program to provide a sound education for every child in Jamaica.

His tenure was not without controversy. In the late 1960s, the Black Power Movement spread from the USA to Jamaica. One of the strongest proponents was Walter Rodney, a Guyanese lecturer at the Mona Campus of the University of the West Indies  (UWI) in Jamaica. 

Rodney, an historian, was also a liberal political activist and supporter of the Black Power Movement whose influence grew on students at UWI. On 15 October 1968, the  Shearer-led government declared Rodney persona non grata. The decision to ban him from ever returning to Jamaica and his subsequent dismissal by the University of the West Indies, Mona caused strong protests, including marches, by students. The protests were fueled when Shearer, who later admitted to misreading the purpose of the movement in Jamaica, banned books relating to Black Power. The protests  escalated into a riot, known as the Rodney Riots, which began on October 16, 1968, resulting in six deaths and causing millions of dollars in damage.   

It is believed that the Rodney issue caused massive dissatisfaction among the Jamaican youth towards the Shearer administration. In addition, his cousin Michael Manley had entered the political fray as the leader of the opposing PNP, and toured the length and breadth of the island criticizing the government for not appropriately distributing the nation’s wealth.

Despite Jamaica’s prosperity, the JLP lost the general elections in 1972 to the PNP, and Shearer became leader of the opposition. He returned as a member of the nation’s government in 1980, when the JLP won the general elections, but having been replaced by Edward Seaga as the leader of the JLP, served as deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs. In 1989, the JLP again lost the general elections, but Shearer served as MP for Southern Clarendon until he lost that seat in the 1993 general elections; after which he retired from active public life. He died in 2004, at the age of 81. He was survived by his wife Dr. Denise Eldemire Shearer, several sons and daughters. 

The Most Honorable Michael Norman Manley, ON, OM, OCC: 
Elected to serve in March 1972 to November 1980, and AGAIN from February 1989 to March 1992.

Michael Manley, affectionately called Michael or “Joshua,” is regarded by some as by far Jamaica’s most charismatic, eloquent, flamboyant, and controversial leader. He led the PNP to victory in 1972, promising “Better Must Come” on a crest of political popularity, rarely seen in Jamaica’s 58 years. However, within a relatively short period, the nation’s populist leader, became one of the nation’s most controversial leaders because of his political philosophy which sought to alleviate the pressures on the poor masses through his aggressive advocacy of Democratic Socialism.

Michael, the second son of Norman Manley, born December 10, 1924, was also an avid trade unionist, and the leader of the National Workers Union, the foil to the BITU. Like Shearer, he used his involvement in trade unionism as a stepping stone to representational politics.  He was appointed as a PNP Senator in 1962, and elected to the House of Representative in 1967. When Norman Manley retired as leader of the PNP in 1968, the younger Manley defeated his rival Vivian Blake to become that party’s leader. He became leader of the opposition, positioned himself as the defender of the poor and the purveyor of social change. He resolutely led the PNP to an overwhelming victory over Hugh Shearer and the JLP to become prime minister in 1972.

As prime minister, Manley introduced and implemented a wide variety of social and economic reforms and programs, and enhanced the nation’s identity in the international arena. Among his accomplishments as prime minister was lowering the minimum voting age to 18, the introduction of paid maternity leave, outlawing the stigma of illegitimate births, introduction of a national literacy program, working participation in Jamaican public companies, a national youth service program, and the offering of offering free education at all levels.

However, as he lost the support of some of the nation’s wealthier class and skilled Jamaicans with an increasing number migrating to North America, the economy faltered and weakened. Gradually, Manley lost the support of the U.S. government, and, forced to turn to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for financial support, his social transformative agenda suffered. Although the PNP and Manley were reelected in 1976, as the economy worsened and political violence flared, Manley’s political influence suffered, the party was soundly defeated by the JLP, led by Edward Seaga in 1980.

After nine years as leader of the opposition, the PNP, led by a philosophically reformed Manley, was reelected to office in February 1989. However, Manley who had been ailing while in opposition, succumbed to worsening health and was a shadow of the prime minister he was in the 70s. His recurring health issues led to him retiring while in office in 1992, and in the subsequent PNP internal elections to elect his successor, Percival James Patterson was victorious.

Manley was also a gifted writer. While serving as prime minister he wrote, Politics of Change (1973) and Search for Solutions (1977). In opposition he wrote, JAMAICA: Struggle in the Periphery (1982), Up the Down Escalator (1987), and A History of West Indies Cricket (1988).

In retirement his health steadily deteriorated and he died on March 6, 1997 at age 72. 

The Most Honorable Edward Phillip George Seaga, ON, P.C., LL.D.: 
November 4, 1980 to February 13, 1989

Seaga was the ultimate technocrat, who as prime minister from 1980 to 1989 depicted a serious no-nonsense approach in attempting to bring specific reforms to the structure and functions of the nation’s governmental administration.

Ironically, Seaga was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1930, but was brought to Jamaica by his Jamaican parents when he was an infant. 

After graduating from Harvard University in 1952, Seaga, keenly interested in the cultural dynamics among Jamaica’s poor, spent several years with the people of West Kingston and learned firsthand the social and cultural needs of the poor. Entering politics, he joined the JLP and in 1959, Sir Alexander Bustamante appointed him to the nation’s Legislative Council (later to be named the Senate), and in 1962 he was elected to the House of Representative as the MP for West Kingston—a seat he held for 43 consecutive years.

In 1962, Seaga was appointed minister of development and welfare, and in 1967, minister of finance and planning. As a proponent for cultural development in Jamaica, he introduced the Jamaica Festival to celebrate the nation’s annual independence celebrations.

 In 1974, after Hugh Shearer relinquished leadership of the JLP, Seaga was elected leader of the JLP, which he led for 30 years. He served as leader of the opposition until 1980, when he led the JLP to defeat Michael Manley and the PNP.

As prime minister, he focused on restoring the damaged Jamaica economy, and introduced financial institutions like the National Development Bank, the Export-Import Bank, and led Comprehensive Tax Reforms including a flat income tax rate for all taxpayers. His administration also introduced the (Human Employment & Resource Training (HEART) program that has offered training to young Jamaicans for a variety of jobs, and was instrumental in promoting Jamaican culture, especially its music, internationally.

Seaga led the JLP to a second victory in 1983, in general elections boycotted by the PNP, shortly after the Seaga-led government joined the U.S. and other forces in quelling political upheaval in Grenada.

JIS described Seaga as “a serious and sharp thinker, witty and gifted in producing the apt, cutting phrase. Despite a dour look most times, he has a great sense of humor and is known widely for his exceptional deeds of kindness and rendering of practical assistance to the poor and needy.”

But, Seaga was also known as a prime minister who relentlessly micro-managed his ministers, and one who lost touch with the Jamaican people as he became confined to the task of being intrinsically involved with the functions of every ministerial portfolio in his cabinet.

In 1989, the JLP was defeated by the PNP in general elections, and Seaga served as leader of the opposition, but failed to lead the party to other victories and return to the position of prime minister. He retired from politics in 2004, and died in Miami where he had traveled for medical treatment on his 89th birthday, May 28, 2019. 

The Most Honorable Percival Noel James Patterson, ON, OCC, PC, QC:
March 30, 1992 to March 30, 2006

“P.J.,” as he is affectionately known to most Jamaicans, was born on April 10, 1935 in Kingston.

A prominent attorney, he became a legend in Jamaican politics when he was the key strategist, and campaign manager behind the PNP’s resounding victory in 1972, and would retain that reputation as one of Jamaica’s best political strategists for several years.

He joined the PNP in 1958, and after the 1972 elections, was appointed as minister of industry, trade and tourism. He rose to deputy prime minister and minister of development, planning and production in 1978, and was reappointed deputy prime minister and minister of finance, planning and production in 1989.

When Michael Manley retired in 1992 because of failing health, P.J. staved off competition from Portia Simpson Miller to be elected by the PNP as its leader and was appointed Jamaica’s sixth prime minister since independence. This was to be the first of four consecutive terms he served as prime minister—having established a record as Jamaica’s longest-serving prime minister, leading the PNP to general election victories in 1993, 1997 and 2002. In March 2006, he retired from politics to be succeeded by Portia Simpson Miller.

As prime minister, he sought to secure a place for Jamaica in the new global economic order of economic liberalization and deregulation. With steady hands, and earning the respect of national and international investors, he modernized Jamaica’s financial sector, and the nation realized significant investment in tourism, road infrastructure, mining and information technology, and energy. One of his legacies was to end the nation’s 18-year borrowing relationship with the IMF, giving his government more latitude in the implementation of its economic policies.

P.J. was widely respected at the national, regional and international levels as a negotiator who consistently sought to settle differences and minimize confrontation. He proved to be a very keen listener and thinker, who made unapologetic statements.

The Most Honorable Portia Simpson Miller, O.N., M.P.:
First served from March 31, 2006 to September 10, 2007 and AGAIN from January 6, 2012 to February 2016

No debate cost PNP the win, says report
Former Jamaica PM Portia Simpson Miller

Portia Lucretia Simpson, “Sista P,” “Mama P,” or just “Portia,” was born in the rural district of Wood Hall, St. Catherine on December 12, 1945.

Mama P was determined since she was a teenager to be a politician that worked to help the Jamaican people, especially the poorer classes, and displayed a keen interest in the provision of social services in inner city communities.

In 1974 she made her entrance in Jamaican politics when she was elected as a PNP councilor, representing Trench Town, on the Kingston and St. Andrew Corporation (KSAC), and in 1976 she was elected to the Jamaican parliament as the MP for South Western St. Andrew, a seat she had never lost since.

Between 1977 and 1980, she served as a parliamentary secretary in the Ministry of Local Government and, later, in the Office of the Prime Minister, and in 1989 was appointed minister of labor, welfare and sports; minister of labor and welfare (1993–1995), labor, social security and sport (1995–2000), tourism and sport (2000–2002), and local government, community development and sport (2002–2006). 

In 1992 when Michael Manley retired as PNP leader, she challenged P.J. Patterson for the party leadership but lost. When Patterson announced his retirement in 2006, she made a strong bid to be elected party leader, and was successful, and was named Jamaica’s first female, and seventh prime minister on March 31, 2006. 

Although she was received with phenomenal popularity as prime minister and attempted to implement reforms to roll back the scourge of poverty, divisions in the PNP, following the bruising presidential elections to succeed Patterson, the resistance of some the urban middle class to accept her as the nation’s leader, and the untimely arrival of Hurricane Dean in August 2007, the PNP led by Simpson-Miller narrowly lost the 2007 general elections to the JLP, led by Bruce Golding.

Assuming her new role of leader of the opposition, Simpson Miller, set about strengthening her position as the PNP leader, which included succeeding in overcoming another challenge to her leadership. She would then travel the country recognizing and understanding the social and economic plight of the majority. Her quest for the rural and urban poor, and the masses held for her led some Jamaicans to refer to her as the “female Bustamante.”

After Golding resigned as prime minister in October 2011, his successor, Andrew Holness, called for early elections on December 29, and Simpson Miller led the PNP to a convincing victory over the JLP. On January 5, she was sworn in again as prime minister, leading the nation into its 50th anniversary of independence.

In April 2012, she was named by the renowned Time magazine as one the world’s most influential individuals.

During her second tenure, she led Jamaica through challenging economic constraints, and succeeded in restoring the nation’s economy to a favorable standing, and earning the commendation of multilateral financial institutions like the IMF. During her second tenure, her popularity with poor and rural Jamaicans grew, and the government formed by the PNP was considered too firmly entrenched. The PNP was considered certain to win the ensuing general elections she called for on February 29, 2016. But in one of the most stunning electoral defeats in Jamaica’s history, the PNP lost the elections by the slimmest margin of just one seat to the Andrew Holness-led JLP.

Disappointingly, relegated to leader of the opposition, Simpson Miller’s political end was in sight, especially as she was blamed for leading the party through a weak election campaign during which the opposing JLP was not taken seriously. Not surprisingly, she retired as leader of the PNP and leader of the opposition on April 2, 2017.

The Most Honorable Orette Bruce Golding: 
September 11, 2007 to October 23, 2011

Bruce Golding

Bruce Golding was born on December 5, 1947, the son of a Jamaican politician and JLP member of the Jamaican parliament, Tacius Golding. After graduating from the University of the West Indies in 1969, he was elected to the Central Executive of the Jamaica Labor Party, and three years later, in 1972, was elected to parliament at the age of 21. He was subsequently elected to Parliament in 1972 at the age of 24, and held leadership positions in the JLP: general secretary (1974-1984) and chairman (1984-1995). 

Golding was appointed minister of construction in 1980, and was the opposition spokesman on finance and chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, from 1989-1995.

In 1995, Golding resigned from the Jamaica Labor Party and co-founded the National Democratic Movement (NDM), serving as its president from 1995 to 2001. In 2002, he rejoined the JLP, and in November 2003 was reelected party chairman, and appointed as senator and opposition spokesman on foreign affairs and foreign trade.

On February 20, 2005, subsequent to the resignation of JLP leader Edward Seaga, Golding was elected leader of the Jamaica Labor Party, and reelected to Parliament as MP for West Kingston. After conducting a well-organized campaign in 2007, he led the JLP to victory in September 2007 over the PNP led by Portia Simpson Miller, and was sworn in as Jamaica’s eighth prime minister on September 11, 2007.

He approached his role as prime minister with an overt serious approach, and great dedication, setting out to reform the nation’s economic system, and spread services to include the general Jamaican population, and also gained respect for himself and Jamaica in the regional and larger international community.

However, his promise and zest to lead Jamaica to prosperity was ruined by the huge national controversy related to the extradition of a Jamaican crime lord, Christopher “Dudus” Coke, that erupted in 2009. As the controversy surrounding Coke deteriorated, it damaged all the political capital that Golding gained when he was appointed prime minister. Eventually, with new general elections on the horizon, he took the decision to resign as leader of the JLP and prime minister in October 2011, having served for four years. 

The Most Honorable Andrew Michael Holness, ON, M.P.:
First served from October 23, 2011 – December 28, 2011, and March 3, 2016 to present

Jamaica employment crime

Andrew Holness took office as Jamaica’s ninth prime minister on October 23, 2011, following his endorsement as leader of the JLP. He succeeded Bruce Golding. Holness is distinguished for being Jamaica’s youngest prime minister and the only one born after the nation gained independence in 1962.

Holness was born on July 22, 1972, in Spanish Town, St. Catherine. After graduating from the UWI, he served as executive director in the Voluntary Organization for the Upliftment of Children (VOUCH) from 1994 to 1996, and later joined the Premium Group of Companies, as special assistant to former Prime Minister Edward Seaga.

In 1997 he was elected MP for West Central St. Andrew. From 1999 to 2002 he served as opposition spokesperson on land and development from, housing from 2002 to 2005, and education from 2005 to 2007. Upon the JLP’s victory in 2007, he was appointed as minister of education in September 2007.

Upon Bruce Golding’s resignation in October 2011, JLP leaders coalesced around Holness, and with a show of consensus, selected him as the party’s new leader. He was sworn in as the nation’s new prime minister on October 23, 2011.

Shortly after assuming the position of prime minister, in an effort to obtain his own mandate from Jamaican voters, Holness called general elections for December 29, 2011. The JLP was defeated in those elections, swiftly ending Holness’ tenure as prime minister. 

According to the JIS, Holness described himself as a libertarian on the social side and a fiscal conservative on the economic side, and one committed to promoting and protecting human rights. He believes the political arena should “give room to all people to participate provided that they meet certain standards.” As an economic conservative, he has committed to prudence in government spending, fiscal discipline and debt management. On the social side, he believes education must be one of the most critical ingredients of national development.

Threatened to be left in a political wilderness, Holness found salvation in his bold 2016 political platform to liberate Jamaicans at the lower income levels from paying income tax. Although the governing PNP criticized the policy as infeasible, the majority of voters obviously believed in it, and narrowly reelected Holness and the JLP to office in 2016.

Holness immediately led his new administration to build on the positive financial foundation left by the outgoing PNP administration leading the Jamaican economy to be described as one of the strongest in the Caribbean region, and the Jamaican stock market one of the best in the world. During his second tenure as prime minister he has successfully marketed Jamaica to foreign investors, especially in the tourism sector. 

However, poised to achieve strong economic growth in 2020, Jamaica and the Jamaican economy have been severely affected by the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. Forced to lock down the country to restrict the spread of the pandemic, the economy has suffered significant loss of revenue, particularly in two of the strongest revenue earning streams, tourism and financial remittances from the diaspora.

On the other hand, Holness and his administration have received international commendation for the sound implementation and management of measures that succeeded in significantly restricting the coronavirus spread in Jamaica.

With Jamaica’s elections constitutionally due by February 2021 and Holness’ handling of the coronavirus top of mind, Holness and the JLP might be on solid footing for another victory as they face off with PNP and its leader, Peter Philips. Speculations are growing that the elections might be called at an earlier date. 

And so the prime ministers of Jamaica will continue to leave their marks, working with their individual ideologies to keep ushering Jamaica into prosperity and finding its place in the world.


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