Saluting our Leaders: Sir Alexander Bustamante Life and Legacy


The Washington Post described him as a “fiery orator, whose 6-foot 2 frame, imposing features, and crown of wavy white hair enhanced the power of his presence.”

He was also 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.”

Born February 24, 1884, from the union of Robert Constantine Clarke, an Irish planter, and his colored wife Mary, he was named William Alexander Clarke.   According to reports, he later changed his last name to Bustamante, which he took from a Spanish sailor.  He got his schooling at Cacoon and Dalmally Primary Schools and also did private studies.

Alexander Bustamante was 78 years old when he became the nation’s first prime minister and has been Jamaica’s oldest prime minister over these 60 years.

Sir Alex, or “Busta,” or “Chief,” as he was popularly known to Jamaicans, was a charismatic leader.  His work experience included store clerk, beekeeper, dairy farmer, junior estate overseer, tramcar inspector, Wall Street speculator, money lender, and trade unionist.

Busta entered the Jamaican political scene in the late 1930s and was an immediate champion for the cause of Jamaican waterfront and sugar factory workers, as well as the poor, against the British colonial masters.

In an interview, he is reported to have said: “When I led the workers against exploitation by employers, I indicated capital must learn to work fairly with labor [and workers] must give a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.”

He was a consistent contributor to Jamaica’s Daily Gleaner as well as British newspapers, seeking to expose the social and economic plight of the Jamaican people and workers.  Between 1935 and 1936, he was involved in an “anti-water meter protest” and offered himself as a mediator when workers at Serge Island Estates went on a strike in 1937.  In 1938 he founded the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU), which was previously known as The Jamaica Workers Union, for which he was treasurer.   Five years later, in 1943, he founded the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).  As the leader of the JLP, he won elections in 1944 and 1949.

Bustamante was not only concerned about Jamaican people and workers.  His passion led him to identify with workers’ causes in Trinidad and Barbados.  He even took steps to make Jamaica become part of the British West Indian Federation, which was seen as a means of getting better working conditions, self-government, and universal adult suffrage for Caribbean people.

But as the federation matured, Sir Alexander changed his support for the union.  He no longer saw the union of territories as a means to get independence.  He also had other issues with the group and wanted Jamaica out.  He forced the Premier of Jamaica, Norman Manley, to call a referendum, allowing the Jamaican people to decide.  On September 1, 1961, the Jamaican people voted to leave the federation, giving Bustamante a major political victory.

Buoyed by the referendum victory, Bustamante’s political relevance was restored. He campaigned aggressively for Manley to call elections, arguing that the referendum results had cost Manley and the People’s National Party, 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 election held in April 1962.  Sir Alexander Bustamante became the first prime minister of Jamaica as an independent nation.

In 1964, at 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. Although Bustamante was mostly confined to his residence at Irish Town because of failing sight, he however continued to be instrumental in the leadership of the JLP and several aspects of the government. After the JLP won the 1967 general election, he officially retired as prime minister.


Awards and Recognition

In 1955, Her Royal Highness, Queen Elizabeth II, conferred on Bustamante the title of Knight Bachelor.   He was a member of the Joint Parliamentary Committee led by Premier Norman Manley that drafted the independence Constitution. He was also a signatory to Jamaica’s independence agreement.  At South Parade in Kingston, a life-size statue was built in his honor.   His insignia appeared on the Jamaican one dollar note and coin, and his image will now appear on the $1000 note beside his cousin and political rival Norman Manley.   His birthplace in Blenheim Hanover is a national shrine.  One of Jamaica’s ports located in Kingston was renamed Port Bustamante.  The only children’s hospital in the English-speaking Caribbean, located on Arthur Wint Drive in Kingston, is named Bustamante Hospital for Children.

In 1969, Sir Alexander Bustamante was designated Jamaica’s only living National Hero. At National Heroes Park, a 30-foot monument honoring his contribution to Jamaica was unveiled in 1979.  The May Pen bypass is also named the Bustamante Highway in memory.  There is even a sweet named “Busta.”

Bustamante was married twice.  His first wife died in the 1930s, after which he married Gladys Longbridge in 1962.  He had no children. Sir Alexander, the co-father of the nation, died on Jamaica’s 15th anniversary of independence August 6, 1977, at age 93.










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