Rural Express - Blenheim, Busta's birthplace beckons
Paul H. Williams, Gleaner Writer
BLENHEIM, Hanover:NATIONAL HERO, William Alexander Bustamante (nee Clarke), was a colourful character in many ways. From his physical appearance, sartorial attire, and misuse of words, to his bravado, he was far from being boring. And his fiery political rhetoric? Riotous!
In 1935, he said, "It would seem to me that instead of the people of this island being blest with the right kind of people to represent them, we are being suffocated by most of them." (From Ken Jones' Bustamante) So, from whence came this fearless and flamboyant political giant?
From the hills of north Hanover, on an estate called Blenheim, he was born in 1884 in a small thatched-roof cottage. Up to that point, Blenheim Estate was still owned by a Scotsman named Reeve Lawson Johnson. It consisted of 961 acres and produced pimento, indigo, fustic, ornamental trees, and logwood. The story of how he came to be born on Blenheim Estate starts with his grandmother, Elsie Hunter, originally from Little London, Westmoreland.
In 1859, Alexander Shearer, an Irishman who was the bookkeeper at King's Valley Estate married Elsie Hunter, and moved into the Blenheim plantation house as overseer, shortly after. But Hunter was previously married to Robert Clarke, in 1850. That union produced one child, Robert Constantine Clarke, who moved into plantation house with his mother and stepfather. Hunter bore Shearer's four children. Shearer had eventually leased the property from Lawson in 1886 for his own use.
But before that, in 1877, Robert Constantine Clarke (Bobby), a cultivator, married Daisy McMahon, a Jamaican of white parentage from Cacoon in the same parish. She bore him four children, but died soon after. Bobby married a second time, in 1881, to Mary Wilson, a Jamaican of mixed descent from Dalmally district.
However, for whatever reasons, Bobby's mother was not pleased with his marriage to Wilson. To defuse the tension, he moved away with his wife to build his own thatched-roof cottage, not far from the plantation house. Their first four children, including William Alexander (Alec), were born in that cottage, where they lived until 1890, when Alec was six.
The Clarke family moved into the plantation house when the Shearers moved out to relocate in Belmont, St Catherine. Six more children were born in the plantation house, where they led a privileged life of sort. Alexander and two of his sisters, it was said, were driven in a coach to a Teacher Clarke's cottage in Dalmally where they were tutored privately.
Alexander went on to become the founder of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union in 1938, and the Jamaica Labour Party in 1943, Jamaica's first prime minister, and was bestowed with the honour of the Grand Cross of the British Empire. He was the only national hero to be so designated while still alive.
In 1984, Robert Constantine Clarke's original cottage, in which William Alexander was born, was burnt down. It was rebuilt, but the replacement itself was ravaged by fire in 2005. A replica of the original structure was again built by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust and was opened to the public on February 24, 2007 to mark the 123rd anniversary of Bustamante's birth. It is now a national monument.
The house and the grounds are well kept and it is an excellent place to visit to learn about the life and times of Bustamante, whose effigy, dressed in top hat, a three-piece suit, and white gloves, stands tall in the main hall. Some of his personal paraphernalia are on display in glass cases in another section. Affixed to the board walls are textboards narrating various aspects of Bustamante's life.
Apart from the replica of the original cottage, there is a buttery consisting of a fireplace, a pit latrine, a herb garden, and four concrete slabs with a print of Bustamante's shoe on them. Under the house, there is an encased burnt house post. At the top of an incline, there are stone ruins of the stone foundation of the plantation house. Placed strategically around the yard are textboards of some of Busta's favourite quotes.
The land around the property is lush and green and the weather is soothingly cool. It's a tranquil place in which one of the nation's most riotous and heroic sons was born. Blenheim beckons.