Lady Bustamante and the distortion of history

Published: Sunday | August 2, 2009

Kevin O'Brien Chang, Contributor

History may be written by victors, but it's also written by writers. Which means that its intelligentsia may well have an even greater impact on a nation's accepted past than its generals or politicians. As the old joke goes, historians are able to do what is impossible even for God - namely, change the past.

History is largely a product of university denizens, who tend towards the left side of the political spectrum. Perhaps this is because leftist political dogmas like socialism and Marxism are themselves largely the products of academics and very amenable to theoretical dissection. This possibly explains why Stalin, for instance, still gets relatively good press compared to Hitler, even though they had equally blood-stained records. Or why so many who praise Castro revile Pinochet, despite both being iron-fisted military dictators who brooked no dissent.

A similar prejudice is very much obvious in written Jamaican history. From the very beginning the People's National Party (PNP) was regarded as the party of the intellectuals, in contrast to the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), which was seen as the party of workers and businessmen. So, it's hardly surprising that our academics have written much more glowingly about the PNP than the JLP.

This bias is especially glaring with respect to the two founding fathers of independent Jamaica, Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante. Both were in their own distinctive way truly great men. But, while our intelligentsia rightly showers Manley with praise, many of them paint a picture of Bustamante completely at odds with the historical record. Even worse, many of their deliberate mistruths have almost become accepted truth.

Take for instance the oft repeated jeers that Bustamante was illiterate. You still hear the old joke of Busta calling his assistant on the phone to bring him his gun - 'G as in Jesus, U as in Europe, N as in knowledge!' Though a funny joke, it's nothing less than historical propaganda.

Defender of the poor

For Bustamante first came to prominence through his letters to The Gleaner. Between April 1935 and the end of 1937, he wrote maybe 100 more letters on strikingly varied topics, which gained him a national reputation as a defender of the poor. His language was forthright and rich in biblical imagery, and he displayed an impressive range of knowledge, an ordered mind, a lively wit, and a courtly regard for adversaries. He was indisputably the most effective letter writer in Jamaica's history. Some nonsensically claim that "his secretary or someone else did it for him". But he started writing them well before meeting his secretary and future wife, Gladys Longbridge, and certainly no one at the time expressed any belief that these letters were not entirely authored by Bustamante.

One of the ridiculous stupidities of Jamaican politics is that both the PNP and JLP find it difficult to say anything good about the other side. One can understand current antagonisms making recent history a touchy thing. Yet, if American Democrats can praise the Republican Lincoln, and Republicans can laud the Democrat Franklin Roosevelt, why can't Labourites and Comrades equally praise the wonderful legacy of Busta and Norman?

Respect and recognition

As Ken Jones wrote in the July 26 Sunday Gleaner, "Bustamante and Manley have recorded their triumphs and their human errors. It is undeniable that both of them sincerely loved this country, worked hard for its development and deserve due respect and recognition. This business of twisting their work to make a trap for fools, crowning one and downing the other, is partly responsible for driving our people into separate and hostile camps. Truth, justice and the welfare of the nation demand that we put a brake on this divisive practice."

Now though they had a common grandmother, Alexander Bustamante and Norman Manley had very different life experiences and personalities. But both married remarkable women. Manley's wife, Edna, was the first Musgrave gold medal winner, the country's most important sculptor, and a pioneering leader of Jamaica's indigenous artistic movement. Her story has been told in many books, especially those of her award-winning granddaughter Rachel.

(Incidentally, Norman and Edna were first cousins, and both were also second cousins to Bustamante. Elsie Hunter, during her first marriage to Robert Clarke, gave birth to Bobby Clarke, Bustamante's father. In her second marriage to Alexander Shearer, she gave birth to Margaret Shearer, Norman's mother, and Ellie Shearer, Edna's mother.)

Bustamante's wife was just as extraordinary in her own way. Though 28 years younger, she was Busta's lifelong confidante, right hand and memory bank. He talked over all important matters with her, and readily took on-board her advice. In discussions he would turn to her incessantly about particulars, and such was her memory that she would recall instantly what had taken place three or four years previously. (Bustamante and Modern Jamaica. George Eaton: Page 250)

She was also from its inception the treasurer and principal day-to-day caretaker of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union, then by far the largest single organisation in Jamaica. Probably no other woman has such a direct and indirect impact on modern Jamaican politics.

As she put it, "We women were the mainstay of the Union's organisation, though we could hardly have functioned without the brave men who toiled day and night ... Bustamante was the busiest of us all ... I was by his side, taking note of important details, seeing to his personal welfare and offering advice based upon my own experience, close contact with the people, and, of course, a woman's intuition."

Eyewitness account

Lady Bustamante's Memoirs are a fascinating eyewitness account of Jamaican history from 1935 onwards. Take for instance her gripping description of Bustamante famously baring his chest to bayonets.

Now in preparing dock workers for the fray in a fiery speech on the morning of May 23, 1938, Bustamante had prophetically observed: "This is not a military revolution - it is merely a mental revolution." When a police baton charge scattered the crowd, Bustamante and St William Grant led a march to Parade, where Bustamante climbed up on Queen Victoria's statue and addressed the huge throng. Lady Bustamante, then Gladys Longbridge, relates what happened next:

"As he descended from the statue, a squad of policemen ... marched on the crowd ... Inspector Orrett pulled his revolver and gave the command ... "Click your heels and aim!" Then he ordered the people to disperse. Baring his chest Bustamante confronted Orrett and declared, "If you are going to shoot, shoot me, but leave these defenceless, hungry people alone." The inspector was speechless. The policemen lowered their arms and I stood there almost frozen to the spot, wondering if the end had come ... I wanted to move away, but the crowd stood firm with the discipline Bustamante had so often preached. Before Orrett could say another word, Busta called upon the people to sing the national anthem and as God Save the King rang out from the mass of discordant voices, the police were forced to stand at attention and could advance no farther. Bustamante then moved away with the large crowd following him.

Organised resistance

"At that moment I realised that something new was happening in Jamaica; that the poor had passed the stage where they could not be bullied and pressed into submission by guns and bayonets ... Years later, The Gleaner, in reviewing the events of 1938, commented that Bustamante had inflamed the crowds with violent speeches. But it was not violence that Bustamante was preaching. Rather it was the replacement of disorganised resentment with organised resistance".

The incident is of course commemorated by Bustamante's statue at the St William Grant Park, a replacement for the one of Queen Victoria on which he had climbed. And his courage is still celebrated in folk memory by the hard coconut sweet named after him, because 'it tough like Busta backbone'.

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