Tribute to a true lady
Published: Wednesday | August 12, 2009
The fashionable Lady Bustamante is escorted to an official function. - file
It is a sad reflection on our society that so many people still ask, or wonder, about the history of Lady Bustamante, even until this day, and even though she became a lady of great fame, one of the most outstanding women in Jamaica, indeed a matriarch of the nation.
This is a failing in our society where in rural communities everyone knows everyone but, outside of that environment, it is possible to live a lifetime without knowing your neighbour's given name.
After 50 years of knowing Lady Bustamante, beginning with the early days when she was Gladys Longbridge, I hope we will celebrate her early life, particularly since her journey was a fulfilment of the Jamaican dream of rural people - to work and aspire to succeed.
She was a product of a deep rural location, a small village in Westmoreland called Parson Reid, which was served by a single rocky, pothole-ridden road.
She lived with grandparents, hard-working, God-fearing people who farmed the land, insisted on attendance at school and worship on Sundays. They demanded good manners and good behaviour from their progeny. School was a continuation of the process of their character moulding, backed by educational training and discipline.
In this upbringing, young Gladys Longbridge acquired skills, passing the 2nd Jamaica Local Exam, the school-leaving test for government schools at that time, enough to enable her to be a teacher trainee. She also learned to play the organ, fulfilling her passion for music. Her skill was welcomed by the little Moravian church in her district of Ashton, where she played on Sundays.
With these two skills - a sound education and unmistakable musical talent - and with the fortitude of an upright upbringing, Gladys Longbridge went on to Tutorial College in St Andrew to acquire secretarial training, a field in which she excelled.
But despite being trained to take her place in the world of work, on graduating from Tutorial, disappointment awaited. Work was hard to find, particularly for a young woman with her complexion and background. Newspaper ads in The Gleaner at that time specified 'white' girls for the administrative jobs for which she was trained, or there was an unwritten rule of the Establishment that these jobs were reserved.
After a frustrating stint in Montego Bay, she returned to Kingston to try her luck again. This time, fortune was with her. She obtained a job at the Arlington House Hotel and Restaurant as a cashier, typist and clerk. This was more in keeping with her training. But, more important, Arlington House, being on East Queen Street and located at the intersection with Duke Street, was an informal meeting place for political figures who gathered to eat and drink and discuss political matters.
Here, she overheard the arguments of men who were to become leaders of a new Jamaica.
Alexander Bustamante would stand out among them in stature and personality.
Gladys Longbridge overheard the comments about colonial repression, but more so about the oppression of workers whose cause was loudly championed by Bustamante.
The plight of dock workers at Sav-la-Mar was already fixed in her mind as she had observed the conditions of work there. This gave her a ready understanding of the problems in Kingston which were challenged by Bustamante.
Fate again turned her way when she answered a call for a job with no other than Alexander Bustamante at his office on Duke Street. This opportunity allowed her to use her stenographic and typing skills at last, because Bustamante was a furious letter writer to the press on a range of conditions which affected the poor.
But, more so, it opened the door to a greater opportunity to work with a man who was distinctly different from all others, a man who was destined to lead the nation.
The years ahead in the career of young Ms Longbridge were destined to leap over the decade of frolic that young women usually enjoyed in their 20s before reaching their 30th birthday.
By the time she reached that milestone, she was already shouldering the responsibilities of women twice her age. She had already travelled with Bustamante to every trouble spot in the island, where the uprising of the people was beginning that epic mission of sweeping away the inhumane conditions of life for the working class.
She had wit-nessed police bru-tality. She saw Busta-mante bare his chest at Parade, as he told the police, "Shoot me and leave the people," an epic display from which poor people found a true defender.
Gladys Longbridge witnessed the arrest of Bustamante as he was taken to jail by the police and, later, was there for him when he was detained for 17 months.
All these historic events were experienced by a young woman in her 20s, who found herself shouldering the immense responsibilities of being confidante to Bustamante, the most powerful, fearless and dynamic man in the country, and to be caretaker of his interests in protecting the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union from a hostile takeover while he was in detention.
It was an extraordinary accomplish-ment to have risen so quickly to "the heights of great men reached and kept", as the poet Henry Longfellow wrote, while yet in her early years.
By 1943 the formation of the Jamaica Labour Party was the next giant step forward. Again, Ms Longbridge had to extend her responsibilities to be at Bustamante's side, while he expanded the scope of his mission to national leadership through a sweeping electoral victory in the first general election of 1944.
During this period, Gladys Longbridge was fully recognised as an institution in the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union and the Jamaica Labour Party.
As the evolution of these twin institutions advanced with time, and Bustamante with age, Ms Longbridge became his encyclopaedia of names and dates. He was fond of saying from a platform, "Whatever I am I owe it to this young lady," to the roar of approval of the crowd.
No woman in the political history of Jamaica had ever matured in responsibility so quickly, grown in stature so powerfully and assumed the role of adviser and trustee to so powerful a leader, while remaining loved by the multitude and humble to all. She was truly a mother to the nation.
When shewed Sir Alexander Bustamante, Jamaica's first prime minister, in September 1962, to become Lady Bustamante, nothing changed.
I became accustomed to visiting Tucker Avenue on a Saturday morning to see Lady B, as she came to be known after marriage, packing a big basket of groceries. There was no need to ask the purpose. it was for some grief-stricken woman they had read or heard about who had lost a child, or a home, or who had suffered some accident or personal affliction. It was always a case of grief and it was usually a woman.
Most times Sir Alexander and herself would deliver the unsolicited gift along with some money. The joy they received in helping the poor was the only thanks they wanted for their benefaction.
Such was the goodness of heart of a woman who deeply cared for how the poor survived.
The toll of the struggle of some 30 years left Sir Alexander Bustamante with a partly paralytic stroke and substantial loss of vision in 1964.
But the work of Lady Bustamante did not end when the vigorous life of her husband faded. She became his eyes to give him sight and his voice to give him speech, fulfilling at last the role of the perfect substitute, the alter ego for a man to whom she was completely loyal and devoutly faithful throughout her life.
Edward Seaga is a former prime minister of Jamaica and ex-leader of the Jamaica Labour Party, with which Lady Bustamante was affiliated.
7. Ann-Marie, St Ann, needs church clothing for her nine-year-old daughter who is very tall.
8. Pauline, St Andrew, a determined woman who is battling cancer, is appealing to neighbours for financial assistance towards a bone-marrow transplant.
9. Ricardo, St Andrew, unemployed father, has now turned to farming. He's asking neighbours for seeds, insecticide and a water tank to assist with his livelihood.
10. Ms Butler, St Catherine, a trained seamstress, needs a straight-stitch machine or a sewing machine to assist in generating an income. She was ill and unable to work.
11. Ms Watkins, mother of five, experiencing difficulties in sending her children to school. Asking for assistance in rearing chickens so she may generate an income to better support herself and family.