In 1938, demonstrations swept across the island. The worldwide depression had made the normally hard life of the Jamaican peasant often intolerable.
St William Grant, one of Marcus Garvey's followers, drew large crowds to his 'back-to-Africa' speeches in the downtown Kingston park now bearing his name. But hard times turned Grant's attention to more urgent issues of working conditions and unemployment.
Alexander Bustamante made his first public address at one of Grant's UNIA meetings. Christened Alexander Clarke, he had left Jamaica when he was about 20 in 1904, and travelled widely in the Americas and perhaps Spain and Morocco - only he knew for sure and his accounts varied. Somewhere along the line he adopted the name Bustamante.
When he returned to Jamaica in 1934, he was greatly disturbed by the poverty in Kingston, the ineffectiveness of the Legislative Council, and the lack of concern among employers.
In April 1935, Bustamante sent a letter to The Gleaner criticising its opposition to a planned demonstration. He argued that "Hungry men … have a right to call attention to their condition and to ask of people fulfilment of promises made to them, so long as they do so without using violence."
IMPRESSIVE RANGE OF KNOWLEDGE
Over the next 18 months, he wrote maybe 100 more letters on strikingly varied topics, which gained him a national reputation as a defender of the poor. He displayed an impressive range of knowledge, an ordered mind, and a lively wit. He proved to be the most effective letter writer in the country's history.
He travelled from Port Morant to Negril Point investigating the conditions of the land. In early 1938, he wrote to British parliamentarians and newspapers calling for a Royal Commission of Enquiry into the dreadful condition of the Jamaican masses. Sympathy for the poor and unemployed, criticisms of the rich and uncaring, no hesitation in attacking the colonial administration, a strong attachment to economic liberalism, with a corresponding marked antipathy for monopolies - these were the positions that emerged clearly in Bustamante's letters, and which he adhered to throughout his political life.
Of mixed blood, with a 'whiteish' father and 'dark-skinned' mother, considerations of race and colour placed the young Bustamante as a member of European Jamaica, as opposed to African Jamaica. Yet his 'poor white' rural upbringing meant he understood and identified emotionally with the peasant working class.
When St William Grant first invited Bustamante to speak on a UNIA platform, some actually objected to his colour. No Jamaican of his complexion had ever been seen at a street meeting making common cause with the poor. But once he showed himself willing to openly criticise the colonial authorities and even risk physical harm for the rights of the oppressed, an unbreakable bond was established between Bustamante and the workers.
When disturbances rocked the island in 1938, Bustamante swiftly became the champion of the Jamaican masses. The situation first came to a head in May on Frome sugar estate, where police opened fire on a crowd and killed four demonstrators.
The unrest spread to the capital. On the morning of May 23, 1938, Bustamante observed: "This is not a military revolution - it is merely a mental revolution." He and St William Grant led a march to Parade, where he addressed the huge throng. Lady Bustamante, then Gladys Longbridge, related what happened next:
" … A squad of policemen … marched on the crowd … . Inspector Orrett pulled his revolver and gave the command … 'Click your heels and aim!'… Baring his chest Bustamante confronted Orrett and declared, 'If you are going to shoot, shoot me, but leave these defenseless, hungry people alone.' The inspector was speechless. The policemen lowered their arms... Before Orrett could say another word, Busta called upon the people to sing God Save the King … (and) moved away with the large crowd following him. I then realised something new was happening in Jamaica; the poor had passed the stage where they could not be bullied and pressed into submission by guns and bayonets."
VICTORY AT THE POLLS
Bustamante swept to victory in Jamaica's first universal suffrage elections in 1944, and became the nation's first prime minister in 1962.
Gleaner columnist Morris Cargill later put it thus: "He might have been a communist agitator, concerned not with Jamaica, but with Russian imperialism. He might have been a Marxist bent upon the destruction of the only economic system … appropriate to our continued development. He might have been a Latin American type of fascist, bent upon setting up a personally profitable dictatorship. That he was none of these, and that he brought, or helped to bring, self-government and a new life to this country without at the same time disturbing unduly our historical or economic continuity is something that should stand to the lasting credit of Sir Alexander and the good sense of our people."
Kevin O'Brien Chang is author of Jamaica Fi Real: Beauty, Vibes and Culture, and managing director of Fontana Pharmacy. Kobchang365@gmail.com www.kevinobrienchang.com.