BOOK REVIEW - Sangster, the forgotten prime minister

Published: Sunday | September 2, 2012 Comments 0
From left: Gregory Neita, Hillary Coulton of CHASE Fund, Karen Neita and Ambassador Anthony Johnson at the Sangster biography launch.
From left: Gregory Neita, Hillary Coulton of CHASE Fund, Karen Neita and Ambassador Anthony Johnson at the Sangster biography launch.

In recent months, Jamaicans have been paying tribute to their nation, an essential ingredient of a national spirit which breeds pride. This is necessary to elicit the cooperation of the citizenry on which the elements of national cooperation and collaboration are built. Pride is one of the key factors in loyalty, perhaps the most important element in the strength of a nation.

Among the many events over the holidays was the launching of a book - Jamaica's Forgotten Prime Minister - DONALD SANGSTER by Hartley Neita. It is a work of loyalty by a civil servant to his boss, almost 40 years earlier. However, Hartley died in December 2008, leaving the unpublished manuscript. His daughter, Michelle, out of love and loyalty to her father, has completed the publication, which is now available for Jamaican citizens to read, enjoy and digest.

Sir Donald is fortunate to have selected young Neita to be his press secretary in 1965, a relatively new post created for ministers as they received greater responsibility from the British Colonial authorities as Jamaica worked its way to Independence. Neita, who had served as press officer to Premier Norman Manley before Independence, meticulously recorded the events of the day and has been able to present a book, rich in detail and full of interest for anyone wishing to understand the process of decolonization and how Jamaica evolved from colony to Independent state on August 6, 1962.

He presents Sangster as a rich young man, who inherited property in rural Jamaica, but spent most of his life in the public service, a family tradition. He became a parish councillor, and then chairman (mayor) at age 21, the youngest in the country's history. From then, until his death at age 56, a few weeks after being sworn in as prime minister, his life was totally devoted to public service, as parish councillor, member of the House of Representatives, minister of Government, deputy prime minis.ter and finally, succeeding Sir Alexander Bustamante, the founding PM, in 1967.

The book paints an interesting picture of rural life, of the closeness between the Sangsters and their workers, of Munro College and the bonds which bound the boys for life. He constantly visited the school and ensured that it continued as a powerful force in Jamaican public life. It was Sir Donald, as minister of finance, who raised the funds from the World Bank, for the building of the 60 junior secondary schools, which changed forever the system which had provided secondary education for only five per cent of the population.

The book is at its best, describing the Jamaican village, and the efforts of communities to develop cottage industries, markets for produce and schools for their children.

At the international level, the book outlines Sangster's challenges in the Commonwealth, where the traditional members, were from white countries - Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. As the West Indian islands and African colonies joined the 'club', there was a threat that it might not survive the tensions that surfaced. Sir Donald, as Jamaica's representative, was always able to convince the British to convince the old Commonwealth', that the colour bar was not acceptable, and that the time was ripe for independence for all colonies, after they had given the vote to the native people. For these efforts, he was named 'Mr. Commonwealth'.

Sangster is painted as a lonely figure, a workaholic, implicitly trusted by Bustamante. He had an eye for detail, and maintained warm relations with the various factions in the party. It also touches on other members of the first Jamaican Cabinet, suggesting that Messrs Lightbourne and Tavares were constantly fighting for advantage, but always losing to the meticulous Sangster.

When Sir Donald died, there were numerous rumours that he had been poisoned. This is not strange. Traditionally, whenever a young person dies, Jamaicans suspect foul play. It was one of the major tools of the enslaved people against their enemies, real or imagined. Detailed medical reports from the Montreal Neurological Hospital are presented to show that he had been suffering from high blood pressure and had not taken his tablets for some days, when he had the cerebral attack at the Newcastle Army Barracks. Treated by Jamaica's best specialists, he was flown by special aircraft to Montreal, where he had been receiving treatment for the condition for several years.

The book captures the national trauma that followed the regular release of medical reports, until the final news reported his death - the manoeuvring within the party's hierarchy to replace him, and the orderly, well-managed process which brought his body home, the cortege from Montego Bay to Kingston, by rail and road, and the interment in the National Heroes Park. Hartley himself knew the pain of sudden death, as his beautiful wife, Elma, died suddenly at age 31, only two years before.

Jamaicans can feel proud that an unexpected tragedy was handled properly, legally and with dignity. In death, Sir Donald received the warmth and love which he eschewed in life. The book ends with an appeal for a proper memorial to this son of St Elizabeth, a gentleman, lawyer, parish councillor, mayor, deputy leader of the Jamaica Labour Party, minister of finance, and finally, prime minister. All achieved in 56 years. It is ironic that Bustamante, who retired because of ill health at age 83, lived until 93, while his successor passed at 56.

Persons interested in how Jamaica handled the early challenges of Independence will find this book to be a useful tool. The book should also be read by anyone interested in the internal workings of the Jamaican political system and the interplay between the governor general, the prime minister, the leader of the House of Representatives and the executive of the political parties.

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