Sat | Mar 25, 2023

'Busta set Ja back' - new book, old myths

Published:Sunday | May 25, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Martin Henry
The two famous cousins and national heroes, Sir Alexander Bustamante (right) and Norman Manley, greet each other at the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation's building in Kingston.-FILE

Martin Henry

Timed to coincide with the commemoration of the 130th anniversary of the birth of National Hero Sir Alexander Bustamante, emigrant journalist Ewart Walters had his upcoming book We come from Jamaica - The National Movement, 1937-1962, 2014, previewed as the lead story of the Sunday Observer on March 2.

According to the newspaper's own headline, Walters is arguing in his book that Busta set Jamaica back and should be blamed for political violence and dividing the national unity movement by leaving the Norman Manley-led People's National Party to found the Jamaica Labour Party.

The rush of events since then, including my 'defence' of two ministers of the present PNP Government, has delayed my taking up this matter for further examination. Labour Day this year has quite literally crept by quietly on tiptoe. Gone are the glory days when following the Michael Manley initiative of 1972 to put development work into Labour Day, an energised citizenry committed to 'better must come' poured their hearts into Labour Day and continued to do so for at least the next couple of decades.

Labour Day flashback

The Gleaner, in its Pieces of the Past in celebration of its own 180th anniversary, last Thursday did a very useful flashback on Labour Day. In 1961, a year before Independence, Empire Day was replaced by Labour Day. Empire Day was May 24. The legislature adopted May 23 as Labour Day to coincide with the date of the start of the labour upheavals of 1938 for which Alexander Bustamante had emerged as the principal leader. That emerging stands in need of careful and honest historical detailing.

True to the initial use of Labour Day as an occasion for organised labour to celebrate and to flex muscles, The Daily Gleaner reported the day following the first official Labour Day, 'Marches mark first National Labour Day'.

Two years later, The Daily Gleaner thought Labour Day worthy of a page-one editorial. "Empire Day has become Labour Day", the paper intoned on its front page. "This fact expresses, neatly enough, the great change which began in 1938. The country has come to feel less and less dependence on Britain, and Labour [with a capital 'L'] is the great internal force which has taken institutional shape," the paper said.

"The name Labour Day has been accepted because the unions — the institutions which embody the movement - have made May 23 a day of commemoration in which the rights of labour are annually reaffirmed. No other public holiday is accepted in the same way by tens of thousands of Jamaicans as an occasion not merely for 'relaxation' but for the solemn affirmation of a social creed," The Daily Gleaner asserted.

Alexander Bustamante was the pre-eminent labour leader.

The Daily Gleaner, in that May 24, 1961 front-page editorial, went on to say, "No other institutions created since Alexander Bustamante's involvement in May 1938 have the same hold on any particular day. No other body of people since 1938 has created an institution of comparable power over the instincts of large numbers of men and women." And then the paper added, "the political parties themselves feel their dependence on the unions." I have my quarrels with that dependence, but that's not the matter of the day.

Desmond Allen chose to open up his Observer preview story on Walters' forthcoming book with, "While the Jamaica Labour Party was celebrating its revered founder ... ." Well, Bustamante is very much more than the founder of the JLP. He is a National Hero.

Inveigled by British

The British, according to Ewart Walters, inveigled Bustamante to form the JLP. "The exciting spirit of creativity, volunteerism and togetherness that was fomented by the movement towards nationhood was blunted the moment in 1943 that Bustamante was persuaded by the British to keep Manley in check by forming his Jamaica Labour Party," Mr Walters boldly declares. And why pick as leader a man that the colonial authorities had previously detained as a disturber of the peace and a threat to the security of a colony of the realm then at war?

I hope it is not too much to expect evidence in the book for this assertion of British influence in the founding of the JLP. And also a non-conspiratorial explanation of the widespread emergence of two-party political systems as the norm across former British colonies and the colonies of other European countries as in the 'mother' countries themselves. Walters must also take the trouble to explain to intelligent readers why so many other two-party/multi-party states have done so much better than Jamaica.

Ewart Walters is clearly a proponent of the one-party state under a benign dictator, a role he envisages for his immaculate hero Norman Manley. "Jamaica could have been much farther ahead now had William Alexander Bustamante remained as a supporter of the national movement in which Norman Manley's People's National Party played a major role and not the adversary he became," Walters advises.

According to him, many Jamaicans, just how many we do not know, had recognised that the two-party system divided the country and fractured national unity that attended the discussions and activities that began in the late 1930s.

Writing from Westminster-governed Canada, consistently the world's number-one country on the UNDP Human Development Index, Walters then takes on the entire political system: "The Westminster system of government, derived from the British, created an artificial fractiousness that left the losing party to oppose, oppose, oppose, regardless."

In PNP and Waltersian mythology, an ignorant Bustamante (in the English, not the Jamaican, sense, please) left the PNP purely over ego issues. And Busta, like many other great leaders, had a big, bad one! The widening ideological rift between the PNP founded on the principles of Fabian socialism and Bustamante's market-oriented capitalism is seldom given the mention it deserves. Those differences came to their sharpest collision, not in Busta's and Norman's time, but in the campaign for the 1980 general election in which fool-fool Jamaicans voted overwhelmingly for Bustamante's party for 'deliverance' from democratic socialism led by Norman's son in Government.

Fool-fool Jamaicans, from a Walters perspective, had also overwhelmingly voted for Bustamante and his JLP in the first general election under universal adult suffrage in 1944, and again strongly for them to form the first Independence government in 1962. By any reasonable calculation, the labour events of 1938 and the political events of 1944 and 1962 make Alexander Bustamante the father of independent Jamaica, if only a single father can be allowed.

And while economics is not everything, Walters must not be allowed to dodge the facts in the numbers that since Independence the economic indices, something which even PNP apologists acknowledge, have shown Bustamante's party in government consistently performing better.

Walters' key to Bustamante setting Jamaica back is not just Busta's leaving the PNP, but his alleged role as the chief instigator of political violence. Walters then proceeds to give (via Allen and the Observer) a skewed rendition of Obika Gray's scholarly assessment of the roots of political violence in Jamaica in his book Demeaned but Empowered - The Social Power of the Urban Poor in Jamaica. Gray is home on leave from his professorship in a US university and I had the pleasure of interviewing him on the book for the publisher, the UWI Press. The interview is posted at:

Part 1

Part 2

Gray's nuances of the tit-for tat conflict between the BITU-JLP and TUC-PNP fighting for turf in Kingston boils down to 'Is Busta Fault' in Walters' inferior analysis. We will look to see if the PNP's Matthews Lane-based Group 69, Jamaica's first organised political gang, gets a mention in Walters' book, and the far greater capacity of the party to organise garrisons which later emerged.

In the Gray account of the PNP-Bustamante split, while Busta had been levelling accusations of an alleged PNP plot to take control of his BITU in 1942 (not disproved), it was the PNP which broke off relations with the labour leader and his union in that year. Bustamante, conscious of the power of his labour base, which the PNP did not have, and anticipating the 1944 election, quickly formed the JLP.

Our leaders, as the late Justice Ronald Small reminded us before his departure, have feet of clay, the half of which has never been told. But the mythmaking and myth maintenance of a buffoon strong-arm Bustamante attacking a pure, clean and smart Norman Manley and derailing a national movement of unity, peace and love must not be left undisturbed.

Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to and