news reached Kingston of the historic fatal clash between workers
and armed police at Frome on May 2, 1938, William Alexander
Bustamante closed his money-lending business for the day and
went by car to Frome with his secretary, Miss Gladys Longbridge.
felt destiny tugging at his sleeve. He was ready to go where
it led him. Tall (6ft. 4 ins.), handsome, physically strong,
truculent, courageous, self-confident and stylish, Bustamante
had seen life in many lands and had returned home four years
earlier, at the age of 50, to settle.
the four years from 1934 to 1938, he had impressed his name
on the society by a series of letters to the editor of the
Gleaner and occasionally to British newspapers, almost always
calling attention to the social and economic problems of the
poor and underprivileged in Jamaica.
1935 and 1936 he had conducted an "anti-water-meter protest".
In January 1937 he had intervened in a strike at Serge Island
Estate, offering his services as a mediator. Later that year
he had become Treasurer of the Jamaica Workers' and Tradesmen's
Union, founded in 1936 by A. G. S. Coombs.
had earlier identified with the workers' cause with regard
to disturbances in Trinidad, Barbados and other West Indian
islands in the 1930’s.
and Coombs had travelled around the country promoting their
union and giving hope to struggling workers. By early 1938
our hero was sharing platforms in Kingston with St. William
Grant, whose para-military uniform signified an earlier association
with another hero, Marcus Mosiah Garvey.
had savoured the limelight and enjoyed the taste of it.
workers needed a leader and he was ready to lead.
with natural intelligence and wit, he had gained much wisdom
over the years, particularly from his wide travels
any stage he could hold audiences in his power and turn phrases
that were lovingly repeated by folk across the land. His towering
height, his long stride, his bushy hair, his calculated dramatic
gestures were important elements in the dominant Bustamante
important, he was a born gladiator, a factor that not only
suited his role as champion of the working classes but also
led him to his political career and largely determined the
course of that career.
of Bustamante's early life are many and varied but a number
of facts are clearly established.
was born at Blenheim Estate in Hanover on February 24, 1884.
His father was an Irish planter named Robert Constantine Clarke,
and his mother, a Jamaican of mixed blood, was Mary Clarke
nee Wilson. He was named William Alexander Clarke, but was
later to change his name by deed poll. Bustamante was the
second of five children of the Clarke family. He had three
sisters, Louise, Iris and Maud, and a younger brother, Herbert.
He also had two elder sisters, Ida and Daisy Clarke, by a
previous marriage of his father. His grandmother Elsie Clarke-Shearer
was also the grandmother of Bustamante's great contemporary
and fellow National Hero, Norman Washington Manley.
attended elementary school at Cacoon and Dalmalley, and also
did private studies. In 1904 he was employed as a Store Clerk
for C. E. Johnson & Company on the north coast. Shortly
after this he became a junior overseer at Belmont.
For thirty years, beginning in 1905, the restless Bustamante
travelled about the hemisphere, particularly to Cuba, Panama,
the United States and his native Jamaica, trying his hand
at a wide variety of occupations, including security work,
dairy farming, transportation and beekeeping. The Latin American
influence and his penchant for the romantic caused a change
of name from William Alexander Clarke to Alejandro Bustamante,
later anglicised by deed poll to Alexander Bustamante.
is believed that Bustamante made a considerable amount of
money speculating on the Wall Street stock market. Back in
Jamaica in the mid-thirties his money-lending business prospered,
but while it gave him a livelihood it also opened his eyes
to the appalling plight of the poor. This exposure was reflected
in his Gleaner letters and in his early union work, which
served as an apprenticeship for the momentous work that destiny
had reserved for him.
In April 1938, when attacked by the Jamaica Standard newspaper,
Bustamante told a crowd of 2,000 at North Parade: "I
want the Standard to know that I represent the lower and middle
class people in Jamaica. They have confidence in me".
confidence took him to Frome in the aftermath of the disturbances
that had left six dead, fifty wounded and 89 charged with
was the breakingpoint in the seething unrest islandwide over
pay and conditions of work and massive unemployment. It was
also the start of a series of strikes, demonstrations and
disturbances in which Bustamante stamped his name indelibly
as the people's champion. Whereever there were labour problems
throughout Jamaica, he was with the workers.
Dock workers, labourers, railway workers, and the police were
among those who took industrial action during the first half
of May 1938.
claimed that Britain, "the mother country", was
not aware of the state of affairs in Jamaica, because she
was badly informed or misinformed by Governor Denham. The
labour leader denounced Denham at a meeting of 7,000 at the
Parade on May 4.
May 8, Bustamante told a crowd at Race Course (National Heroes'
Park), "Long live the King! But Denham must go".
He said that the Government was planning to arrest him because
he had exposed to the British Parliament the evils in Jamaica.
May 6 Governor Denham had named a commission of inquiry into
the Frome affair and shortly after a Royal Commission headed
by Lord Moyne was sent to the West Indies by Colonial Office.
mid-May Bustamante told a large crowd in front of the Ward
Theatre that “two Knights” were advocating his
arrest, “but they, not I, should be very careful I am
above them, for while they want to live forever I am prepared
to die today”. The crowd warmed to Bustamante. He told
them, “I am more powerful than the Governor”.
They sang, “We will follow Bustamante till we die”.
On May 23, Kingston port-workers supported a strike call by
Bustamante. Their demand was for higher wages.
daybreak Bustamante addressed a hugh meeting at the corner
of Duke and Harbour Streets. He said that what was taking
place in Jamaica was “a mental revolution”. He
and St. William Grant spoke at a number of rallies on that
one of them, when the security forces threatened to open fire
on the crowd, Bustamante unbuttoned his shirt, thrust forward
and invited the soldiers to leave the people alone and shoot
in the day, at another rally, he and St. William Grant were
arrested and charged with sedition. No bail was allowed. On
May 27, Norman Manley went to the waterfront to find out a
first hand what the workers wanted so that he could take up
representations on their behalf.
workers answered; “We want Bustamante”. They would
not return to work before his release, regardless of what
other terms were offered. Manley joined that team of lawyers
advocating the release of Bustamante and Grant, and on May
28 they were freed on bail. Later the charges were dropped.
then saw the need to organize the labour movement in a legal
way and he worked closely to this end with Norman Manley,
Noel Nethersole and others who were about to lead a new political
movement, the People’s National Party (PNP).
gave his full support to the party, founded in September 1938,
just as the party gave its support to his Bustamante Industrial
Trade Union (BITU), founded in May of that year.