J.R. Johnson

Bustamente – “Uncrowned King” of Jamaica

(18 November 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 46, 18 November 1946, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The name of Bustamente has frequently appeared in the American and British press as the leader of Jamaican labor. Nothing so illustrates what has been happening in the West Indies as the career of this “uncrowned king” of Jamaica.

In the years before the war Jamaica had an advanced type of Crown Colony Government. The majority of the Legislative Council was elected and this majority had some power over finance. But the governor retained final power. The governor, though appointed by the British Colonial Office, represented the interests of the colonial ruling class.

The influence of “the people” and their elected members can be judged from the fact that in 1939 the electorate of Jamaica amounted to only five per cent of the population. Furthermore there was a high property qualification for candidates to the legislature, excluding thereby poor men. Legislators were not paid, and only wealthy men could represent “the people.”

Great Labor Strikes

Great strikes of labor shook this rotton constitution to pieces. The starving peasants and the dock workers began to live a life of intense industrial and political aspiration. A great mass movement arose, based on the unions but embracing all strata of the laboring population and parts of the middle-class. At its head was Bustamente.

Bustamente is without any recognizable political doctrine. The people of Jamaica Were on the move after nearly 75 years of political subservience, and Bustamente was at their head. He was imprisoned, but the government had to let him out.

To add to the crisis of the British government, the U.S. had entered the West Indian scene. Global war demanded that the American fleet control West Indian waters. Control of the world market demanded that the U.S. make a bid for American influence in the islands. The U.S. demanded and got its aerial, naval and, military bases.

But the population was restless. The pressure against Britain continued unabated. Roosevelt pulled a very fast one on the British government. To their disgust he came out suddenly for universal suffrage and free compulsory education in the West Indies. In March 1942 an Anglo-American Caribbean Commission was established to plan measures for the improvement of West Indian conditions. The geographical situation of the U.S. and its powerful economy put the British in a secondary position in the Western world.

The New Constitution

They grudgingly proposed a new constitution for the islands. Jamaica was granted universal suffrage. Legislators were to be paid. Two houses were to be set up: the lower house to be a completely elected body and the upper house partly nominated by the governor (i.e,, the local banks, industrialists, merchants and landowners).

But there was another change of great importance. The Executive Council, the real ruling body, a sort of cabinet, was to be elected by the lower house. And these executive council members were to serve as heads of several governmental departments. The governor still had the power of veto, but he could exercise it only with the consent of the elected Executive Council.

Bustamente’s Victory

Here was a constitution most helpful to Bustamente and his mass following. His political party won 23 seats out of the 32. Five Were won by the People’s National Party, a socialist group, and the other three were won by independents. The party of big business, the so-called Democratic Party, lost every seat it contested. Bustamente controlled the lower house absolutely, half the members of the executive council were members of his party, and he led the mass union movement. Hence his claim to the title of “uncrowned king.”

In politics it is splendid to have a majority. But it is more important in the long run to have a policy. Bustamente had and still has no policy. The economies of the West Indian islands are bankrupt. Nothing but a federation of independent islands, nationalization of basic industry, workers’ control of production, and planned economy can begin to give them anything like a place in the world market.

All this is beyond the limited conceptions of Bustamente. The result is, that faced with a socialist movement on the one hand and big capital on the other, he has formed an alliance with big capital.

Jamaican Socialism

When the big mass movement got under way one of its most respected leaders was Norman Manley, a Jamaican lawyer and former Rhodes scholar. When Bustamente was in jail, Manley led the national movement in militant and uncompromising fashion.

This writer believes that Bustamente is a thoroughly unprincipled demagogue. Manley found collaboration with him impossible and his party, the People’s National Party, entered its own candidates. Its program is complete self-government and nationalization of base industry, aimed in particular at Tate and Lyle, the great sugar manufacturers.

Big business recognized in Manley’s program a dangerous enemy. It has thrown all its weight into support of Bustamente against Manley. Bustamente has declared himself against self-government, against nationalization, and has now gone so far as to denounce freedom of speech. In return he has great political power, a finger in patronage, and balances between the claims of capital and the needs of his followers in the unions.

The Peoples National Party controls a small association of unionists, but the mass power is in Bustamente’s hands. Recently in an inter-union struggle, a murder was committed. Bustamente was charged with the responsibility. He was acquitted, but Jamaica is still in a state of permanent unrest.

Prospects for Tomorrow

In the past eight years there has taken place a political transformation unheard of by even the most ardent advocates of self-government. The masses of the people are not hostile to Manley and the PNP. They are, however, fanatically loyal to Bustamente and often express regret at the lack of unity. The PNP struggles to win the Jamaican masses to its program. Its future, like everything else about Jamaica, is uncertain. It is not a revolutionary party. But the chief hope for its development is in its allegiance to the idea of class struggle. It has a strong support among the middle classes. But its leaders do not hesitate to inform its followers that the only real basis for the realization of its program is the working masses.

It is to be hoped that under these pressures a genuine revolutionary socialist party will emerge from the Jamaica turmoil. Meanwhile so far the PNP is the most advanced political party in the British West Indies and has a wide following among West Indians in the U.S. where Manley is a frequent visitor.

Last updated on 8 July 2019