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Stabroek News

Bustamante and colonial Jamaica: talking back to the powerful
published: Sunday | July 23, 2006

Robert Buddan, Contributed

Bustamante stood up to the British. - File

THE ANNIVERSARY of Jamaica's independence usually causes debate about whether Jamaica was better off under British rule and what progress the country has made since. Sir Alexander Bustamante did not support independence for Jamaica at the time that he formed the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and during the period when he was leader of the Majority Party/Chief Minister from 1945 to 1955. This did not mean that he was uncritical of colonialism because he did have very uncharitable things to say about British rule. Bustamante really hoped, as he declared in the House of Representatives in 1945, to become the Governor of Jamaica. In effect, he wanted Jamaicanisation of British rule. It might have been an unrealistic ambition, but it was a novel idea.

On the one hand, Bustamante resisted the People's National Party's (PNP) call for self government. On the other, and for many of the same reasons that the PNP gave, he felt that British rule in Jamaica was a failure. This after all, was the reason he began criticising Jamaica's governors in his newspaper articles in the Daily Gleaner and went on to form the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union and the JLP. In the end, he did not become Governor of Jamaica, but he inherited the struggle for independence and became independent Jamaica's first Prime Minister because he was not afraid to talk back to the powerful.


Bustamante felt that the colonial system of government served the interest of colonial officials rather than the interest of the people. One of the first motions brought by the newly elected legislature in 1945 was a resolution for old age pensions. Both the JLP and PNP members supported the motion because, as Bustamante said, the colonial Gvernment only took care of its own people in the civil service, people who were already well paid and had the benefit of pensions that the Jamaican people did not enjoy. In another case, Bustamante (and House members) objected to the Governor's motion seeking to provide expatriate officials with payment for their passage to Britain when they travelled home on vacation. The House argued that this was a luxury the country could not afford.

Such matters brought home the fact that the Governor was not accountable to the elected House of Representatives since, despite the House's objection to paid travel expenses for expatriates for example, the Governor had the power to grant such expenses anyway. It caused Bustamante to call for the establishment of a Public Accounts Committee so that government would account for the way taxpayers' money was being spent.

Under the system at the time, Jamaican taxpayers paid the British-controlled Government, which in turn determined the salaries of the Jamaican members of the House of Representatives, who complained that while their pay was inadequate, the British took care of their own and there was little transparency and accountability for how taxpayers' money was spent.

Bustamante did not feel that the colonial officials deserved what they were being paid. He thought that British governors were more interested in their own careers than in the welfare of Jamaicans. British governors, he said, were not interested in the plight of the Jamaican people, only in knighthoods and promotions in the Empire. Jamaica was a mere stepping-stone for them. Each governor, he felt, sought to better his predecessor by leaving even one pound more in the treasury. Their ambitions were for more prestigious jobs in larger and richer colonies such as India, and for peerages in the House of Lords. British governors spent an average of only three years in Jamaica. This was not enough time for them to know the country, develop proper policies and pursue long-term development. They spent as little as they could and did not spend on necessary land settlement schemes, but as Bustamante regularly complained, only on more prisons, asylums and poor houses.

They could have done much better. When he entered the House, Bustamante found a balance of more than 800,000 in government's accounts for the fiscal year 1944/45. Yet, whenever he requested spending on the poor, the Governor would say there was no money. Bustamante lamented that it was a strange democracy in which the Government had plenty of money, while the children starved.

But, once again there was evidence that the Government took care of its own.

Just two years after islandwide riots of 1938 protested extremely poor living conditions and led to the formation of the PNP and the BITU, the colonial Government spent 375,000 pounds to construct residences for 4,000 British war refugees from Malta and Gibraltar in just seven weeks, and eventually enough accommodation for 9,000 refugees on property that became the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies. At no time over the hundreds of years of British colonialism did the Government build near that number to house poor Jamaicans.


Colonial governments not only took care of their own, they were ignorant of Jamaican conditions. Bustamante boasted, with some justification, that no governor knew more about Jamaica than he did and no governor knew better how to govern Jamaica and its international affairs than

he. It was usual for governors to take islandwide tours when they first arrived, but they mainly met with the elites of the countryside and otherwise depended on corrupt and incapable local vestries.

Even more ridiculous was the fact that the Secretary of State for the colonies who resided overseas had to approve decisions (some of which were quite local, such as whether to build a few kilometers of rural road or not) by the Governor. Busta-mante ridiculed this system saying that secretaries of state hardly knew where Jamaica was.

Colonial administrators who were schooled in England were in charge of what Bustamante called the 'imperialistic system of education'. In their ignorance, they failed to appreciate the local knowledge held by the new representatives and Bustamante derided the colonials for refusing to acknowledge his members on the executive as 'ministers'.

According to him, this was a title the British felt was too good to bestow upon Jamaicans. The newly elected JLP members of the executive council complained that the colonial heads of departments (the equivalent of ministers) ignored them and did not respect their positions or abilities. Bustamante implored his JLP colleagues to get over any inferiority complex they had since they were equal to the colonial officials.


Bustamante also felt that colonial administrators did not regard Jamaicans as human beings. He claimed to have seen a statement by one colonial secretary saying that Jamaicans were not fit and proper to govern themselves. He took this as an attack on the intelligence of Jamaicans and mocked, 'I know as much about the science of government as any of the geniuses that have been sent from abroad to govern us.' After two and a half years as Leader of the Majority Party, Bustamante became disillusioned with the colonial Government, saying that had his party enjoyed full control of ministries it would have improved conditions much more rapidly.

The British felt that they had to tutor Jamaicans in the ways of good government, something that they hardly practised. Bustamante's position was that the destiny of Jamaica should be for Jamaicans and their political leaders to determine; and if they made mistakes as they would, it would be for them to learn from those mistakes. Besides, Jamaica's affairs could not be managed any worse than they were being managed under the British. Jamaicans, he insisted, had the right as free people to make their own mistakes and even when they fought with each other, they did so as brothers, quite a different thing than when foreigners were fighting Jamaicans to keep control of the Government of their country.

Sir Alexander Bustamante had the courage to tell the world's superpower of his time where the interests of Britain and Jamaica differed. It was a far different JLP approach than the present timid policy that cautions Jamaica not to do anything that might anger today's superpower, the United States. It is a mark of independence when Jamaica's leaders can stand up to the powerful countries of the world.

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