What better way to reflect on our recent history than through the recollections of a living heroine? The Memoirs of Lady Bustamante (Kingston Publishers), the former Gladys Longbridge, is generously sprinkled with the Who’s Who (I have highlighted the names, though she mentions many more) of the past seventy years and makes great reading for all Jamaicans, regardless of your politics.
Constantly at the side of National Hero Sir Alexander Bustamante, she gives a riveting account of Jamaica’s emerging labour movement, the birth of our two major political parties and the triumph of Independence.
Born in Westmoreland, Lady B studied commercial subjects at Tutorial College with several notables, including educator Wesley Powell. She applied for and easily landed a job with the handsome financier Mr. Bustamante, whose concern for the poor was expressed in many letters to the Gleaner and at community meetings. One evening Busta was invited onstage at Victoria Park by the fiery St William Grant to address the crowd. “The people cheered,” recalls Lady B, “and in the end, Grant told them that he was prepared to join forces with Bustamante, even as he had joined with Garvey.”
While Bustamante served as Treasurer of the Jamaica Workers and Tradesmen Union, founded by another Garveyite, A.G.S Coombs, a young accountant named Florizel Glasspole was chief organizer of The Clerk’s Union, founded by the distinguished Jamaican Erasmus Campbell.
On Monday, May 23, 1938, thousands of port workers took strike action and marched to Victoria Park to get direction from their leader, Bustamante. Lady B was there at that watershed moment in our history, when a police inspector aimed his gun at the crowd, and Sir Alex bared his chest, declaring, “Shoot me, but leave these defenseless hungry people alone!”
The next day Busta and Grant were arrested, resulting in island wide protest. Lady B recalls the strong bond between Bustamante and his cousin, the celebrated lawyer and fellow National Hero, Norman Manley. With Kingston in a state of disorder, Edna Manley telegraphed her husband who was in Frome, to return immediately. “Her urgent call to Mr. Manley made a difference that week,” writes Lady B. She recalls that during the strike at the waterfront, “Edna Manley …and Aggie Bernard…helped to look after relief meals …with Bustamante in jail, Norman Manley became very active.” In June 1938, the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union was formed and grew rapidly. “Norman Manley had supplied us with an initial list of two thousand potential members,” writes Lady B.
Manley with a task force that included young Howard Cooke, then launched the People’s National Party in September 1938, with Bustamante joining its metropolitan group. During his two-year detention at Up Park Camp, a rift developed and soon after he was freed, the JLP was formed in July 1943. Bustamante spotted a bright young man who produced the organization’s publication, The Jamaica Worker, and mentored him. His name was Hugh Lawson Shearer.
The “yeoman work of the late Professor Sir John Golding” was recalled as she recounts the serious outbreak of poliomyelitis in 1954, as well as the “deep love and abiding interest” of Sammy Henriques and his daughter Norma. She tells us of an endearing youngster, Seragh Lakasingh, and his eventual marriage to the beautiful Effie Curtis who also was a favorite of the Bustamantes: “These two have been by my side through thick and thin, and remain near to my heart to this day.”
On their first trip to England in 1948, they were met by a young Jamaican student, Gladstone Mills, and they visited with members of Jamaica’s Olympic team Arthur Wint and Herb McKenley who later won gold and silver medals in the summer event. When the PNP won the 1955 elections, the JLP reorganized itself “with such outstanding politicians as Donald Sangster, Clement Tavares, Robert Lightbourne, Herbert Eldemire and Rose Leon.”
Bustamante’s “take charge” approach is described lightheartedly when Lady B talks about their marriage: “He just announced to me that he was going to marry me.” This took place in September 1962, a few months after the JLP won the general elections and Sir Alex was sworn in as the first Prime Minister of independent Jamaica.
On Sir Alex’s retirement in 1967, they moved to “Bellencita” in Irish Town, where they enjoyed gardening and light farming. They stayed in touch with Jamaica’s young leaders. Of Edward Seaga she writes, “He has been a tower of strength …His care and concern has created a close bond between us.” On National Heroes Day, October 20, 1975, exactly 28 years ago, she recalls that “Prime Minister Michael Manley with his wife Beverley paid us a visit … spending an enjoyable time with us.” She remembers Sir Alex’s last official appearance that afternoon, at the Salute to Heroes ceremony at the National Stadium where they received a tumultuous welcome.
When Sir Alex passed away on August 6, 1977, Lady B “was paralyzed with grief.” She forced herself to stay active, still continuing to serve as Treasurer of the BITU for 59 unbroken years until 1997, and lent her support to many causes including her beloved Bustamante Hospital for Children. As a highlight of this year’s Heritage Week, her brave and generous life was lauded, as she was presented with the Keys to the City at the National Heroes Park.
I have my own story of the Bustamantes. Since they were old friends of my parents-in-law Ralph ‘Justice’ and Ruby Chin, I was taken to in Irish Town in 1972 so they could meet their son’s fiancée. Lady B, who ushered us into the bedroom where Sir Alex was resting, warmly welcomed us. He was a striking figure, still a lion in the winter of his years. “Chief,” said Lady B, “Hubie has brought his fiancée to meet us.” His eyesight failing, Sir Alex called out, “Come here, my dear and give me a hug!” He smoothed my hair, caressed my face and exclaimed, “But Hubie, you’re a lucky man – this is a beautiful girl.” Joy!
About the Writer
Jean Lowrie-Chin heads PRO Communications Ltd, an advertising and PR agency, in Kingston, Jamaica. She is a poet and columnist for the Jamaica Observer. She holds Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in English from the University of the West Indies.