By KENNETH STREET
FOR ten years one figure has dominated the Jamaican political and labour scene. Governors have come and gone ; rivals in both spheres have appeared and vanished, but Alexander Bustamante remains. He constitutes more than a temporary leader in an impor- tant colonial experiment ; he is for millions of coloured people in the Caribbean area the embodiment of their aspirations. In stature and appearance the Hon. Alexander Bustamante (the title is a courtesy one granted to all holders of ministerial offices under the New Constitution) is a striking figure. He stands six feet two inches, his height emphasised by a mane of iron-grey hair springing upright from his fine head with a vigour that bespeaks his tireless energy. The high cheek-bones, the sensitive mouth and aquiline nose make him a natural subject for a sculptor. Reticent about his age, he is between fifty-eight and sixty, and legend is already embellishing his romantic early years. Born of an Irish father—his true name is Clark—and a coloured Jamaican mother, he claims that her side of the family has Arawak blood. (The Arawaks were the peaceful original inhabitants of the island, and were defeated by the warlike Carib invaders who in their turn were liquidated by the Spaniards.)
There is some confirmation of this in Bustamante's complete absence of negroid features. His mother had a Spanish family as paying guests at her house in Falmouth on the north coast. These people liked the boy, eventually adopted him and took him to Spain with them when he was about twelve. During the long exile from the land of his birth he fought in revolutions, and later in Cuba and New York earned his living in a variety of ways. He is said to have been, among other things, a dietician in an American hospital and to have played the U.S. stock market, buying at the time when the 1929 crash had knocked the bottom out of it. Indeed it is to this latter activity that he claims to owe his present prosperity. Back in Jamaica in the early nineteen-thirties he set up as a money-lender and began to interest himself in the peasantry. It cannot be too strongly emphasised that this rather than politics has been, and still is, his main concern. He was thrust into politics perforce, and in his dual role as leader of the House of Representatives and President of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Unions he has always said that he would at any time sacrifice his political position rather than see labour suffer- But he is politically astute enough to know that in his present position he can protect labour's interests better than ever before.
His love for his followers is absolutely genuine ; his every action has proclaimed it. Equally sincere and spontaneous is their recipro- cation. To them he is a man sent by God as their saviour. Without some understanding of the peculiar emotional qualities of the Jamaican mentality it is difficult to comprehend the adoration in which he is held. These people will gladly starve for him, fight for him, sing for him, pray for him. Throughout ten years of labour warfare they have received strike-pay on only one occasion. But he has rarely failed to win the advantages he set out to obtain for them. Imprisonment during the riots of 1938 (May 23rd of that year is a turning point in Jamaican history), internment during two of the war years, a physically and mentally exhausting trial on a man- slaughter charge in 1946—none of these has dimmed his popularity nor lessened his importance. He regards them as necessary tribula- tions. His first words when he addressed the throng that greeted his release following the unanimous "Not Guilty" verdict of the manslaughter trial were, " So ends another political conspiracy."
On the hustings he is a spell-binder, and occasionally when angered in the House of Representatives he will pitch his voice on a note that imperils the eardrums. His authority over a crowd as much as his power to move it is amazing. I stood by him on the steps of the Court House at Port Maria after his trial. He faced a huge crowd, shouting, clapping and weeping with joy. Suddenly he pitched his voice on that rasping, metallic note, and called for silence. " I want to be able to hear a pin drop," he screamed ; and one could have. Hundreds in this gathering of men and women had voluntarily abandoned work in Kingston twelve days earlier and hitch-hiked, cycled or walked the fifty miles across the island in order to be with their "chief " throughout his trial. The tiny Georgian Court House could only accommodate a few of them each day in its public gallery, but crowds lined the streets outside and greeted the prisoner with ritual clapping, while inside the fortunate few with seats always rose to their feet as the prisoner walked to the box and ceremoniously locked himself in.
In manner he is a man of charm and courtesy ; a generous and amusing host with a fund of anecdote. In his dress he is unassum- ing. (He has abandoned the Spanish cape he effected in his earlier years.) His almost invariable choice is a dark grey suit and a white dress tie. He usually tours the island in a large black Buick, a gift from his union members as a token of their appreciation of his efforts on their behalf. Today he is also the owner of a Ford Mercury. Wherever he goes the crowds appear. In the most remote country districts he is assured of an audience numbering hundreds, and at the end of any meeting they will sing their rousing song; " We will follow Bustamante till we die."
Proudly Jamaican and proudly British, Bustamante is totally devoid of racial hatred and colour prejudice. He has no desire to see the immediate end of British administration in the colony, nor the ousting of British, Canadian or American businesses. While for some his fanaticism is a menace, there are few among the planter, professional or merchant class who wish to see him replaced by the only possible present alternative, which is the dominance of the People's National Party, led by his cousin and bitter political enemy, Norman Manley, K.C.
On the inauguration of the New Constitution in 1944, when for the first time general elections were held under adult suffrage, the fight was a three-cornered one between the Jamaica Labour Party, the People's National Party and the Jamaica Democratic Party. The last-named were in some danger of splitting the vote and letting the P.N.P. candidates in. The Democratic Party failed to win one of the thirty-two seats, and the P.N.P. won only five. Some people think that the Bustamante power is on the wane and that another general election would see the politically better organised P.N.P. returned with at least a working majority. Under adult suffrage this appears to be purely wishful thinking. Bustamante's appeal is to the masses, the simple, uneducated, labouring class. These people are not revolutionary ; they are indeed extremely conserva- tive ; they arc not anti-white. They are completely bewildered by Manley's brand of intellectualism. Manley's own party, while super- ficially Socialist, is riddled by a vocal and violently Communist minority. It is to Bustamante that the workman owes his greatly improved lot, and he knows it. Unless circumstances change Jamaica and Jamaicans radically, the white-collar worker, the civil servant, the poliCeman and fireman will always be out-voted by the worker in the canefields, on the banana properties and the waterfront.