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Jamaica’s National Heroes: Sir Alexander Bustamante

Sir Alexander Bustamante was born William Alexander Clarke on February 24, 1884 in Blenheim, Hanover. Along with his cousin, Norman Washington Manley, he is considered one of the founding fathers of modern Jamaica.

Sir Alexander Bustamante, circa 1960
Sir Alexander Bustamante, circa 1960

As a young man, Bustamante was restless and traveled extensively between 1905 and 1934, going from Panama to Cuba and the U.S. He tried his hand at a variety of jobs, including hospital attendant, police, beekeeper, and dairy farmer.

It is well known that Bustamante created stories about his background to suit his own purposes, including one that a Spanish sailor adopted him and brought him up. The truth is that he was a part of the privileged planter class. When he returned to Jamaica, he established himself as a money-lender.

The Jamaica that Bustamante returned to was still a crown colony. Under this system, the governor had the right of veto and often exercised it against the wishes of the majority.

Pay and working conditions were poor. Falling harvests and the lay-off of workers resulted in an influx of the unemployed into the city. This mass migration did little to alleviate the unemployment situation.

Bustamante realized the social and economic ills that the crown colony system engendered and began mobilizing the working-class. He started a letter writing campaign to the local newspaper, The Daily Gleaner, and occasionally to British newspapers, calling attention to the social and economic problems of the poor and underprivileged.

In time, Bustamante became a well-known advocate of the cause of the masses. Soon, he started traveling around the country, making speeches and getting to know the people.

By 1938, there was much labor unrest and protest by the people against the poverty and degradation that they faced. At a rally in Kingston, when the army threatened to open fire on the crowd, Bustamante is said to have opened his shirt, bared his chest to the soldiers and told them to shoot him and leave the innocent people. He was arrested later that day and was bailed by his cousin, Norman Manley, an attorney. The charges were subsequently dropped.

On September 8, 1940, Bustamante was detained at Up Park Camp, for alleged violation of the Defence of the Realm Act. He was released seventeen months later.

In 1943 he founded the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), with himself as head. The first general election under Universal Adult Suffrage came in 1944 and the JLP won 22 of the 32 seats.

Bustamante was knighted by the Queen in 1955. In 1962, became the first prime minister of independent Jamaica. He retired from active politics in 1967 and was named a national hero in 1969. He is the only national hero to receive the honor while still alive. Bustamante died on August 6,1977, at the age of 93.

The Bustamante backbone or Busta is a hard candy that was named for Bustamante as he was considered by many to be like the candy, of “firm character.”

Jamaica’s National Heroes: Samuel Sharpe

Born in 1801 in St. James, Samuel Sharpe was a deacon in the Baptist church. Although he was a slave, he

Statue of Sam Sharpe, Sam Sharpe Square, Montego Bay
Statue of Sam Sharpe, Sam Sharpe Square, Montego Bay

was also an educated man. Since religious meetings were the only forms of organized activities permissible for the slaves, Sharpe travelled widely teaching other slaves about Christianity and encouraging discussions about the fight for freedom. Sharpe became a highly regarded of the native Baptists in Montego Bay and was widely known as “Daddy” Sharpe.

He devised a plan of passive resistance – the slaves would refuse to work on Christmas Day of 1831 and after, unless their grievances regarding better treatment and their consideration of freedom were accepted by the owners.

Sharpe explained his plan to chosen supporters after his religious meetings and had them kiss the Bible to show their loyalty. They, in turn, took the plan to other parishes. Unfortunately, word reached the owners and troops, with guns drawn, were sent to Montego Bay and Black River in St. Elizabeth.

On December 27, 1831, the Kensington Great House in St. James was set on fire as a signal that the Slave Rebellion had begun. Soon after, a series of other fires broke out in the area and it was clear that the plan of non-violent resistance, which Sharpe had created was no longer possible.

Sam Sharpe Mural, Montego Bay
Sam Sharpe Mural, Sam Sharpe Square, Montego Bay

By the first week of January, the Rebellion was put down. More than 500 slaves and 14 whites lost their
lives.  Sharpe, who had vowed that he “would rather die upon yonder gallows than live in slavery” was hanged on May 23, 1832 at Parade in Montego Bay. It was renamed Sam Sharpe Square in his honor.

In 1834, the British Parliament passed the Abolition Bill that ended slavery in 1838.

Sharpe was named a National Hero in 1975. His likeness can also be found on the $50 note.