The Beginning of Party Politics in Jamaica

Arnold Betram
by Arnold Betram.

The 1944 General Elections which were the first to be held under Universal Adult Suffrage marked the beginning of party politics in Jamaica. From the election of the first Assembly on January 20, 1664, up to 1831 the franchise was restricted to white property owners. In 1830, the right to vote was given to free coloureds and blacks and a year later to Jews.

However up to the elections of 1935, the franchise was still restricted to owners of property. The minimum qualification for males over 21 years of age was ownership or occupation of property on which he had paid ten shillings (10/-) in annual taxes; or the receipt of wages or income annually of fifty pounds (£50) or more. For women who were included in the franchise for the first time in 1919 the voting qualifications were higher. They had to be over 25 years of age and had to show ownership or occupation of property on which not less than £2 had been paid in annual taxes. In those elections only 61,621 Jamaicans qualified to vote out of a population of 1, 173,645.

The Way We Were

For the first elections to the Assembly in 1664 the twenty members virtually elected themselves. Nearly two centuries later, in 1837, the winning candidate in the parish of St. George, which was later divided to create St. Mary and Portland, received a mere 45 votes and in the elections of 1863, there were only 1,457 voters, an average of 31 for each member of the House. From then, intimidation and hooliganism were an integral part of the political process. In the 1851 election for the seat at St. David, one of the candidates arrived “supported by a crowd of 300 men most of whom were non-electors and all of whom were armed with a bludgeon. A riot developed…. and in the ensuing tumult the Clerk of the Vestry was killed”.

The 1938 Labour Rebellion

The event which had revolutionised Jamaica’s political landscape between 1935 and 1944 was the Labour Rebellion of 1938. For three weeks in May of that year, the Jamaican working people took centre-stage, brought the Colonial government to its knees and won for themselves rights, which had been denied them despite a century of petitions and laid the foundations of modern Jamaica by building new institutions under new leadership.

The two leaders who emerged during 1938 were Alexander Bustamante and Norman Manley. Both were cousins and the progeny of white and coloured parents. Born on February 24, 1884, Bustamante worked as a property overseer before he left Jamaica for Cuba in 1905. By the time he returned to Jamaica in 1934, he had worked as a dietician in the United States of America, and was twice married. He operated a money lending business, and came to national prominence as a prolific writer of letters to the newspaper and a defender of the interests of the small man. Once the 1938 rebellion started, his uncompromising leadership, sense of fair play and genuine sympathy for the suffering of the masses won their confidence, and they in turn made him their undisputed leader.

Norman Washington Manley was born at Roxborough in the parish of Manchester on July 4, 1893. By the time of the labour rebellion Manley’s achievements included Rhodes Scholar, prizeman at Gray’s Inn, First Class Honours in his Bar Finals, mathematician, brilliant legendary advocacy at the Bar and founder of Jamaica Welfare - a pioneer institution in rural development.

The BITU and the PNP

The first organized expression of the new consciousness of the masses was the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU). The foundations were laid in the heat of the rebellion on May 26, 1938, when a delegation of strikers from the Kingston Waterfront led by W.A. Williams met with Ken Hill, the 29 year old Secretary of the National Reform Association, who recommended that they form a union. Bustamante was still in prison, but his solicitor Ross Livingston gave the Labour Leader’s approval for the Union and nominated him for the Presidency. Two days later Bustamante was released from prison and the Bustamante Maritime Union, was established at 6-1/2 Duke Street as the first of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Unions.

The second institution came four months later when the entire Progressive Movement launched the People’s National Party on September 18 at the Ward Theatre. This was not Jamaica’s first political party, for as early as December 13, 1928, Marcus Garvey held a public meeting at the Ward Theatre under the aegis of his Peoples Political Party. Significantly, when he spelt out the Party’s political programme a year later at a public meeting on September 9, 1929, the first plank committed the Party to “representation in the Imperial Parliament for a larger modicum of self-government for Jamaica”.

Of the founding members of the PNP, O. T. Fairclough and Ken Hill could with justification claim paternity. It was Fairclough who first approached Manley in 1936 with the idea of forming a political Party and who did much of the preparatory work to make the founding conference possible. Ken Hill, who was then Secretary of the NRA - Jamaica’s first nationalist organisation, organised the rally on the 10th of August 1938 at which Manley publicly declared his support for the nationalist Party which Fairclough had proposed. Hill then dissolved the NRA to make way for the PNP.

In his address, Party President Norman Manley placed the issues and choices squarely before the assembled delegates. “Either make up your minds to go back to Crown Colony Government … or face the hard road of political organization … the hard road of discipline, developing your own capacities, your own powers….and your own people to the stage where they are capable of administering their own affairs.”

A Hard Row to Hoe

For Manley and the PNP self-government was a hard ‘row to hoe’ in the Jamaica of 1938 for very few Jamaicans were convinced of either the possibility or desirability of self-government. The idea that Jamaica should become an independent state, ruled by a local elite to the exclusion of the British monarchy, was not yet a part of the consciousness of the Jamaican people. Worse, the masses had been led to believe that the white and brown elite, who would become their rulers under self government, were no different from their ancestors who fought to maintain slavery, and that it was Queen Victoria who set the slaves free in 1838.

In Jamaica of 1938 half of the labour force was either unemployed or unemployable. Wages in agriculture had hardly moved in over 100 years and was then 1 shilling and 6 pence per day for men and 9 pence for women. The report of the Chief Medical Officer, established that 70% of the population was affected by hookworm, one in every eleven had yaws and tuberculosis was the largest single cause of death. Some one and a quarter million acres or more than half of all the land was owned by 807 big planters. There were no universities and high school education was reserved for less than 1% of the population.

However, the consciousness of the masses then hardly led them to associate their lack of development with British colonial policy. As far as they were concerned, their progress depended on the paternalism of the rulers of the world’s largest empire. The British monarchy, in their minds, was an asset not a liability.

A United National Movement

Also seated on the platform at the PNPs founding Conference was Alexander Bustamante but despite his presence, the undisputed leader of the labour movement was neither asked to address the founding conference nor considered for a position of leadership. The failure of the PNP to recognize him on this important occasion was an extreme case of sectarianism, which could hardly have helped their cause.

Despite his reservations about some of the leaders of the PNP, Bustamante formally joined the PNP in 1939 and both he and Manley developed a working relationship, which they both valued and recognized as crucial to Jamaica’s development. At a public meeting in 1940 with leaders of the PNP on the platform, Bustamante publicly declared:

“I know this, that if Mr. Manley cooperates with me as I will with him, that we will do something for this country. I will say this without any boast, there is no greater power in this country than the combination of Manley and Bustamante. I intend to cooperate with the Party for the benefit of the masses. Any trouble that Manley and I may have in the future we will fight it out ourselves…”

The Role of Governor Arthur Richards

From day one a source of major concern to the British colonial office was the extent to which Bustamante and Manley dominated the labour movement and the political process. Every effort was therefore made not only to break this monopoly, but also to prevent at all costs any further consolidation of politics and labour into one movement. The strategic line of colonial policy was to ‘divide and rule,’ and the governor of the day, Sir Arthur Richards, implemented this policy with extraordinary skill.

In the aftermath of the 1938 rebellion, it was Bustamante’s extremism more so than Manley’s socialist reputation, which caused the most anxiety to the Governor. At a public meeting on the 7th of September 1940, the police reported Bustamante as saying,

“There will be bloodshed. I expect everyone in this country to follow. We will…let those employers respect us. We will take away their land and give them [sic] to the workers … We want our own government and it must be self-government too. The niggers of this country shall rise. We do not want to got to war like a timid dog. This will be war. We want revolution in this country and before whites destroy us we will destroy them. I am going to paralyse all industrial works of this country. There will be shedding of blood.”

Governor Richards promptly had him arrested under the defence regulations and placed him under guard at Gibraltar Camp. One indicator of the unity that still existed was the message sent from detention by Bustamante, which was read at a joint public meeting of the PNP and the BITU calling on the workers to follow the advice of his cousin, (Norman Manley) and his solicitor, Ross Livingston. Manley and the PNP gave more than advice as Bustamante’s secretary Gladys Longbridge recalled in her memoirs: “Norman Manley had offered his services to help keep the union vibrant during Busta’s incarceration… and in his effort to assist Mr. Manley selected some of his most effective party organizers and brought them into the BITU to work with us.”

The PNP’s increasing influence in the running of the BITU was not only of concern for Bustamante but also for Governor Richards, who assessed the threat now posed by the PNP in a letter to the Secretary of State to the colonies written on the 28th of September 1940. “The PNP’s alliance with the Bustamante union would give it great strength in any universal suffrage election.”

The PNP Declares for Socialism

To make matters worse for the colonial authorities, the Party now moved decisively to the left, as at their second annual conference in September 1940, Norman Manley declared the PNP ‘Socialist.’ Britain was then at war and the nightly bombing of London raised questions as to Britain’s capacity to survive. The Soviet Union, although an ally of Britain in the war, had already raised the banner of world socialism.

Governor Richards could hardly have been amused when Norman Manley went on to say, “the war may last long or it may end suddenly than is expected, but the results will be the same. The old order is gone and either we will find the world becomes Fascist under one guise or another or Socialism will emerge as a growing and dominant power in human affairs. If the latter happens we must be ready to deserve it”.

This was the context in which party politics emerged in Jamaica. The PNP, which until then was the political arm of the national movement, and the driving force for a new constitution, would soon discover that it would be competing with two other political parties in Jamaica’s first election under Universal Adult Suffrage.

This is the introduction of a series of articles on the 14 General Elections since 1944 by Arnold Bertram, historian and former Parliamentarian and Cabinet Minister. Mr. Bertram is presently chairman and CEO of Research and Development Projects Ltd., and Chairman of Lillyfield Attractions Ltd.





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