Bustamante Manley

1937-1944: Jamaica Seizes Control of its Own History

Hard economic times have never been easy on the Caribbean, where so many islands' economies are so tightly tied to their exports. Jamaica was no exception. Still, these tense times gave rise to great political leaders who brought Jamaica into independence.

Estate Trouble and Unions

The West Indies Sugar Company owned many estates, but Frome, located in Westmoreland, was the site of a strike in 1938. The clash here led to disorder around the island, and Alexander Bustamante was one of the leaders arrested for the rioting. At this same time the island's Governor, Sir Edward Denham, died, and Sir Arthur Richards was sent to take control of Jamaica.

The strike was just the beginning of change throughout the island. Bustamante soon founded the Industrial Trade Union, which would later be associated with the Labour Party, also formed by Bustamante.

Another powerful leader came to light in 1938. Norman Manley, a distant cousin of Bustamante, began the People's National Party (PNP). The PNP was a socialist party associated with the Trades Union Council and, more recently, with the National Workers' Union.

Though Bustamante and Manley are both National Heroes in Jamaica, the two men started out on slightly different sides of the same historic struggle. Throughout the 1900s, power bounced back and forth between the political parties that each led.

World War II

The Second World War was also the second European War that did not draw in Jamaica's resources. While a number of men and women joined the armed forces for Britain, there was no draft requiring new members.

Britain, however, did make one important change: The Crown leased air and naval bases to the U.S. In Jamaica, such bases were nearly all located around Portland Bight. The presence of U.S. troops caused Jamaica to become more noticed.

In 1940 a Royal Commission review brought to light some of the British Territories' poor conditions. After this review, the Colonial Development and Welfare Act was passed, and Parliament voted to provide financial assistance to the colonies for 10 years.

Island Politics

Jamaica had never been fully satisfied by the terms of its constitution, and for many years they modified the terms, creating a new balance of power throughout the island. The first change came in 1944.

The constitution was revised to provide for the following.

  • A bicameral Legislature containing:
    • a House of Representatives with 32 elected members; and
    • a Legislative Council with nominated members on both an official and unofficial basis.
  • An Executive Council consisting of:
    • the Governor acting as Chairman;
    • three Officials;
    • two nominated Unofficials; and
    • five members (Ministers) elected by the House of Representatives.
  • Universal adult suffrage, giving males and females the right to vote at age 21.

In previous years, only landowners had been allowed to vote. Blacks were further restricted from voting by legislation that imposed literacy tests. Some objected to universal adult suffrage due to the high illiteracy rate among the people, but the new system was adopted.

This change was a large jump toward self-government in Jamaica and empowered many people to vote, raising the numbers from 20,000 to 700,000. More recently the voting age has been lowered to 18.

First Elections

Parties developed for this first election under Jamaica's new constitution - a first on the island. However, these were not political parties in the modern sense. The understanding was that all elected members would be opposed to the executive government and its appointed officials.

The two main parties that developed were the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), led by Bustamante, and Manley's PNP. In this first election the JLP took a vast majority of the seats: 25 out of 32 in the House of Representatives. Although the second election in 1949 left the JLP's majority intact, their margin was slipping.

Economic Revision

While agriculture had always been Jamaica's economic mainstay under the reign of sugar and bananas, it was supplemented in the 1940s and 50s by bauxite mining and other industries.

It had been known for some time that Jamaica's soil was rich in bauxite, the material from which aluminum is manufactured. Tourism was just beginning, but could not be counted on in these early years, especially with the troubles of the World War.

Companies mining Jamaica for bauxite were taxed somewhat heavily beginning in 1956, and this taxation became an important source of revenue for Jamaica's government. Once mined, the lands are often returned to their former status as cattle pastures.

Jamaica's government and economy slowly moved from colonial dependence to full-fledged independence. It is this shift that dominates Jamaica's history for the 20th century.

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