Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Monday, February 22, 2010

Bustamante's backbone

The river may be wide, but it can be crossed. (Cote d'Ivoire)

1884 - Alexander Bustamante was born.

As a child, I experienced at first hand Bustamante’s skill in reaching the heart of a crowd. My family favoured the opposing party, but none of us could resist Busta’s magnetism on the political platform. We knew we were in for theatre on the street corner when the crowd started singing, “He’s the lily of the valley.”. When his speech ended (always too soon) his supporters would pledge loyalty with the party song,

We will follow Bustamante,
We will follow Bustamante till we die.

He was born William Alexander Clarke and later took the name Bustamante. Affectionately called Busta, or Chief, he worked in Cuba as well as New York before returning to Jamaica in 1932. During the 1938 riots he defended the workers who were on strike, and after the riots he set up the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU).

Busta identified closely with his grassroots followers, and I suspect he fostered the urban legend that he could not read or write. His rivals may therefore have added to his mystique by spreading stories about his lack of education. For example, it is said that he once told a crowd. “If you vote for me, I will make sure you have bread. B-r-e-d.”

“You leave out the ‘a’. Busta,” said a follower.
“You will have bread. B-r-e-d-a.” Busta allegedly said.

In another of these stories, Busta was again in campaign mode. He is supposed to have said to a rural community,"If you vote for me, I will build you a bridge."

"But we don't have any river here," a community member said.
"Well, if you vote for me, I will give you a river," Busta said, according to this 'report'.

The story below is true, and shows the courage and charisma of this man.

A crowd had gathered at Parade, a section of downtown Kingston where there was a statue of Queen Victoria. Busta spoke from on top of the statue. He told the workers that, with their support, he would be able to negotiate from a position of strength. So he appealed to the people to go home peacefully. As he climbed down from the statue, policemen pointed their rifles at the crowd and told them to disperse.

Busta then bared his chest, and said to the police, "If you are going to shoot, shoot me, but leave these defenceless, hungry people alone." He then told the people to sing the God Save the King. This was Jamaica's national anthem as the country was still a British colony. The police were obliged to lower their rifles and stand at attention out of respect for the British Empire. Busta then took the opportunity to lead the crowd away.

In spite of his request for non-violence, rioting did ultimately erupt. As a result, Busta spent two years in prison, from 1940 to 1942, for “subversive activities”. In 1943 he founded the Jamaica Labour Party and went on to win the 1944 elections, the first time all adult Jamaicans were allowed to vote. His political rival was his cousin, Norman Manley. Busta lost the 1955 elections but was returned to power in time to be the first Prime Minister of Jamaica after independence in 1962.

In 1968, Busta was proclaimed a National Hero. He died in 1977.

Many children today remember Busta because of a firm, tough sweet named after him – Bustamante Backbone.

Do you have any stories about Busta or about a folk hero in your country? Please share., Norm

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When the occasion arises, there is a proverb to suit it. (Proverb from Rwanda and Burundi)

Welcome to this space where we can talk about proverbs that we can relate to (or not), and proverbs that make sense to us (or not). Most of all we can discuss how proverbs make us think about life and living. We can also share experiences of proverbs that have provided us with lifelines or just the chance to reflect.

Some of the proverbs here may also be found in "Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs", published by Random House and authored by Askhari Johnson Hodari and me. The foreword is written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

One of the unique features of our book is that we arranged the proverbs according to life cycle, in sections including, Birth, Childhood, Love, Marriage, and Intimacy, Challenge, and Death.

For more proverbs and for information on Lifelines: the Black Book of Proverbs, please visit us at