Come Saturday, March 8 (International Women’s Day), the country will be privileged to celebrate with Lady Bustamante, her 96th birthday.
This is quite fitting for this stately and humble being, who is a defender of women’s rights, as exemplified in her steadfast stance for port workers in 1938, alongside Alexander Bustamante.
Affectionately called ‘Lady B’, she is the widow of National Hero, the Rt. Excellent Sir Alexander Bustamante, who was Head of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU); Leader of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the first Prime Minister of independent Jamaica in 1962.
Although not active these days, Lady B is still Honorary Treasurer of the BITU. She gives thanks to the Creator for her long life. “I thank God for sparing my life,” she says.
Lifelong friend of Lady Bustamante, Seragh Lakersingh, in an interview with JIS News, speaks of her humility.
“Humility is the hallmark of her life. Even at the helm of the country, she remained humble. She was never swayed by positions and status; she was easily accessible. She was all things to all persons,” he says.
General Secretary of the BITU, George Fyffe, tells JIS News that, “we all love Lady Bustamante and we wish her long life.” In her book, ‘The Memoirs of Lady Bustamante’, she speaks glowingly of working quietly behind the scenes and beside her husband.
Born Gladys Longbridge in 1912, she hails from Parson Reid, near Ashton in Westmorland. In her book, Lady Bustamante says she was a “welcome baby,” even though she was born out of wedlock.
“Being born out of wedlock was not a major issue in rural Jamaica then,” she writes.
Lady Bustamante, who studied commercial subjects at Tutorial College in Kingston, worked as secretary for Sir Alexander, a man she admired due to his concern for the poor.
“I took up my job with pride and great expectations of becoming involved more with people than with paper and pencil,” Lady Bustamante writes.
She was a private secretary to Mr. Bustamante from 1936 when he was a businessman, then a trade unionist and then a politician until he became Prime Minister in 1962. “I was privileged to stand with Alexander Bustamante, behind him first and beside him ever after,” she says.
Lady Bustamante with Sir Alexander Bustamante, who died in 1977. Lady Bustamante celebrates her 96th birthday on March 8. Photograph contributed by LMH Publishing Limited.
Lady Bustamante speaks of going with him, while she was in his employ, all across the country by car, often times being his driver. “We went to remote little districts speaking to the people, seeing how they lived and noting their problems,” she writes. She also highlights a humorous side to Sir Alexander, revealing that she called him Mr. ‘B’ and he pronounced her name ‘Glad Ice’, which reflected the close-knit relationship they shared. In her memoirs, Lady Bustamante describes how she found herself fully involved in some of the most stirring events in 20th Century Jamaica. She recalls that on Monday, May 23, 1938, thousands of port workers took strike action and marched to Victoria Park to get direction from their leader, Sir Alexander, and during the upheavals, she found herself in the forefront of the action.
“A series of unlikely events led me into the thick of trade unionism and politics. Before too long, I would become deeply involved in the movement to reform Jamaica. The folks at home would marvel at the fact that the quiet, Sunday-school organist from Ashton was in the forefront of national upheaval, fighting for the under-paid working class and the hungry unemployed. Almost all my working days have been spent in this service; even now so late in life, I am still fully committed to trade unionism and I propose to continue that way until that breath has left my body,” she writes.
Lady Bustamante puts modesty aside when she speaks of the women’s role in the BITU at that time, even though she respected the men’s input.
“We women were the mainstay of the Union’s organization, though we could hardly have functioned without the brave men who toiled day and night, facing all sorts of criticism and opposition as they tried to help the workers. Bustamante was the busiest of us all, scouring the rural areas, forming branches, listening to grievances, offering solutions and calling publicly upon Government as well as private employers to deal fairly with the masses. On nearly all these trips I was by his side, taking note of important details, seeing to his personal welfare and offering advice based upon my own experience, close contact with the people, and of course, a woman’s intuition,” she writes.
It is very obvious that Lady Bustamante was devoted to her husband. She even went as far as to wrestle a drunk who looked as if he intended to hit Sir Alexander. “It was then that I summoned up the nerve to grab the offender by his tie and pull him to the floor,” she writes.
When Jamaica became independent in 1962, Lady Bustamante became Jamaica’s first ‘First Lady.’ “He just announced to me that he was going to marry me,” she writes.
This was a few months after the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), which Bustamante had formed, won the general elections and Sir Alexander was sworn in as the first Prime Minister of Jamaica.
When Sir Alexander passed away on August 6, 1977, Lady Bustamante says she “was paralyzed with grief.” She, however, forced herself to stay active, still continuing to serve as Treasurer of the BITU.
She has lent her support to many causes, including her beloved Bustamante Hospital for Children, of which she is Patron.
Many persons who know Lady Bustamante describe her as a humble, modest figure. She did social work islandwide, particularly among port workers and their families, in sugar communities and among children of destitute parents. She was also actively engaged with work at a number of voluntary and charitable institutions.
Her work has been so recognized and appreciated that ‘Lady Bustamante Day’ was declared twice – first on December 10, 1998 – which stemmed from an award for outstanding achievement from the Metropolitan Dade County of Opa-Locka in the United States, for her determination and commitment to the betterment of humankind. And the second time on October 16, 2003, by the Kingston and St. Andrew Corporation (KSAC), for her contribution to national development.
Among her other numerous awards over the years are: Presentation by Mayor Wagner of the Key to the City of New York, in the form of a gold pendant, in 1963; Committee for Christian Education of New York and Jamaica award for service of dedication to the people of the world; Gleaner Special Merit Award for Outstanding Service to the nation in 1979; Plaque for outstanding public service to Jamaica to mark the end of United Nations Decade of Women (1976-1986), in 1986; Harmony in the Homes Movement, Model Family Trophy in recognition of ‘Widow – Exemplary Family Life’ in 1985;Golden Orchid Award from Venezuelan Government in recognition of dedication to Sir Alexander’s ideals in 1979; Woman Inc. Award for the Celebration of Womanhood in 1988; and in 1990, Certificate of Welcome from Mayor Bradley, on behalf of the people of Los Angeles, in recognition of the National Day of Jamaica in August.