October 26, 1911
April 11, 1967
Donald Burns Sangster, the second prime minister of independent Jamaica, was born in Mountainside, St. Elizabeth, Jamaica. He was educated at Munro College and was admitted to the Jamaican Bar in 1937 as a solicitor of the Supreme Court. He began his political career in 1933 when he was elected to the Parochial Board of St. Elizabeth, which functioned as the local governing council. He was elected vice chairman of the board in 1941 and chairman in 1949.
Sangster's foray into national politics began in 1944—a momentous year in Jamaican history, for it was the year of the first general elections under universal adult suffrage. The two major political parties, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the People's National Party (PNP), dominated this contest, which the JLP, under the leadership of Alexander Bustamante (1884–1997), won handily. Sangster, who ran as an independent candidate, was defeated.
This reversal was only a temporary setback, however. In 1949 Sangster joined the JLP and won the South St. Elizabeth seat, as the JLP scored another political victory at the polls. After this, Sangster's political fortunes grew—he was appointed minister of social welfare and labour, and he became deputy party leader. Sangster owed this success to Bustamante, the popular prime minister, labor leader, and party chief, who had handpicked him for these posts.
Because of Bustamante's legendary penchant for exercising unchallenged authority, it is arguable that he would have wanted a loyalist for these positions, someone who would not challenge his authority or show overweening political ambition. Sangster's uncomplaining eighteen-year wait to become prime minister only confirmed that he was indeed a loyal, hardworking, and self-effacing team player.
These qualities were much in evidence in succeeding years, as Sangster assumed additional duties. On the international scene he represented Jamaica at Commonwealth Parliamentary Conferences in the 1950s. Furthermore, as prospects for the creation of the West Indies Federation (WIF) increased, Sangster headed the bipartisan Jamaican delegation to regional economic conferences on the federation. At home, he became finance minister and leader of the House of Representatives in 1953.
This period also saw a brief reversal of fortunes for Sangster and the JLP, as each met political defeat in the 1955 elections that brought the PNP to power. For Sang-ster, however, the year was not without its compensations. First, despite losing his seat in the St. Elizabeth constituency, he won a vacant seat in a by-election that was held in the North-East Clarendon constituency, thereby retaining a seat in the House of Representatives. Second, the Daily Gleaner, the island's influential newspaper, named him "Political Man of the Year" for his 1955 electoral win, and for being the brainchild behind "Jamaica 300," a year-long festival that marked three hundred years of artistic and cultural achievements by the Jamaican people. The Gleaner 's accolade therefore called attention to unnoticed aspects of Sangster's personality—his cultural nationalism, his defense of sovereignty for colonized peoples, and his concern for racial democracy.
Still, Sangster was no black militant. Nor was he a foe of the West. At a time when many in Jamaica, and elsewhere in the colonial world, were espousing black nationalist and anti-imperialist sentiments, Sangster subscribed to the multiracial nationalism typical of the brown middle class to which he belonged. He complemented this moderate cultural nationalism with democratic commitments, a pro-Western stance, and an outlook that favored Caribbean regionalism.
But Sangster's regional outlook did not make him an advocate of Jamaica's continued membership in the West Indies Federation, the regional organization that was founded in 1958. Thus, when Bustamante broke with the bipartisan approach on the issue in 1960, calling instead for Jamaica's withdrawal from the federation, Sangster did not oppose him. To settle the issue, the PNP administration, which backed Jamaican membership, held a referendum in September 1961. In a stunning decision that would ultimately doom the regional body, the Jamaican electorate sided with the JLP and voted to remove the island from the federation. The JLP followed up this victory with another win at the polls in the April 1962 general elections. Sangster was reappointed minister of finance and leader of the House. He became deputy prime minister after Jamaica's independence on August 6, 1962.
Sangster's major achievements as a political leader occurred in the immediate years after independence. Most notably, as Bustamante's deputy, he guided the fledgling nation into the turbulent postwar world. As an architect of Jamaica's foreign policy, Sangster affirmed the country's alliance with the United States and secured the island's membership in the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank.
Sangster also established a reputation as a statesman and parliamentarian in the Caribbean and in the British Commonwealth of Nations. He was the lead spokesman at the Caribbean Heads of Government Conferences in the early 1960s, and he advocated for more influence for the less-developed countries in the Commonwealth.
The Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith's Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965 gave Sangster the opportunity to lead by example. Smith's declaration threatened the breakup of the Commonwealth, as Britain rebuffed the members' call for military intervention. Sang-ster helped avert a walkout of African and other delegates when his compromise resolution was accepted. According to press reports, this achievement earned him the sobriquet "Mr. Commonwealth."
At home, Sangster had little to show that could match these achievements. This was partly due to serving in Bustamante's shadow. Indeed, Sangster's intermittent role as acting prime minister (due to Bustamante's poor health) since 1964 prevented him from putting his own imprimatur on power. When Bustamante did retire in January 1967, Sangster finally won power in his own right by defeating the PNP in the February 1967 general elections. His victory was short-lived, however. A month later, the international statesman and parliamentarian who had smoothed Jamaica's entry onto the world stage and established the island's reputation as a stable and well-governed nation, suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. He was flown to Montreal, Canada, for treatment but soon slipped into a coma. Sangster was knighted on his deathbed and passed away on April 11, after serving less than two months as prime minister.
Daily Gleaner, 13 April, 1967.
Eaton, George E. Alexander Bustamante and Modern Jamaica. Kingston: Kingston Publishers, 1975.
Gray, Obika. Radicalism and Social Change in Jamaica, 1960–1972. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991.
Gray, Obika. Demeaned but Empowered: The Social Power of the Urban Poor in Jamaica. Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2004.
The Sunday Gleaner, 30 December, 1962.
The Sunday Gleaner, 25 December, 1955.
obika gray (2005)