Published in The Sunday Gleaner on September 23:
Forgotten and unrewarded
Call the names of Alexander Bustamante, Michael Manley, P.J. Patterson, or Edward Seaga, and Jamaicans immediately know to whom you are referring. Say the name ‘Donald Sangster’, and they may tell you about an airport, a bookstore – or, perhaps, a rum cream. Not many may be readily aware that Sir Donald Sangster was a prime minister of Jamaica.
Hartley Neita, former press secretary for the prime minister, decided to fill the gap of missing information about Sangster with his recently published biography, Jamaica’s Forgotten Prime Minister – Donald Sangster.
The book’s title alone is a rebuke to the nation for failing to better honour the legacy of one of its premier leaders; on Tuesday, September 18, no punches were pulled as panellists Ken Chaplin, Michelle Neita and Patrick Bryan discussed the topic ‘Preserving the Memory of Our Prime Ministers’ at the Bookophilia bookstore and café in Liguanea, Kingston.
Chaired by University of the West Indies Professor Rupert Lewis, the evening was characterised by a continuous flow of animated debate punctuated by healthy doses of laughter from the audience, which included communications specialist and media veteran Marcia Forbes; Donna Parchment Brown, CEO of Dispute Resolution Foundation; Prime Minister Sangster’s son, Bindley Sangster; author and educator, Dr Alfred Sangster; educator and theatre personality, Jean Small; former high commissioner to the United Kingdom, Ambassador Anthony Johnson; and former Security Minister Dwight Nelson.
“If we feel that the history of our country is sacrosanct, then we need to preserve it,”noted Michelle Neita, daughter of Hartley Neita and editor of the biography. She argued that with only nine post-Independence prime ministers, it was tragic that Sangster’s name and legacy were so obscure, and suggested the establishment of an organisation to record their tenures of different prime ministers – something like a mini-museum.
Ken Chaplin, former national press secretary, asked how the memories of prime ministers could be preserved when the country’s record of development had been far from impressive. Crafting a compelling vision of the dismal state of the nation’s education and economy, and referring to the link between crime and politics, Chaplin decried the non-performance of Jamaican prime ministers over the years, and asked if this below-average record was worthy of memory at all.
He ended on a positive note, however, suggesting that, in spite of all their shortcomings, prime ministers’ memories could be preserved and emphasised the need for “consistent and extensive national action”.
UWI historian Patrick Bryan, who delved into the heart of Neita’s book. “On the surface,” Bryan said, “the PM has not been forgotten, so why is he called forgotten?” He went on to explain this was because of the shortness of Sangsters’ term in office and the very limited knowledge of his personal contributions to nation-building.
The veracity of this point was later proven when Ambassador Johnson noted areas in which Donald Sangster was critical to Jamaica’s nation-building:
- making Jamaica the ‘tomato capital’ of the region. He noted that if Sangster had stayed alive, we would still have a vibrant vegetable industry in St Elizabeth;
- being an avid supporter of CARIFTA, to the point where he was given the moniker ‘Mr Commonwealth’;
- supporting the building of the Donald Sangster International Airport at a time when others would perhaps not have seen fit to do so. This facility was later named in his honour and is now the largest airport in Jamaica; and
- procuring a contract for Jamaica to export oranges to New Zealand
Summing up, Dr Alfred Sangster said the PM was “forgotten and unrewarded”. He noted that the importance of Neita’s book lay precisely in the fact that it shed light on a man who had worked hard for the benefit of his nation, and would dispel some of the myths and mystery surrounding his tenure.
“He represented perhaps one of the last prime ministers who could walk in any crowd and be comfortable,” Sangster said. “We, as a family, are proud of him.”