Tall, handsome, physically attractive, articulate, brilliant, a scholar and a negotiator, none of these characteristics outweighed Norman Manley’s strongest quality as an advocate and activist for the Jamaican people.
Born in Roxborough, Manchester on July 4, 1893, Manley began building his political legacy by working with Jamaica Welfare Limited. Like his cousin, Alexander Bustamante, he was moved by the plight of Jamaican workers, and together they advocated for better working conditions and petitioned the British government for the franchise of the Jamaican people.
Manley naturally excelled in almost everything he did. In high school, he was as good at athletics as he was academically. He first attended Beckford and Smith High School (now St. Jago High School) in Spanish Town, then transferred to Jamaica College after receiving a scholarship. There, he competed in the Jamaican Schoolboy Championships and set a record for completing the 100-yard run in ten seconds. He then obtained a Rhodes scholarship and studied civil law at Jesus College in Oxford, England in 1914.
Manley’s stay in England coincided with the First World War and he served in the Royal Field Artillery while completing his law studies. He was called to the bar in 1921, receiving the Lee Prizeman Award and Certificate of Honor in the bar final. He then returned to Jamaica and established his legal practice in 1922. In 1932 he was appointed King’s Counsel and was the first Jamaican barrister to appear before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in England.
In building a legacy, Manley had a more defined role when he formed and led the People’s National Party (PNP) in 1938. In 1954, Manley led efforts to secure executive powers for representatives elected and it was under his leadership that Jamaica attained full government authority to operate internally in 1959, which served as the precursor to Jamaica’s political independence.
Manley served as Jamaica’s Chief Minister after the 1955 elections and served as Jamaica’s first and only Prime Minister in 1958, the same year Jamaica joined the West Indies Federation. While Manley believed in and supported the Federation, he put the question to the Jamaican people by holding a referendum in 1961 to decide whether the country should remain in the Federation. The answer was no, and Manley arranged for the orderly withdrawal from Jamaica.
Manley remained chairman of the PNP, until his retirement in 1969.
In his final public address at an annual PNP conference, he said: “I say that the mission of my generation was to conquer the autonomy of Jamaica, to conquer the political power which is the ultimate power of the black masses of my country from which I come. I am proud to be here today and to say to you who fought this fight with me, say it with joy and pride, mission accomplished for my generation. And what is the mission of this generation? …is… to rebuild the social and economic life and society of Jamaica.”