Norman Manley

The Jamaican politician Norman Manley (1893–1969) negotiated his country‘s independence from Great Britain, which was achieved in 1962. As a minister in the British colonial government in the decades preceding that event, Manley founded the People‘s National Party, one of Jamaica‘s two major political parties, and laid substantial foundations for the development of independent his country's longstanding democratic government.

Pictorial Parade/Getty Images

Pictorial Parade/Getty Images

From Oxford University to the Somme

After graduating from Jamaica College, Manley stayed on as a teacher for several months. His future gained a boost when, in 1914, he won the prestigious Rhodes scholarship, enabling him to study law at Jesus College of Oxford University. Despite the rigors of law school at one of England‘s top institutions, Manley found time for athletics: he boxed, played cricket and soccer, and ran sprints. In 1911 he had already set a record of 10 seconds in the 100-yard dash, a mark that remained unbeaten for 41 years.

Manley‘s studies at Oxford were interrupted by the outbreak of World War I in late July 1914. He enlisted in the British Royal Field Artillery and declined promotions to higher officer ranks because they would have kept him away from the fighting. He ultimately left the force with the rank of corporal, having served for three years and seeing action at the devastating battles of Somme and Ypres. Manley was awarded Britain‘s Military Medal; his brother, Roy Manley, was killed in action during the war.

In 1919, after the war‘s end, Manley resumed his studies at Oxford. In 1921, he was called to the bar (officially approved to argue cases in court); he also married artist Edna Swithenbank, whom he had met on a visit to a relative‘s home in 1914. Just 14 years old at the time, Edna was also his cousin. She was later to become known as the Mother of Jamaican Art. In 1922 Manley returned to Jamaica with his wife, a new baby, and just £50 in his pocket.

Reputedly Never Lost Murder Case

It did not take Manley long to prosper in his adopted country, and he was soon regarded as one of the top lawyers in the British West Indies. Diligent and skilled at debate, he was feared by the attorneys he opposed, and he is said to have never lost a murder case on which he served as defense attorney. Even after his interests shifted to politics and social activism, he continued to practice law in Jamaica and to maintain his top-rank reputation. When he argued a trademark case connected with the Vicks pharmaceutical firm in 1951, Britain‘s Lord Chancellor (a top judicial and executive governmental official) described Manley's work as the best he had ever heard in a trademark case.

Manley‘s success as an attorney was due in part to his intensely competitive nature. “What gave Manley the edge over his peers?” asked Jackie Ranston in his study Lawyer Manley, and Ranston answered his question using Manley‘s own words: “An absolutely egotistic determination to win every case I was engaged in, which I regard as the most important attribute of an advocate … a total will to win, so that you stop at nothing but deal with maximum concentration, maximum personal observation, maximum study, maximum everything.” During his career, Manley was involved in several celebrated cases, including an adultery action launched against black leader Marcus Garvey.

Manley gave up the practice of law entirely in 1955 in favor of politics. The roots of his social activism lay in the world-wide economic depression of the 1930s, during which impoverished rural Jamaica was especially hard hit. In 1937, he founded Jamaica Welfare Limited, a community development agency that aimed, according to the Jamaica Experience website, “to help with the development of farming, land preparation, and villagers helping themselves.” The agency—later renamed the Social Welfare Commission and then the Social Development Commission—helped to establish such operations as cooperative farms. It is still in existence today, although Manley later complained that changes to its structure betrayed its original purpose. He founded an Agricultural Development Corporation and an Industrial Development Corporation, both which continue to exist and work to alleviate poverty in Jamaica. When serious labor unrest hit Jamaica‘s sugar industry in 1938, Manley supported the labor movement. He also represented his cousin, Bustamante, when the latter was imprisoned for his role in support of related protests and succeeded in negotiating his release.

Formed Political Party

Manley was scrupulous about instituting democratic processes in Jamaica, even when he seemed to come out on the losing end of electoral contests. His PNP lost to Bustamante‘s JLP in 1944 and 1949, while he was serving as the colony‘s minister of communications. The PNP won elections in 1955 and 1959, making Manley the colony‘s chief minister (the position was later renamed premier) until Jamaica gained independence in 1962. In this position, he worked to further the goals of industrialization, education reform, and aid to small farmers, goals already begun under the institutions he had founded. He also established an arts & culture ministry to promote the idea of African-centered arts long before such an idea was common.

As Great Britain began to accept the independence of many of its colonies in the post–World War II period, Manley‘s leadership position allowed him to influence negotiations regarding Jamaica‘s future. Initially, many parties to the negotiations, including Manley, favored the establishment of a West Indian Federation consisting of ten provinces corresponding to many of the independent nations of the modern Caribbean. This body was officially launched in 1958, with its own government offices, court system, and general elections. From the beginning, however, the federation was beset by squabbling among member provinces, and Bustamante and the JLP soon demanded that Jamaica pull out. In 1961 Manley agreed to a nationwide referendum on the issue and Jamaicans voted to leave. Less than a year later, the Federation dissolved for good.

Negotiated Jamaican Independence

Manley then took a lead role in negotiating the final terms of Jamaica‘s independence from Britain, which began on August 6, 1962. The footprints of his seven years of leadership in the colonial government remain visible in Jamaica today, including schools, a nationwide system of public libraries, the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation, and a national sports stadium and scientific research council. Afrocentric in his orientation toward the arts, he became the first leader in an English-speaking Caribbean country to include an arts and culture office in his government. The Jamaica Youth Corps, which Manley established, attempted to promote a sense of citizenship by inspiring a large number of the country‘s unemployed rural young people.

As the preparation for Jamaica‘s formal day of independence—August 6, 1962—neared, elections were held, and on April 10 Manley‘s PLP lost, holding a close second to Bustamante‘s JLP. Manley entered the life of the new nation as leader of the opposition, helping to cement Jamaica‘s democratic stability—a condition that stood in marked contrast to the situation in many other Third World countries during the post-World War II period. On his 76th birthday, July 4, 1969, Manley retired as leader of the PLP. Suffering from respiratory illness, he died in Kingston only months later, on September 2, 1969. On October 18, he was posthumously awarded the Order of National Hero, becoming one of only seven Jamaicans ever so designated. Surviving Manley was his wife Edna, whose art during this period would capture her sadness at his passing and who would die in 1987. Their son, Michael Manley, became Jamaica‘s prime minister in 1972, serving until 1980 and then again from 1989 to 1992. Kingston‘s Norman Manley International Airport is named in his honor.


Nettleford, Rex, editor, Norman Washington Manley and the New Jamaica: Selected Speeches and Writings, 1938–68, Longman Caribbean, 1971.

Ranston, Jackie, Lawyer Manley, University of the West Indies, 1998.


New York Times, April 6, 2015.


Jamaica Experience website, (November 2, 2016), “Norman Washington Manley.”

Jamaica Information Service online, (November 2, 2016), “Norman Washington Manley.”

Jamaica Travel and Culture website, (November 2, 2016), “Norman Manley.”❑

(MLA 8th Edition)