The Most Hon. Hugh Lawson Shearer
Former Prime Minister of Jamaica
The Most Hon. Hugh Lawson Shearer was Jamaica’s third Prime Minister
Early life and education
Hugh Lawson Shearer was born in the village of Martha Brae just outside of Falmouth, Trelawny on 18 May 1923. His parents were James Shearer a World War One ex-serviceman and Esther Lindo, a dressmaker.
He attended the Falmouth Primary school and from there he won the parish scholarship to St. Simon’s College, a privately owned high school in Kingston. He graduated from St. Simon’s in 1940.
Mr. Shearer entered the workforce during a period of intense political and labour turmoil in Jamaica. Sir Alexander Bustamante, the undisputed head of the labour movement and founder of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU), and Norman Manley, head of the first organised political party in Jamaica, the People’s National Party (PNP), were both engaged in the struggle to reshape and redefine the Jamaican society in the period from 1938 to 1944.
Mr. Shearer, who could claim distant kinship to both Bustamante and Manley, was interested in journalism. He was taken on as a trainee journalist on the weekly publication the “Jamaica Worker”, the newspaper of the BITU, understudying Mr. Lynden G. Newland, who was then the paper’s editor. When Mr. Newland became General Secretary of the Union, Mr. Shearer continued working on the paper and eventually became its editor.
While still editor of the paper, Mr. Shearer began to serve his apprenticeship as a trade unionist. He took part with Bustamante and other union officers in union organisation and in negotiations with employers in some of the most important labour disputes. Mr. Shearer got his first taste of party politics during the 1944 elections, when he campaigned for the “Chief”, as Bustamante was then popularly called, in the Western Kingston constituency. The Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) won the election and Mr. Shearer continued his work in the BITU.
Three years later, in 1947, Mr. Shearer was appointed Assistant General Secretary of the Union, and in that same year contested and won the Central St. Andrew seat on the Kingston and St. Andrew Corporation Council.
In 1948 Mr. Shearer attended a Colonial Development and Welfare Trade Union Scholarship course in Barbados.
In the 1949 elections, Mr. Shearer contested the Western Kingston seat but was defeated by the PNP’s Ken Hill.
In trade union circles, Mr. Shearer was becoming increasingly recognised as a key figure, sitting next to Bustamante in all important negotiations. In 1953, he was appointed Island Supervisor of the BITU.
In the 1955 general elections he was elected to a seat in the House of Representatives even though the JLP lost the elections. He sat in the Opposition benches until he lost his seat in the 1959 elections.
In 1960 he was elected Vice-President of the BITU, second only to Sir Alexander Bustamante who was President General.
In the 1961 referendum campaign to decide whether Jamaica should remain in the West Indies Federation or seek independence alone, the BITU under Hugh Shearer swung its weight behind the JLP’s campaign for Jamaica to go it alone, and the JLP gained a decisive victory.
Appointed to Senate
The JLP won the succeeding general elections and Mr. Shearer was appointed to the Legislative Council. When this was replaced by the Senate he was made Leader of Government Business and a Minister without Portfolio. He was also appointed Deputy Chief of Mission for Jamaica at the United Nations General Assembly and figured in many crucial international issues.
In 1963, Mr. Shearer presented a proposal to the United Nations that 1968 be designation “Human Rights Year”. This proposal was accepted by the UN General Assembly.
Mr. Shearer was a member of the Jamaican delegation at the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference in September 1966.
In the 1967 general elections, Mr. Shearer won the Clarendon seat which had been held by Sir Alexander Bustamante before his retirement from active politics.
In the new Government, Mr. Shearer was appointed Minister of External Affairs on 27 February 1967.
On the passing of Sir Donald Sangster, Mr. Shearer was chosen to be Prime Minister of Jamaica. He was sworn in on 11 April 1967.
On 6 January 1969 Mr. Shearer was appointed by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II as Member of the Privy Council of England.
During his tenure as Prime Minister, Jamaica attained its highest ever-gross domestic product (GDP) per capita – US$2,300 – based on rapid growth in agriculture, mining and tourism.
He also started a system of major highways, the first being the Kingston to Spanish Town Highway, and laid the plans for other by-pass routes, which would remove bottlenecks in all major towns.
Mr. Shearer had a special interest in education, and courtesy of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), he was able to make marked improvements to the existing system, under the New Deal Education Programme. The New Deal Programme was designed to provide a sound education for every child in Jamaica, and, for the first time, the prospect of a totally educated population became a real possibility.
In Foreign Affairs, he gained the concession for a managed market for Caribbean bananas through shrewd bargaining at the Commonwealth Conference in Zambia, when the future of that organization hung in the balance. The British Prime Minister, Edward Heath, later paid tribute to his statesmanship. The banana arrangements have been a lifeline for the Caribbean industry, despite fierce international opposition, (and were replaced in 2000 after a major international dispute).
Return to Trade Union
After the 1972 general elections in which he retained his parliamentary seat, Mr. Shearer was Leader of the Opposition until 1974, when he decided to devote his energies full-time to the Trade Union Movement.
He became President of the BITU in 1977 and in the ensuing years built the Union into the largest in the English-speaking Caribbean.
Mr. Shearer also played a leading role in the discussions and negotiations leading up to the establishment in 1980 of the Joint Trade Union Research Institute, the first of its kind in the Caribbean.
On November 9, 1980 following the victory of the Jamaica Labour Party in the general elections, Mr. Shearer was appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. Mr. Shearer held this position until 1989 when the PNP won the general elections.
Mr. Shearer continued as Member of Parliament for the Southern Clarendon constituency until he lost the seat in the 1993 general elections. He then retired from active public life.
Honours and awards
Two national honours were conferred on Mr. Shearer during his lifetime:
- The Order of Jamaica on 23 May 1990
- The Order of the Nation on 21 October 2002
Mr. Shearer was also awarded the Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, by Howard University in 1968 and the University of the West Indies (UWI) in 1994.
He was married to wife, the Most Honourable Dr. Denise Eldemire Shearer. He was the father of three sons Corey Alexander, Howard and Lance; and daughters Hope, Hillary, Mischka Garel, Heather and Ana Margaret Sanchez.
He died at his home in Kingston on 5 July 2004 at the age of 81.