Engineers John David Seivright Sangster and his brother Charley came to New York from Aberdeen, Scotland. During the labour shortage of the post- emancipation period, they were recruited to work on sugar estates in Westmoreland, Jamaica. Charley used his earnings to buy land in Westmoreland and developed a sugar estate, while John moved east and bought Fullerswood, in Mountainside, St. Elizabeth. John’s descendant, commissioned land surveyor William Burns Sangster, and his wife Cassandra Plummer, were the parents of Louis and of Donald Burns Sangster. Donald was born on the 26th February 1911, at the Victoria Jubilee Hospital in Kingston.
He was sent to Mountainside Elementary School, and at ten he went to Munro College and boarded in Calder House. He passed eight subjects, including a distinction in Chemistry in 1925 in the Junior Local Cambridge examinations. In 1927 he came second in Jamaica in the Senior Cambridge examinations – the same year that his father died.
Donald was a natural athlete. He first participated in athletic at Class 3 Under -14 in 1924, and won the 100 yards, pole vault, and hurdles, placed second in the 220 yards, and third in the long jump, becoming Class 3 Champion. In 1927 in Class 2, he won the four-mile cross country, as well as the 220 yards, pole vault, and the hurdles. In 1928 at Boys Champs he tied with three boys for second place in high jump, and in 1929 at Munro sports day he won the 220 and 440 yards, placed second in the 100 yards and pole vault, and was third in the mile. He was captain of his house cricket team, and as opening batsman for the school team, was described as “hard to dispose of.” After leaving Munro, he became captain of the St. Elizabeth Nethersole Cup cricket team, also played cricket for Mountainside, and joined the Black River Football Club.
Politics and Law
After school, he felt the tug to go into politics, due to his close association with his legislator uncle Peter Watt Sangster. Campaigning with uncle Peter during 1930’s, speaking on platforms, and seeing his uncle win, made him “the happiest boy in the world,” and he confessed to Evon Blake of Spotlight Magazine that “the greatest thing in the world is to speak on a political platform.” But he also felt that he should be equipped to really help people, and so he opted first for law, and became articled to Solicitor Mervin T. King in Black River. Donald took to law like a duck to water, and in addition, did a correspondence course in bookkeeping and accounting, gaining his Fellow and Associates Degrees. In 1937 at 26 years old, he came first in Jamaica in the final Solicitors’ examinations.
His political career began in 1933, when he won a seat on the St. Elizabeth Parochial Board (now renamed the Parish Council) at the age of 21. He became Vice-Chairman of the Board in 1941 through to 1945, and Chairman in 1947, the youngest in Jamaica’s history. The labour unrest of 1938 set labour against capital on sugar estates, banana ports, and the Kingston waterfront. It did not touch Fullerswood, however, for as one worker commented of Donald Sangster: “Every Christmus him kill a cow for we di workers and fi di old people dem in di the village, an him sit wid we an him eat wid we, and him treat we fair wid good wages too.”
With this background, his ambitions to help people did not always fit neatly into a JLP or PNP category. Universal adult suffrage and a new constitution came in 1944, and general elections were held. Sangster ran as an independent candidate, but lost to B.B. Coke of the victorious Jamaica Labour Party. Donald turned his attention back to his local social issues, and became the secretary of a Tourism Development Association of the parish, exploring ideas like fishing and boating on the Black River, a look-out point at Lovers Leap, the development of beaches, Bamboo Avenue, and the establishment of a craft centre.
The second general elections took place in 1949. This time Donald ran for the JLP, against four other candidates, including the incumbent B.B. Coke who was now an independent candidate. Sangster won, the JLP won again, and party leader Alexander Bustamante assigned Donald Sangster to the Social Welfare portfolio as part of his five-member cabinet. Others were Isaac Barrant for Agriculture, Joseph Z. Malcolm for Education, Sir Harold Allan in charge of Finance and leader of the House, and Busta himself took Communications. One year later, Sangster was elected the first deputy leader of the party, and served in that office for 17 years. In February 1953, Sir Harold Allan died, and Donald Sangster became the new Minister of Finance and leader of the House.
From that time on, Donald Sangster became the solid base of the Jamaica Labour Party- the maestro who captured the sometimes overheated statements of Bustamante and marshalled them into legal policy. His consensual approach from a position of knowledge and experience gave stability to the JLP Government. He also became formidable in the outside world of politics – in Washington, in London, and in the Commonwealth, and earned from his colleagues the title of “Mr. Commonwealth.”
It is interesting to note that more Sangsters have served in the legislature of Jamaica than any other family. Donald’s Uncle Peter Watt Sangster was the member for St. Elizabeth in the Legislative Council from 1920 to 1935, and Donald represented Southern St. Elizabeth from 1949 to 1955, and North East Clarendon from 1955 to 1967. Later, their younger relatives Astil, Kingsley, and Derrick also became Members of Parliament.
The next general elections were in January 1955, and the Peoples National Party won. Donald Sangster was one of the losing candidates, losing to B. B. Coke, who was now running for the PNP. However, Sangster was shortly to be back in the House of Representatives. A winning JLP candidate in the general elections in Clarendon was unseated by Court decision, and in the by-election held on December 7, 1955, Sangster won the seat. He was immediately appointed by Bustamante as the opposition spokesman on finance. Sangster was to successfully represent the JLP in the North Clarendon constituency in subsequent elections in 1959, 1962, and 1967. In the general elections of 1962, the JLP again won, and Donald was again returned to the finance portfolio. On March 11, 1963, just before the end of the first year in office as government, the 79-year-old Bustamante appointed Donald Sangster as deputy prime minister.
Prime Minister of Jamaica
Bustamante’s health deteriorated and he had to relinquish his duties, and in January 1965, he asked the Governor General to appoint Donald Sangster as acting Prime Minister, acting minister of external affairs, and acting minister of defence. In the next general elections held on February 21, 1967, Sangster led the JLP to victory with 33 seats to the PNP’s 20.
On February 22, 1967, Donald Sangster was sworn in as Prime Minister of Jamaica. Less than a month after becoming Prime Minister, on March 18, 1967, Donald Sangster suffered a cerebral seizure while on retreat at Newcastle preparing for the budget. On March 21 he was flown to Montreal Neurological Institute in Canada. On April 7 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II while in a coma. On April 11 he died in hospital in Montreal. On April 17, 1967 he was interred at National Heroes Park after a State Funeral.
In in keeping with the existing national policy of so honouring National Heroes and non-living Prime Ministers, his portrait has also graced the front of the Jamaican $100 note since 1986.
For all the above reasons, The Most Hon. Sir. Donald Burns Sangster was proudly inducted into the Munro College Old Boys Association Hall of Fame.