The 6 Main Ethnic Groups that Created Jamaican Culture

When we think of the main ethnic group that influences Jamaican culture, Africa comes to mind. While this isn’t far removed from the truth, it isn’t the whole truth. Believe me, when Jamaica says Out of Many – One People, boy do we mean it!

Jamaican culture is also strongly influenced by the English, the Irish, South Asians, East Asians, and the Spanish. This is primarily due to our historical ties to these countries, and how their language, dress, and cuisine have created the melting pot of Jamaican culture today.

In Jamaica, whether you’re Black, Asian, or White, we share ONE unified culture. This is in stark contrast to America, where cultural segregation is still “a thing” – perhaps with good reason. In any case, let’s take a look at the six ethnic groups that make up Jamaican culture in 2017.

1. African

pexels-photo-126401.jpeg

Race & Ethnicity

This is the most obvious one, right? Most estimates give the Black population in Jamaica at roughly 92 percent and the Mixed population somewhere at about 6.

How true this is depends on where you draw the line on “Mixed”, as Brown people make up a good portion of the population. My estimate would be closer to 30 percent.

But wherever we fall on the Black spectrum, there is no escaping Africa’s influence. It’s in the colour of our skin, the texture of our hair, the beats in our music, the way we dance, and even our Creole.

Language

Africa contributed many words from Afrikaans to our dialect. This includes words like “nyam”, meaning to eat; and “jook”, meaning to poke. Just imagine Jamaican Facebook: you have three jooks today!

Food

We also have the Africans to thank for the fact that Jamaicans eat things like oxtail, cow foot, chicken foot, and goat head soup. Why? Because for a long time, they were the poorest class in society, and when you get your protein, you want to ensure every last bit of him makes it to the dinner table!

Athletics

Would it hurt to throw in that African genes also brought us some pretty fast runners? Jamaicans have held fastest men and women titles in the world for decades – if not longer.

2. British

london-street-phone-cabin-163037.jpeg

History & Politics

Jamaica is a Commonwealth nation with very close ties to Britain. How close? Google the head of state of Jamaica. It isn’t our Prime Minister. It’s the Queen of England: Queen Elizabeth II.

Jamaica gained its independence on August 6, 1962, mostly with peaceful application of pen to paper, but Britain is still the political motherland. In fact, until around 2003, we didn’t even need visas to go to Britain.

However, a few bad apples ruined it for the rest of us by smuggling drugs, and illegally absconding. As of September 2016, there’s been some talk of removing that visa requirement again.

Language

We write and speak British English. A quick search through this article – and my blog in general – will bring up the extra U, E, and double consonants that are characteristic of British spelling.

Tea

But if you truly want to know how British Jamaicans are, spend one morning in a Jamaican home. You won’t walk through that door without some tea! Island favourites include peppermint tea, ginger tea, coffee, and cocoa.

A coworker back home once told me the story of how her Dad almost died of a heart attack. He was having chest pains, and her Mom insisted all he needed was some tea to feel better. Tea cures everything!

Names

Jamaican names are also very British. You will run into a lot of surnames like Grant, Green, Brown, White, and Smith.

3. Irish

ireland-saint-patrick-s-day.jpg

Names

While we’re on the topic of names, we also have Scottish surnames like McCalla and McKellop; and Irish surnames like O’Brien and O’Riley.

Language

In fact, of all the European influences on Jamaica, I rank the Irish as the highest. A lot of the words we use in Creole and the way we pronounce English ones – the Irish do the same.

Race and Ethnicity

Another fun fact: after Africans, the Irish make up our largest ethnic group on the island to this day, roughly 25 percent.

My family traces its Irish roots back to the Fennells who came to Jamaica in the 1800s. My grandmother was raised by their son (her grandfather), and his mulatto daughter (her mother). They were kind enough to leave us quite a bit of property.  The most famous Fennell is probably Kaci, Miss Jamaica Universe 2014.

According to Irish Central,

…the Irish influx has still left an indelible lilt on the Jamaican accent, and many modern-day Irish visitors to the island say that there’s something in the Jamaican accent which reminds them of home.

And although the Jamaican-Irish have long since inter-married so that the offspring of such couples is often not clearly Irish in accent or appearance, the Jamaican Irish retain a special affinity and connection to Ireland and the Irish which no amount of time can erase.

Business & Commerce

Many of the Irish in modern-day Jamaica work with Digicel, an Irish-owned communications company, and the most popular on the island. The other, FLOW, is owned by the English. Needless to say, they hate each other…

Drinking

Something else we have in common with the Irish, while we’re throwing the odd stereotype around? We love our liquor!

4. South Asian

pexels-photo-indian.jpg

Race & Ethnicity

The South Asians are so apart of our culture that we have a specific name for Jamaicans of Mixed ancestry involving South Asian genes. We call them coolie.

But be careful of how you throw that word around in Caribbean circles. In some Caribbean countries, that’s as bad as hurling the N-word. In Jamaica, there’s not really such a thing as racial slurs.

Also well to note is the fact that Jamaicans refer to all South Asians as Indians, no matter where they’re from – Syria, India, Pakistan – all Indians. You will likely never hear the term “South Asian” outside of academic circles on the island.

As a fun fact, the correct terminology for people of Caribbean ancestry is West Indians. Check any mail from the Caribbean and it should say something like:

Paradise
Montego Bay,
Jamaica, W.I.

Food

Along with contributing their genes to the Jamaican demographic, we get our love for curry from the Indians. So much so that even East Asian restaurants in Jamaica must have curry on the menu.

So what do we curry in Jamaica? My goodness, a better question is what don’t we curry?! You can count on finding curry chicken, curry chicken back (it’s not the same thing as curry chicken!), curry fish, and curry goat (an island favourite). Outside of curry, they also contributed roti and dhal.

Jewellery

Indians also contributed a love for gold jewellery to the population. Even men wear gold bracelets called “chaparettas”. Many women also wear anklets, bracelets, and rings.

The younger generation isn’t too fussy about gold jewellery, but the further up the generation line you go, the more you see it. Not surprisingly, South Asians own most of the jewellery stores on the island.

5. East Asian

pexels-photo-247244.jpeg

Food

The Chinese have the strongest influence on our culture of all East Indians. We love Chinese food in Jamaica, especially when curry and sweet and sour sauce is involved.

Business & Commerce

Most of our grocery and retail stores are also Chinese owned, so they have a strong influence over business and commerce.

Pop Culture

The Japanese recently permeated Jamaican culture with the power of anime. If you meet a Jamaican Millennial male and he tells you he loves to read? He probably means Japanese manga. Don’t be surprised if has a working understanding of the Japanese language, as well.

I have at least three Jamaican friends that have visited or now live in Japan, and speak the language. One teaches English, and one is studying animation. Japanese was also one of about five foreign languages offered at my university.

Names & Titles

A third fun fact: we refer to all East Asians – even when they’re Mixed – as Mister and Miss Chin. These titles are used when we have no idea what their name is, but want to call them something respectful.

6. Spanish

spain-flag-flutter-spanish-54097.jpeg

History & Politics

From 1509 to 1655, what we know as Jamaica was called Santiago, a colony of Spain. In 1655, the British ended a failed attempt to steal Santo Domingo from Spain by stealing the one island they didn’t care about enough to protect.

I’m sure even fellow Jamaicans are wondering where I’m going with this, but after hanging around way too many Spaniards – and dating two – I’ve noticed a few things.

Names

Ricardo, Daniel, Emilio, Leo, Adrian, and Ian are all common Jamaican names. They are also common names in Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries.

Football

When it comes to the football (soccer) craze, the Spanish take the cake. Not only is their team one of the best national teams in the world, but football makes up a big part of the culture.

This can be said of Hispanic countries in the Americas; and the same can be said of Jamaica. Even though our team hasn’t done very well in years, most Jamaicans are loyal to European teams, too; usually Germany, Spain, Italy, or Britain.

Language

Additionally, I’ve noticed that Spanish syntax has permeated Jamaican Creole. For instance, in Spanish, the word “mi” is used to mean my. In Jamaican Creole “mi” is used in exactly the same way. We say mi book, mi man, and mi house. Sometimes “fimi” is used, instead.

Business & Commerce

There are a lot of Spanish expatriates living and working in Jamaica today. Most of them work with the hotels, as many of our hotels are Spanish-owned or operated. These include Iberostar, Grand Palladium, and Royalton.

 —

Of course, the different ethnic groups in Jamaica are more heavily influenced by the practices associated with their ethnicity. But best believe, every cultural characteristic mentioned above is a part of regular Jamaican life for everyone.

We don’t differentiate African-Jamaicans from Chinese-Jamaicans or White-Jamaicans. These terminologies essentially do not exist on the island. 

Jamaica is already beige. What’s the rest of the world waiting on..?

 

140 thoughts on “The 6 Main Ethnic Groups that Created Jamaican Culture

    1. You’re welcome Cynthia! Interesting that you knew about the Spanish but not the English. We do speak English after all haha. Most of us can’t seem to wrap our brains around Spanish, myself included. The conjugations get me every time.

      1. Well, I think overlooking the English was more of a brain fart. They’re kind of known for colonizing everything so, yeah, that one should have been obvious to me LOL

  1. I just finished a book on the history of the English language(you can take a girl out of the classroom, but you can’t take the classroom out of the girl!) He discussed the way English absorbs all these other words, as you describe. I am interested in the in-migration history of the island. Have any book recommendation?

    1. Hi Elizabeth. I understand you perfectly. I take my textbooks everywhere with me and I haven’t been a student in years myself.

      Most of my history books covered African history, since that’s the most influential. The Europeans mostly came as planters and indentured labourers, especially the Irish and German. And then the East Indians and South Indians also came as indentured labourers. But we didn’t get many of those. Most of the Indians we have now just got there.

      Can’t think of any textbooks that went into details with that, but I’ll check. Remind me via email!

  2. I may already have said that I have a son-in-law, born in England, whose parents are Jamaican. He and my daughter have given me two lovely granddaughters. I am sending them a link to this important post. Thank you.

  3. Superb article; thanks for posting it.

    Our sole foray into the Caribbean so far was a couple of weeks on Dominica in 2004, although Cuba is on our bucket list. From your post, it looks like we should add Jamaica, too – the concept of a tension-free, essentially colour-blind racial mix is beyond appealing.

    1. Keith, you should definitely add Jamaica to the list! Jamaica does have its prejudices, but that’s based mostly on class, and not so much on race or colour.

      It also helps that we have great food, gorgeous beaches, and world class hospitality!

      1. It’s there. We visited south India last year (something I’d wanted to do since the early 80s) and plan for north India in 2017. Maybe for my 70th in 2019?

      2. What’s it like in India? Can’t say I’ve heard many good things. Recently completed a health piece for a client and looks like superbugs are posing a real threat over there ie infections resistant to antibiotics.

      3. I have to confess that, as tourists on a bespoke tour with our own dedicated driver/guide, we were insulated from a lot of the uncomfortable realities. My series ‘Ten Days in Kerala’, starting at http://wp.me/p6t41V-3hF will give a flavour. We fully expect Delhi to be a different experience!

      4. I’m browsing from the app so WordPress wouldn’t let me like the post. Are you on .org?

        That really is quite the third world experience you guys had. That family on the motorcycle, wow. It’s rare to run into anything like that in Jamaica, and definitely not in the city or tourist areas.

        The fruit in the picture looks a lot like what we call breadfruit, but couldn’t tell for sure. We roast, boil, and fry it. It does taste a lot like bread I guess. It’s usually paired with things we would eat bread with, minus condiments like pbj. Usually eggs, chicken, sausages etc.

      5. We are self-hosted, Alexis. I tried using .com for a couple of years, but for the amount of space I needed, it became too costly, and I found some of its necessary restrictions to be inconvenient. I maintain the .com presence, but it redirects to my own server.
        I only heard the fruit called, for obvious reasons, cannonball fruit. It seems that (unlike the Caribbean fruit of the same name) its flesh is described as “astringent, bitter, and earthy. Its reputation as a famine fruit is well deserved given its fetid, unpalatable taste.” (http://theindianvegan.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/all-about-cannonball-fruit.html).
        The first post links through to the following ones – possibly easier accessed direct on channing.info/wp

      6. That explains it! I’m keeping the .com for the community. I would really miss the social aspect of my website by switching to self-hosting. That’s the only reason I stay. I don’t mind the plans to get space. They aren’t too expensive so far.

        I see they mentioned breadfruit there, too. But you’re right. It’s something else entirely.

      1. early 80’s. im an RN and one day i spent the day in a clinic someplace in the interior of the island helping out. it was a very good time with some very considerate and respectful people.

Share a comment with Alex!