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.
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.
Africa contributed many words 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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
Jamaican names are also very British. You will run into a lot of surnames like Grant, Green, Brown, White, and Smith.
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.
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…
Something else we have in common with the Irish, while we’re throwing the odd stereotype around? We love our liquor!
4. South Asian
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:
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Ricardo, Daniel, Emilio, Leo, Adrian, and Ian are all common Jamaican names. They are also common names in Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries.
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.
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..?