The 6 Main Ethnic Groups that Created Jamaican Culture

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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..?

 

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

  1. Love the article! I am citing your article for one of my projects and I just want to know what are the sources that you used for this article? Thank you

    1. Hi! The article was written based on my own observations. Any sources used were cited in the article itself. They are usually hyperlinked to a word, so if you see a word that looks like a link you can click on, that’s a source.

      All the best with your project!

    1. Sorry for the late response! Somehow this ended up in my spam folder on WordPress. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

    1. Thank you so much, Omar! I’m glad I was able to help you with that. History was my favourite subject in school. 😃

  2. It is an alright post, but as a person of Indo-Jamaican descent, I must take issue with the assumption that “coolie” is not a slur. If you were to ask my father or his siblings, he would tell straightly that he hates being called that. However, he would also tell you that, growing up, he usually did not complain, because Indian children were already teased and bullied more, so he figured the black boys (who greatly outnumbered him) would just beat him up if he complained about it.

    I can also tell you that I have personally objected to black Jamaicans using “coolie.” A few of them acknowledge that it is indeed a slur. However, most are dismissive, claiming that it is commonly used without any ill-intent in Jamaica. That argument is terrible. I can tell you from all the times I have visited rural Jamaica, that “negah” is also commonly used without ill-intent by people of all races. Is “negah” no longer a slur now? I can tell you that no one in my family, of any age, would go up to a black Jamaican and address them as “negah”, because it is obviously ill-mannered to do so; yet black Jamaicans have no such hesitation in their use of “coolie”.

    I will furthermore note that “coolie” is a term for an “indentured servant”. It’s use to refer to Indians is equivalent to someone deciding to call all black as “slaves”. It is especially problematic in a country, Jamaica, where until 1940, all Indians were legally considered “indentured aliens”, regardless of social status or place of birth. When I think of “coolie”, I recall also that Hindu/Muslim marriages were consider illegal until 1940 as well, and by implication, the children of Hindus/Muslim were considered illegitimate. I have for my grandfather’s birth papers – both the receipt given at the time of registering, as well as the official record. The receipt is quite normal, listing both parents. The official record has the father deliberately left blank to denote the alledged bastard status of the Hindu, while the mother is filled-in with both her name and the term “coolie”. Even on a birth paper, there needed to be a reminder that she is just a “coolie”.

    Anyway, I could go on, but I think you get the point: the claim that “coolie” is not a slur in Jamaica is a questionable claim at best.

    1. Hello M,

      I am a liberal arts graduate and also of Indo-Jamaican and Afro-Jamaican consent. My grandparents are Indian and Black on both sides of my family and my mother and all her siblings were referred to as “coolie” growing up. When I had my hair straighetened and curled, before switching to dreads, many people referred to me as “coolie” as well. I never took issue with it and neither does the rest of my family.

      As for “neguh”, we adopted that from the Americans. That was never a Jamaican terminology, and no, I do not consider it a racial slur when used on Jamaican shores. If a non-Jamaican says it, sure, but I don’t believe we have those kind of rules in Jamaica where someone can or cannot say something based on the colour of their skin. That is an American ideology that yes, is slowly creeping into Jamaican culture and I absolutely hate it.

      As a lighter-skinned Mixed Black woman I am called “browning” more than I am called anything else when in Jamaica. That, more than “neguh” or “coolie” is a definite and direct remark on the colour of my skin. I have never taken issue with it, except when men use it to flirt with me. Other than that, I am perfectly fine with identifying as a browning. I am what I am.

      That said, as a liberal arts graduate, I know the history of the word “coolie” and what it means in other countries. But I think we must be careful about deciding that because something personally offends us, it offends others, too.

      Keep in mind that I grew up in Westmoreland, which is “coolie” central and that I have been raised around Indians and Indian Mixes my entire life.

      To each their own. We must all set our personal boundaries! But we don’t have the right to decide that it reflects everyone else who shares our race, ethnicity, culture, nationality or colour of our skin.

      All the best to you. Thank you for reading and sharing your opinions on my “alright post”.

      😉

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