Culture: ‘the shared beliefs and forms of a people such as language, material traits, type of music and the instruments used, marital beliefs, social customs, and just everyday rules of life.’
Jamaica and Africa share deep cultural ties that survived the slave trade. There are some cultural mores that are passed down that have direct ties to Africa. Enslaved Africans kept their heritage alive by way of dance, food, and spirituality. Two cultural groups in Africa that have the largest cultural contribution in Jamaica are the Igbo from Nigeria and Akan from Ghana. Plantation owners preferred slaves from The Gold Coast and the Bight of Biafra because the mortality rates from these African groups, after the arduous journey across the Middle Passage, was not high.
The Maroons have predominant Akan cultural characteristics. One useful characteristic in pinpointing their origin is their language. Many slaves came from different parts of Africa and did not speak the same language. Communication was done through body language and hand gestures. As years passed, a language developed that improved on the plantations and was rooted in the Akan language. We see this strongly in the naming patterns, where kinship and lineage were retained beyond crossing the Atlantic. One of the most recognizable Akan names for a baby boy born on Sunday is Kwesi in Ghana and Quashie in Jamaica; phonetically they sound alike.
The Kromanti language is spoken by the Maroons in Jamaica today, and the linguistic lines to Twi Fante are clear. In the book, Africa in America: Slave Acculturation and Resistance in the American South and the British Caribbean, 1736-1831, the author asserts that Edward Long, Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica in the 18th century, observed that Kromanti dominated the language of slaves, stating that it was “more copious and regular than any other of the Negro dialects.” A century later, William Gardner echoed Long’s observance, asserting that “the influences of the Coromantyns seems to have modified, if not entirely obliterated whatever was introduced by other tribes.”
For more information on Kromanti language, check out this mini-documentary presented through
Mr. Isaac Bernard, one of the last culture bearers of the community.
Another similarity between the Jamaicans and the Akans is the prevalence of Obi. Today, it’s called obeah, and the colonizers believed it to be synonymous with witchcraft. Slave owners sought to ‘whitewash’ African minds by demonizing ancestral customs and beliefs. So Obeah men were believed to be wizards who could perform supernatural acts. On the plantation, the obeah made medicinal concoctions from herbs and were both revered and feared. Everyone, including the plantation owners, believed they had powers, including raising the dead.
Jamaica witnessed an influx of slaves from Nigeria between 1790 to 1809 as Jamaica and Virginia were the major disembarkation points after crossing the Atlantic. Igbo words like oonu -you all and soso-only are in the Jamaican vernacular to this day. Even the term ‘red ibo’ refers to light skin Jamaicans of Igbo decent. ‘Buckra’ meaning overseer or master was also introduced.
One of the main cultural contributions of the Igbo people in Jamaica is the Jonkonnu. The masquerade of characters like the horned Cow Head, Policeman, Horse Head, Wild Indian, Devil, Belly-woman, Pitchy-Patchy and sometimes a Bride and House Head who carries an image of a great house sitting on a plantation on his head. All wear bright, elaborate and colorful costumes. Tiny mirrors and tinsel added shine and sparkle. Each character has a special role and a special dance to perform. For example, Bellywoman is often a man dressed up as a pregnant lady in disguise; always generate laughter by exaggerating the belly in time with the music. Characters often interact with each another and the music of the drums and fife cause onlookers to dance along with the band and contribute money.
The Jamaican swag featuring – cut eye “iro anya,” kiss (sucking) teeth, “ima osu” and general air of importance are of Igbo influence.
Language is certainly an area where African retention is the strongest in Jamaica. Jamaicans move fluidly between Patois and English. The Jamaican language was born on the plantation. Many African traditions survive to this day are key cultural cornerstones in Jamaican society; which is a testament to the strength of African culture.