The Culture Series Part 2: Exploring the Indo Jamaican Identity 

indo jamaican
melissa dean

“I come from Dahl and the jingle jangle of bangles, I come from coco and stew peas, there are pieces of me in two different nations and I will never fit your expectations” – Melissa Dean 

Dawning on the coast of Old Harbor Bay, Jamaica was the SS Blundell ship carrying a group of South Asians and British authorities. It was 1859 and the ship carried approximately 200 men, 28 women and 12 children, oblivious to the contracts of servitude they would be bound to.

As a lineage of ships washed ashore so did the freedom of the South Asians aboard. As they trickled off the ships they were given one suit of clothing, cooking utensils and agricultural tools. The rumble of mule carts and clustered freight trains hauled these workers to their new home—a plantation. Their worth was reduced to a shilling a day and their names diminished to ‘coolie.’ Coolie is the term the British used to describe laborers or servants.

[Read Related: The Culture Series Part 1: Descendants of Indentured Diaspora a Look at Fijian Representation]

The indentureship system in Jamaica experienced fewer workers from India compared to Caribbean countries like Guyana and Trinidad. Of the 543,914 South Asians that migrated or were stolen and placed on these ships, 7% were taken to Jamaica. They mainly worked on sugar plantations. Their coerced labor increased wealth and trade for the British Empire. 

Time-Expired Indians 

If they survived the length of their contract, they were considered time-expired Indians. They were granted freedom through a slip of paper that allowed them access to the island. Many chose to return to India, but repatriation was costly for planters. Incentives like the acceptance of land were created to avoid the costs of sending workers back. However, most of these lands were infertile and mountainous to upkeep. Some renewed their contracts and became ‘second-term coolies.’

Ships came back with only a few to India and only departed when full, which was not guaranteed because of strict immigration regulations. Issues of invalid immigrants sneaking on ships or disabled workers were denied and forced to stay. The last repatriates left in 1929, leaving imprints on land changed forever by their labor. 

Black and Brown Communities Interact

The interactions between black and brown populations in Jamaica have been met with both hostility and acceptance. As Indians were introduced to the plantation system alongside ‘free’ Africans, so were racial barriers fabricated by overseers. Overseers separated both groups where most Indians resided at the estates while Afro Caribbeans lived in free villages. This separation of races left little social interaction and created hostility between both groups. Since Indians accepted contract labor under conditions akin to slavery, the black community viewed them as ‘slave coolies.’ Indians assumed cultural superiority over the black community based on their notions of the caste system and closeness to ‘whiteness.’ These ethnic conflicts transpired as a way for overseers to uphold their capitalistic agenda and white supremacist values.

Spoken word artist Melissa Dean, reflects on her Indo-Jamaican identity in her poem “I am Indo-Jamaican” She describes the derogatory usage of the word coolie and its connection to indentureship. The word coolie stems from the Tamil word ‘Kuli,’ meaning low-wage laborer from Asia.

Being Indo Jamaican 

In my interview with Dean, she describes the interactions between black and brown populations.

Many mixed Jamaicans are very vocal about having Indo Caribbean descent, and being lighter and having straight hair is still considered a sign of beauty. Jamaica still has leaps and bounds to go in breaking down racial beauty standards and embracing black features, especially hair.

Dean’s experiences of beauty in the Jamaican community are similarly found across the Caribbean where these perceptions are rooted in colonialist ideologies. 

The poet also describes her experience living in Canada with stereotypes of Jamaican culture and no placement for other ethnic groups. 

“To them (Canadians), it’s ganja (marijuana), Bob Marley, Afro-Caribbeans and phrases like ‘wah a gwan.’ It is often very much a revelation to them when they learn that there are Indian, Chinese and white Jamaicans.”

Navigating race in Canada also became a challenging experience for Dean.

It has been difficult to fit in with any particular racial, ethnic or cultural group, simply because I knew no one else like me. However unfortunate this has been for me growing up, today I take this identity in stride,” Dean said.

A shared feeling of not belonging is felt across the Caribbean, specifically in South Asian and Afro Caribbean spaces.

“My mom was surprised to find that the Indians she thought she shared culture with didn’t accept her either. Among the few other Indian and Indian-presenting students, she was constantly made to feel like being Indo Caribbean meant she was trashy, and not traditional enough to fit in with those who looked like her – they were the real thing, and we were tarnished,” Dean said.

[Read Related: Op-Ed: Monarch vs. Matriarch, the Death of Queen Elizabeth II Leaves British South Asians Divided on her 70-Year Reign]

Patois and ‘Broken English’

While walking the streets of Toronto you might hear remarks like “ting” or “dun know,” words that are part of Toronto Slang but have roots in Jamaican patois. Words that may be part of your everyday vernacular hold a deep history of colonialism across continents. Dean reflects on this history and her connection to these words.

I think the perception of being Jamaican, particularly in Toronto, has been idealized to the point that it has given rise to the infamous ‘Toronto slang,’ which is very obviously based on patois. Many believe this is ‘street talk,’ and do not pay homage to the cultural and historical roots that have given rise to it.

While Jamaican patois have assimilated into Toronto slang, many Caribbean countries struggle with the notion of their speech being ‘broken’ English. This dialect carries a negative perception of not being ‘proper,’ English and is dismissed from being accepted in schools.

According to linguists and historians at the University of West Indies, The language the vast majority of Jamaicans learn between birth and their first year of school is not a ‘broken’ form of English, but a language of its own. They have identified how it evolved and shown that its growth and development are similar to that of most international languages.”

While schools in the Caribbean have been aiming to destigmatize Jamaican patois, bits of this dialect has found themselves fused into trendy Toronto slang.  

The residual effects of colonialism in the Caribbean are one that is still seen today. It is seen from statues glorifying kings and queens of the British monarchy to the prick of blood sugar monitors and string of blood pressure machines. However, the initiative toward these residual effects is one that remains in Jamaica’s future.

With plans to remove the British Monarch as head of state, Barbados catalyzed a domino effect in Jamaica and across the Caribbean. These efforts toward decolonization are stepping stones toward justice for West Indian ancestors and future generations.

By Anjali Seegobin

Anjali Seegobin is an undergraduate student at the City College of New York, majoring in political science and anthropology. She … Read more ›