Igbo people in Jamaica were citizens of the Caribbean island-nation of Jamaica that were a whole or a significant part descended from the Igbo people of what is now Nigeria.
Most of the Igbo people arrived in Jamaica by force on slave ships and were taken to plantations to work as slaves, and have therefore been fully assimilated. The Igbo were documented by the British plantation owners along with other ethnicities brought to Jamaica to work as slaves. The Igbo constituted a large portion of the African population of the island in the era of the slave trade; through the banning of African traditions by European plantation owners, many on the island have lost their African identities with their ancestors adopting a creole identity. There is no official count of the amount of Jamaicans with Igbo ancestry after the abolishment of the slave trade, but there are accounts and slave documents that have listed populations of certain African ethnic groups, including the Igbo, on plantations.
The Igbo culture was an important part to forging a Jamaican culture. Igbo influence on the island can be seen till this day in language, dance, music, folklore, cuisine, religion and mannerisms. Aspect of Igbo culture are visible through such things as the Obeah spirituality practised throughout the West Indies. Many words in Jamaican Patois are from the Igbo language. In Jamaica the Igbo were referred to by the black population and plantation owners by different names such as Eboe, Ebo, Red Ibo and other words such as ‘Guinea man’ used to describe African born people. Many Igbo women were involved in slave revolts.
Originating primarily from what was known as the Bight of Biafra on the West African coast, Igbo people were taken in relativelyhigh numbers to Jamaica as slaves. Ports from which the majority of these enslaved people were taken from included Bonny and Calabar, two port towns that are now in eastern Nigeria. These ports were dominated by slave ships arriving from Bristol and Liverpool who delivered these slaves to British colonies that included Jamaica. The bulk of Igbo slaves arrived relatively late after 1750. The 18th century in the Atlantic slave trade saw the amount of enslaved Africans of Igbo descent rise by a large amount, the heaviest forced migrations between 1790 and 1807. Jamaica, after Virginia, was the second most common destination for slaves arriving from the Bight of Biafra. Therefore Igbo slaves, as they formed the majority of the people on this bight, became common in the British colony of Jamaica.
Igbo were spread on plantations all around Jamaica, with a higher concentration on the island’s western side, specifically the areas around Montego Bay and Savanna-la-Mar. Consequently the amount of Igbo influence was concentrated in the parishes of Western Jamaica; the region also witnessed a number of revolts that were attributed to people of Igbo origin. Matthew Lewis, who spent time in Jamaica in the years of 1815 to 1817 studied the way his slaves organised themselves by ethnicity when he noted, for example, that at one time he ‘went down to the negro-houses to hear the whole body of Eboes lodge a complaint against one of the book-keepers’. Olaudah Equiano, a prominent member of the movement of the abolition for the slave trade, was an African born Igbo ex-slave that on his life’s journey in the Americas as a slave and free man, documented in his 1789 journal, was hired by a Dr. Charles Irving and recruited slaves for his 1776 Mosquito Shore scheme in Jamaica for which Equiano hired Igbo slaves which he called “My own countrymen”. Equiano was especially useful to Irving for his knowledge of the Igbo language, using Equiano as a tool to maintain social order amongst his Igbo slaves in Jamaica.
Most of the time Igbo slaves resorted to resistance rather than revolt and had maintained “unwritten rules of the plantation” of which plantation owners were forced to abide by. Igbo influence in Jamaica is apparent in the introduction of Obeah folk magic of Igbo origin; there have been accounts of ‘Eboe’ slaves being ‘obeahed’ by each other. Other influences can be seen in the Jonkonnu festival and in Jamaican patois. In Maroon music culture were songs derived from specific African ethnic groups, among these were songs called ‘Ibo’ which had a distinct style. In Jamaica, Igbo slaves were considered suicidal. Suicide was resorted to by Igbo slaves not only for rebellion, but in the belief that after their death they will return back to Africa. In a publication of a 1791 issue of Massachusetts Magazine, an anti-slavery poem was published called Monimba which depicted a fictional pregnant Igbo slave that committed suicide on a slave ship destined for Jamaica. The poem illustrates the stereotype of Igbo slaves in the Americas. Igbo slaves were also distinguished by the ‘yellowish’ skin tones which was observed that a lot of them had which prompted the word ‘red eboe’ to be used to describe people with light skin tones and African features. Igbo people were hardly reported to have been maroons. Igbo women were paired with Coromantee (Akan) men so as to subdue the latter due to the idea that Igbo women were bound to their first-born sons’ birthplace.
Archibald Monteith, born Aneaso, was an Igbo slave taken to Jamaica after being tricked by an African slaver. Anaeso wrote a journal about his life from when he was kidnapped from Igboland to when he became a Christian convert.
After the slavery era, Igbo people also arrived on the island as indentured servants between the years of 1840 and 1864 along with a majority Congo and ‘Nago’ (Yoruba) servants. Since the 19th century most of the citizens of Jamaica of African descent have been assimilated into the wider Jamaican society and have largely dropped ethnic associations from Africa.
Igbo slaves, along with ‘Angolas’ and ‘Congoes’ were most prone to be runaways. In slave runaway advertisements held in Jamaica workhouses in 1803, out of 1046 Africans, 284 were described as ‘Eboes and Mocoes’, 185 ‘Congoes’, 259 ‘Angolas’, 101 ‘Mandingoes’, 70 Coromantees, 60 ‘Chamba’ of Sierra Leone, 57 ‘Nagoes and Pawpaws’, and 30 ‘scattering’. 187 were ‘unclassified’ and 488 were ‘American born negroes and mulattoes’.
Some popular slave rebellions involving Igbo people include:
The 1815 Igbo conspiracy in Jamaica’s Saint Elizabeth Parish which involved around 250 Igbo slaves, described as one of the revolts that contributed to a climate for abolition. A letter by the Governor of Manchester to Bathurst on April 13, 1816 quoted the leaders of the rebellion on trial as saying “that ‘he had all the Eboes in his hand’, meaning to insinuate that all the Negroes from that Country were under his controul”. The plot was thwarted and several slaves were executed.
The 1816 Black River rebellion plot which according to Lewis (1834:227—28) only people of ‘Eboe’ origin were involved. This plot was uncovered on March 22, 1816 by a novelist and absentee planter named Matthew Gregory ‘Monk’ Lewis, when he had recorded what Hayward (1985) calls a proto-Calypso revolutionary hymn, sung by a group of Igbo slaves led by the ‘King of the Eboes’. They sung:
Oh me Good friend, Mr. Wilberforce, make we free!
God Almighty thank ye! God Almighty thank ye!
God Almighty, make we free!
Buckra in this country no make we free:
What Negro for to do? What Negro for to do?
Take force by force! Take force by force!
‘Mr. Wilberforce’ was in reference to William Wilberforce a British politician who was a leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade. ‘Buckra’ was a term introduced by Igbo and Efik slaves in Jamaica to refer to white slave masters.
Among Igbo cultural items in Jamaica were the Eboe, or Ibo drums popular throughout all of Jamaican music. Food was also influenced, for example the Igbo word ‘mba’ meaning ‘yam root’ was used to describe a type of yam in Jamaica called ‘himba’. Igbo and Akan slaves affected drinking culture among the black population in Jamaica, using alcohol in ritual and libation. In Igboland as well as on the Gold Coast, palm wine was used on these occasions and had to be substituted by rum in Jamaica because of the absence of palm wine. Jonkonnu, a parade that is held in many West Indian nations, has been attributed to the Njoku Ji ‘yam-spirit cult’, Okonko and Ekpe of the Igbo, and several masquerades of the Kalabari and Igbo have similar appearance to those of Jonkonnu maskers.
Much of Jamaican mannerisms and gestures themselves have a wider African origin and an Igbo origin. Some examples of such behaviours are evident in the influences of the Igbo language in patois with actions such as ‘sucking-teeth’ coming from the Igbo ‘ima osu’ or ‘imu oso’ and ‘cutting-eye’ from Igbo ‘iro anya’. There was also a suggestion of the Igbo introducing communication through eye movements.
For more details on this topic, see List of African words in Jamaican Patois.
There are several Igbo words in Jamaican Patois that stem from the Igbo slaves that were on the island. Many of these words were added to Jamaican Patois when slaves were restricted from speaking their own languages. Many of these Igbo words still exist in Jamaican vernacular including words such as ‘unu’ meaning ‘you (plural)’, ‘di’ which is ‘to be (in state of)’ which became ‘de’, and ‘okra’ a vegetable.
Ilu in Igbo means proverbs, a part of language that is very important to the Igbo. Igbo proverbs did not fail to cross the Atlantic along with the masses of enslaved Igbo people. Till today several transliterated Igbo proverbs survive in Jamaica today because of the Igbo ancestors. Some of these include:
Igbo: “He who will swallow udala seeds must consider the size of his anus”
Jamaican: “Cow must know ‘ow ‘im bottom stay before ‘im swallow abbe [Twi ‘palm nut’] seed”; “Jonkro must know what ‘im a do before ‘im swallow abbe seed”
Igbo: “Where are the young suckers that will grow when the old banana tree dies?”
Jamaican “When plantain wan’ dead, it shoot [sends out new suckers]”
Igbo: “A man who makes trouble for other is also making one for himself”
Jamaican: “When you dig a hole/ditch for one, dig two”
Igbo: “The fly who has no one to advise it follows the corpse into the ground”
Jamaican: “Sweet-mout’ fly follow coffin go a hole”; “Idle donkey follow cane-bump [the cart with cane cuttings] go a [animal] pound”; “Idle donkey follow crap-crap [food scraps] till dem go a pound [waste dump]”
Igbo: “The sleep that lasts for one market day to another has become death”
Jamaican: “Take sleep mark death [Sleep is foreshadowing of death]”
“When cow tail cut off, God Almighty brush fly”; “God fan fly fi ‘tumpa tail [stump-tailed] cow”
“Dog sweat, but long hair cover it”
Obeah refers to folk magic and sorcery that was derived from West African sources. The W. E. B. Du Bois Institute database supports obeah being traced to the dibia or obia (Igbo: doctoring) traditions of the Igbo people. Specialists in Obia (also spelled Obea) were known as Ndi Obia (Igbo: Obia people) and practiced the same activities as the obeah men and women of the Caribbean like predicting the future and manufacturing charms. In Jamaican mythology, ‘River Mumma’, a mermaid, is linked to Oya of the Yoruba and Uhamiri/Idemili of the Igbo.
Among Igbo beliefs in Jamaica was the idea of Africans being able to fly back home to Africa. There were reports by Europeans who visited and lived in Jamaica that Igbo slaves believed they would return to their country after death.