Jamaica, the Kotoko of the West

The word “Kotoko” means porcupine and is a title the Ashanti bestowed upon themselves or anyone they considered to be “warriors”.

The porcupine is believed by Ashanti hunters that if you attack one, many of them will avenge that one loss. Thus the Ashanti motto of: “Kum apem aa, apem be ba” or “kill a 1000 and a 1000 will return”. Growing up in Portmore, Jamaica, I always heard about these Ashanti people, long before the American singer made her debut with that name.

I also have descent from the Ashanti via my mother’s mother’s grandmother. I was in the sixth grade and this was 1996 when I believed I first heard the name, if not sooner. The name would come up when talking about people from the rural parts of Jamaica or with or about Rastafarians. Then a year later, I saw this name in a history text book saying they were from Ghana. Of course then, I saw the names of other tribes being talked about from our class text book, but people outside of school only seemed to know about this “Ashanti tribe”. I ignored it and pushed it off as the influence of the maroons or something, as I wasn’t all that interested in African topics at age 13 anyways.

13 years later, at age 26, the interest in Africa came to me and I found myself studying about Kemet and other African civilizations, like the Nok, Ghana and Mali civilizations. History was never my favourite subject back in high school, but as I started teaching myself to learn more about myself, the interest grew and it wasn’t just vague information anymore. But while studying African history, I never thought to look on the African influence in Jamaica and so I did.


Jamaica is very strong in African influence, so strong that contemporary west Africans do not consider us as “Akata”(yoruba to mean ‘tribeless’; black Americans are referred to as this by Ghanaians, Nigerians and another Africans, because of their accent sounding closer to proper english), because we retain so much more than others in the diaspora(aside from Haiti) in racial features and culture. According to compiled slave records, the Igbo people of Southeastern Nigeria were the most sorted after for Jamaica, followed by -largely though not exclusively- the Akan(an umbrella term for relating groups) peoples of southern Ghana. 

But yet when one looks at the Igbo influence, it is faint in Jamaica. Besides a few words and possibly our preference for thick soup and not light soup like Akan people, nothing can be found to prove an Igbo cultural dominance. However, the Akan culture outshines Igbo or any other African contribution to Jamaican culture. We will be getting into: The Akan(largest of this group, being the Ashanti) influence in Jamaica; the Adinkra symbols, Twi words used in Patois and other African words I’ve found so far in my own research and the meager Igbo influence.

Jamaica-the-Kotoko-of-the-West-Nanny-heorinThe Akan people comprise of many different but relating groups that share common clans, referred to as ‘Abusua’ and made up about 60% of Ghana in the past; about 50% today with the introduction of Mossi groups to the north and Ewe groups to the southeast after the 1800’s. Akan Groups that were most likely to be sent to Jamaica were: Wassa, Kwahu, Akuapem, Akyem(pronounced:Ah-CHem; “CH” as in “CHild”) and others. The largest Akan group, the Ashanti and their subgroups that would have been taken were groups submissive to the Ashanti capital city of Kumasi, which were the other 4 groups that made up the Ashanti empire ethnically: Bekwai, Adanse, Mampong and Dwaben(each having their own king and those kings are submissive to Kumasi’s Asantehene(The king of all Ashantis), that they themselves elected long ago.

These Twi speaking groups the British referred to as ‘Coromantee'(after the fort they were originally shipped from the coast of Ghana) and they all had a distorted version of their day names(now used by the Fantes[another Akan group that lives on the coast of Ghana] who helped to make these day-names easier to pronounce and identity their Akan slaves).

The following day names are the original Twi versions of the the Ashanti people today, these day names were: (1st the male names): Kwasi(from: Kwasiada to mean Sunday), Kwadwo(Ɛdwoada – Monday)[pronounced;eh-jo-ah-dah), Kwabena(Ɛbenada – Tuesday), Kwaku(Wukuada – Wednesday), Kwaw or Yaw(prononced: Yao from Yawada [Yao-ah-dah]- thursday), Kofi(Ɛfiada – Friday) and Kwame(Memenada – Saturday); (the female names): Akosua, Adwoa, Abena, Akua(pronounced: eh-kwi-ah), Yaa(pronounced: yia),Afia and Ama.

The Fante-British names that were taken to British colonies were: (male/female): Quashie/Quasheba; Kojo/Ajuba;Quabena/Beneba; Quaco/Akuba; Qwaw/Yaaba; Cuffy/Afiba; and Quami/Amba. The purely Fante names are different from these that are listed and became British slave names, only to show the origins of slaves with these names which were alot in Jamaica even to this day and with the Twi versions. Akan were also acquired for their skills during the slave trade. Of these groups, Ashanti-Adanse were the ones that were famed for house building long before they became Ashantis.

The name “Adansi” means “builders” and they were the ones that built the palaces and temples in Kumasi. These buildings were the 1st to have in them Adinkra symbols. This skill can be seen in the diaspora and according to the base of my research, mainly in Jamaica. Others were skilled Metal workers which was common amongst the Akan itself and this skill was also exploited across the Americas during the slave trade. Other Akan to be included were the Fante along the coast of Ghana and Bono peoples(referred to as Wanche by the british) just north of the Asante region. Non-Akan minority groups that were sent to Jamaica would have been people from Nsuko(northwest of ghana), the Chamba(northeast of Ghana, named after the Tchamba, but also included the Gonja people) and Ga people of the southeastern part of Ghana.


Adinkra symbols ethnically belong to the Akan people, but popularized by the Ashanti people using cloth and buildings to broadcast this. Adinkra symbols are ideographs that represent proverbs and common sayings such as the Ashanti-Jamaican: “Nsa bra na nsa k)” (Hand come, hand go) to mean “cooperation” and “Ese ne Tekrema”(teeth and tongue or tongue and teeth in Jamaica[which the order doesn’t matter]) to mean “closeness and intimacy”….More on Akan proverbs in Jamaica in another post….

The Ashanti also added their own Adinkra that isn’t seen with other Akan groups which can be found in Jamaica. So far, I’ve found 15 adinkra, but only 2 in America.(the sankofa and the Asase y3 duru), the other 13 I found in Jamaica are not present in America, because America had more African groups than little Jamaica.
The Twi(pronounced: chwee) language is spoken by most Ghanaians today, Akan and non-Akan. Not every Akan speak Twi as their native language, such as the Nzima and Bono for example. There are two types of Twi: Asante-Twi and Akuapem-Twi as each of them may have their own words and unique pronunciations of certain words(for eg. asante and akuapem twi speakers say: Akua or Kwasi; Fantes say: Ekua or Kwesi, yes is aane[pronounced aayi] in asante-twi and yiw is yes in akuapem twi). Most Ghanaians today speak Asante-Twi as their 2nd language(besides English), because of the strong influence of the Ashanti people and that they are the largest Ghanaian group.

Akan is not the language, it’s an umbrella term for relating people(Jamaican is to Caribbean as Ashanti is to Akan), Twi is one of the languages of the Akan people. Of the Akan people, Asante-twi (as wasn’t universal to every Ghanaian in the 1700’s but only exclusive to Ashantis) seems to be the strongest, as I’ve complied over 30 words(the largest contribution for an African language in jamaican patois) of Twi origin.

Words such as: aye, aaii, abey, abeng, accompong, aduro, afu yam, ananse, bese, bru/buru. bugubugu/buguyaga, butu, casha, chaka-chaka, chaa/cho, dokunu, *eehh?, kaskas, kete, kren-kren, nana, nyankopon, obeah, obeng, obroni, odum, paki, patu, quashie, *seh, senseh fowl, *so, tampi and yah. Even the word “Jamaica” had been discovered to be of Twi origin from “Gyamayaka” to mean “perhaps we are stuck”, Gyama(pronounced: ‘Jama’) – perhaps or maybe; yaka – we are stuck(ka – to be stuck or to bite[depending on context being used]). Gyamayaka—>Jamayaka—>Jamaica.

Though contemporary(white europeanized history) states that it’s from the Arawak ‘Xaymaca’, this contradicts the actual Arawak words of: “Hororo – land or earth; Ada – wood; oniabo or nia – water” (Taylor, Douglas 1977).
Culturally, the Igbo people didn’t leave a mark on modern Jamaica save for the words: *unu, okro and himba. According to non-jamaican historians, the word “obeah” in Jamaica to mean WITCHCRAFT, is of igbo origins from the word “obia”. However, this word is nowhere to be found in places with a stronger Igbo presence than Jamaica(cuba and the U.S), yet it can be found in places that had a weaker igbo presence, such as Suriname and Guyana, that also had a strong Akan presence. In the caribbean, this word means “witchcraft”, where as the igbo word means “doctoring/herbalism” and the word is still used to this day by Igbos to refer to ‘medical doctoring’ in reference to ‘western medicine’.

In Jamaica and everywhere else, there is a difference between witchcraft and the subject of medicine. In Jamaica, the herbalist is referred to as a “bush doctor” and not a obeah-man.(though mislabeled “obeah-men” can have SOME knowledge of herbal medicine, such as Obeng obeah men who are more so spiritual priests than wizards. A bush doctor is a separate occupation). The word “Obeah” originally refered to as “Obi” is from the twi word “Obeyi”(pronounced: oh-bey-ee) to also mean “witchcraft”. 3 finger Jack was also referred to as “Obi” by the British because they believed he was a wizard.

White overseers were close to their slaves and learned their term, so they the whites learned that most the blacks on the island referred Obeyi(white people couldn’t pronounce this and instead said Obi) as “witchcraft”. Obi then became “obeah” as the whites were never sure how to pronounce Obeyi, because it is not from a language they understood. Also like there is Adinkra symbols, there are no Igbo and Efik Nsibidi symbols in Jamaica; where as if we go to Cuba, it is all around.

I theorize that Igbos were shipped to Cuba and the US, because Jamaica was a holding ground for slaves from the African continent that supplied other british colonies and had free trade with non-british colonies. So the least preferred ones were shipped to other places that demanded them. According to slavevoyages.org, Igbos only had the majority in 4 ports(all of which where open to the rest of the world for trade) in Jamaica, 3 of which are on the northern coast, where it was common to have traders from Cuba to buy slaves. Europeans had their preferences and Jamaican slave owners preferred Akan, as according to slavevoyages.org, they dominated the charts for 90 years, from 1701-1791, so even after 1791 and beyond, the creole population would have been mostly Akan descent, thus the large contribution to Jamaican culture.

This change was also a result of constant rebellions by the Akan and their Gold Coast allies, however even the ban on getting slaves from the Gold Coast did not stop the demand nor changed the preference as they became the 2nd and 3rd most received African group after 1791, that still dominated most parishes in Jamaica. According to the Slave voyages online database, though the Jamaican Slave trade may have received a large number of enslaved Igbo but only 4 out 14 ports had them as majority, the rest of the island had enslaved Gold Coast natives, (a majority would have been Akan based on the evidence of Adinkra symbols and having the largest contribution of words to Jamaican patois and on the fact that the Akan is the largest group from the former Gold Coast; largest of the Akan being Asante).


Igbo women practiced abortions according to reports from slave plantations in Montego Bay, Jamaica(a major international port of north coast jamaica with a igbo majority). Igbo women aborting their babies and the men committing suicide instead of living as a slave, was not very profitable for the Europeans, this was hated amongst the British.

Jamaican British slave conditions were by far worse than anywhere in the Americas, which is also why Igbos lived longer in the US and Cuba as they treated their slaves better in comparison. Also slaves coming from Africa in this point in time were very xenophobic and wouldn’t see mixing with other tribes as something to be proud of. So it was common for the tribes to keep separate, according to historian and slave owner Edward Long, amongst others.

This harsh treatment caused a massive death amongst other groups as well which didn’t lead them to being ascendants to most Jamaicans today. We have to remember that slavery was a genocide and that death of African people happened on a mass scale. This was a setting that begs for the phrase: “only the strong survive” and in respects to the Igbo people, “death over dishonour” as again, nothing was more dehumanizing than the event of the slave trade.

If it is commonly accepted that Haitians mainly of the Fon people of Benin, black Cubans and Brazilians mainly of the Igbo/Yoruba, Trinidadians and other smaller islands along the south american coastline, mainly igbo and yoruba. Then Jamaica is mainly Akan in that sense, from the evidence that can be seen. According to BMC, most of the matrilineal DNA of black Jamaicans mirrors Ghana today genetically, as in Ghana the Akan are the largest group, they also contributed the largest amount to the mtDNA, especially the Ashanti who is the largest Akan group. Today in Ghana we see Jamaica and in Jamaica we see Ghana, in Ghana Reggae and Dancehall is the most popular non-Ghanaian music and people talk the patois accent with stunning accuracy that fools any Jamaican. Other Africans may try and usually when they do -it’s to poke fun- their accent can be heard, but not with a Ghanaian.

Both nations have similar stereotypes as well, such as going to a non-american country, and coming back with an American accent. Boastfulness(more so with Jamaican and Ashantis), strong national pride, despite the nation not being seen as anything extra by anyone else. You’ll never get these two nations to deny their nationality, no Jamaican, no Ashanti ever will. Both will talk about their nationality to extensive levels.

The ashanti people have their own ethnic colours represented by the former Asante empire flag before 1957, these are the same colours on the Jamaican flag, created by Jamaican pan-africanists(though they weren’t credited) that did their comparisons across the African continent to see who they had the most in common with. To finalize this, they used an Ashanti kente pattern and the ashanti colours as a flag of Jamaica. pan-africanists such as Amy Ashwood-Garvey(renamed: Akosua Boatemaa in 1945) was one of these people that saw that similarity not just with her own ancestry, but with all most of our ancestry in Jamaica.

This research is the way to honour the memories of these ancestors, such as Nana Akua (who you refer to as ‘Nanny of the Maroons’), Tacky(Nii Tackie/King Tackie[possibly a Ga king]), Jack Frimpong-Manso**(3 finger jack aka Jack Mansong), Marcus Garvey(Nana Kwaku Boateng) and Paul Bogle.

*words used in sentence making
**Mansong, Manson or Manso is a typical akan name and is commonly joined with the other akan name of “frimpong” as Frimpong-Manso
Me da mo ase asomdwe3, me nuanom
(I thank you all peacefully, my siblings)

-Dictionary of Jamaican English by F.G Cassidy(with my own corrections via cross referencing);
-BMC biology;
-Taylor, Douglas 1977 Languages of the West Indies
-Asante History, Akyem Abuakwa And Dagomba Wars—Part 1,2 and 3 by Adomako M. Kufuor online article via modernghana.com and ghanaweb.com
-Voodoos and Obeahs by Joseph J. Williams

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Henry Jamaica
6 years ago

What an informative post!

Henry Jamaica
6 years ago

What an informative post!

Henry Jamaica
6 years ago

What an informative post!