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Meet the Ghanaian slave in Suriname who discovered bitter tonic for treating fever without side effects

September 18, 2019 at 08:00 am | History

Ama Nunoo

Ama Nunoo | Staff Writer

September 18, 2019 at 08:00 am | History

Quassi in a suit of blue and scarlet, trimmed with broad gold lace and a hat with a white feather. Photo: Wikipedia

Herbal remedies and plants were part of Africans and plants played a pivotal role in their way of life even before they were enslaved and during the slave trade.

Many indigenous African discoveries have not been credited to the people who discovered them but with time, such discoveries are being unearthed and some have been duly acknowledged.

During the Trans- Atlantic Slave Trade, the Europeans had doctors among them who attended to their ailments and treated some of the slaves who were sick so they could get back to work.  

The Europeans took credit for most medicinal treatments discovered by Africans, however, Graman Quassi, a slave in Surinam who later earned his freedom, is an exception though history may have overlooked his achievements in the natural sciences.

Graman Quassi was born in 1690 in Gold Coast (Ghana), West Africa. His name has many variations; Quacy, Kwasi, Kwesi and Quasi. Quassi (Kwesi) was an Akan (Fante) and his native name was Kwasimukamba (Kwasi Mukamba). He has many attributes to his name; a freedman, healer, planter and spy. He assumed all these roles at one point in his life.

He was sold into slavery in Suriname, a Dutch protectorate in South America. As a slave, he was known as an obeah (one skilled in medical and spiritual knowledge) and he used it to his advantage.

He used his medicinal knowledge to heal the Europeans and the slaves as well. He was paid for his services and with that, he gradually became a person of influence at the time.

This is where many say he switched sides. He reportedly became an informant for the Dutch and helped them capture the Maroons; Africans who mixed with the indigenous people in the Americas after they escaped slavery.

Quassi, as an informant, worked with John Gabriel Stedman, Scottish-Dutch mercenary to hunt down freedom fighters in Suriname. Lieutenant Stedman admired Quassi so much that he named him Graman Quassi, which meant Great man Kwasi.

In 1777, Stedman, after observing Quassi, wrote: “This African, by his insinuating temper and industry not only obtained his freedom from a state of slavery, but by his wonderful ingenuity and artful conduct found the means of procuring a very competent subsistence.

“Having got the name of a lockoman, or sorcerer, among the lower slaves, no crime of any consequence was committed, especially at the plantations, but Gramman Quacy, which signifies Great-man Quacy, was instantly sent for to discover the perpetrators, which he very seldom missed, owing, in fact to their faith in his sorceries […] and for these services, occasionally received capital rewards.”

To the Surinamese, Quassi was a traitor and to the Dutch, their secret weapon in defeating the Maroon rebels. Anthropologists, who were on a mission in the Maroon communities in Saramanka, heard oral tales about Quassi.

He was described as the “traitor who gained medical Knowledge from them” and eventually led the Europeans into their forests to capture them. In one of their narrations, their chief at the time cut off Quassi’s right ear.

The Europeans gave him a golden breastplate with the inscription, “Quassie, faithful to the whites.” He served the governor as his personal slave until he was freed under the manumission act.

On his major achievement in the natural sciences, Quassi is credited for being “absolutely the first discoverer of the Quassia tonic” in 1730. The “bitter wood” Quassia was named after him. “Scientifically known as Quassia amara (Amargo, Bitter-ash, Bitter-wood) is a species in the genus Quassia.”

Some botanists treat it as the only species in the genus. Quassia amara is used as insecticide, in traditional medicine and as an additive in the food industry.

Quassi was honoured by Carl Linnaeus (Carl von Linne), known as “the father of modern taxonomy” who named the plant Quassi amara and a visiting Swedish naturalist, Nils Dahlberg, who met Quassi around 1761.

Quassia Amara is a natural emetic (a substance that can cause vomiting). The chemical, Quassin, derived from the plant, is one of the world’s most bitter substances. The plant treats fever or can be taken as a tea. It also wards off parasites such as lice, fleas and mosquitoes.

The Quassia Amara plant known for its medicinal purposes, Photo: Revolvy

Miranda, a historian with the Natural History Museum, explains the link between the three botanists. She says Carl observed a freedman Quassi use the Amara plant to heal people with the bitter tonic from the plant. The Quassia plant didn’t cause diarrhoea as the Peruvian bark, a plant also used for its medicinal properties did, hence Quassia had no side effects.

Believed to be safe and effective, Quassia found its place in various European Pharmacopoeia and it aided in the production of other drugs. The Surinamese people also exported Quassia in large quantities after Linnaeus put word out on the plant’s medicinal benefits.

Carl and Nils must have been very impressed with Quassi’s findings because it was unusual for Europeans to credit Africans for their medical findings. Nils, at a point, wanted to be credited with Quassi’s findings but his actions were futile.

Europeans hardly admit gaining insights in medicinal, herbal and scientific knowledge from the indigenous African. Miranda admits, saying, “It is really unusual that a European would name a plant scientifically after a previously enslaved African.”

Quassi was honoured for his services to the Dutch in 1776 at 80 years. In the Hague, he met The Prince of Orange and was given full military regalia like that of a Dutch general.

Quassi returned to Suriname and lived in a Dutch sponsored house, described as a grand house in Paramaribo. He later owned his own plantations which had enslaved workers and died a rich man in 1780.

Quassi at his plantation, Photo: Natural History Museum

Many historians have wondered if there are other botanical names with African ties like Quassie.

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