Graman Quassi; The African Slave In Suriname Who Discovered Bitter Tonic or Quassia Tonic For Treating Fever Without Side Effects

An inspired sketch of freedman Graman Quassi

Quassi or Kwasi was named Graman Quassi, which means the Great man Kwasi by one of his admirers and an unofficial biographer, Lieutenant John Stedman. Quassi was a scout and a negotiator for the Dutch, and he lost his right ear during the wars. For this particular reason the Surinamese maroons remember him as a traitor.

Graman Quassi very a successful man in the study of botany and medicine which Carl Linnaeus who we popularly know as “the father of modern taxonomy” and the famous Swedish botanist, physician, and zoologist, who laid the foundations for the modern biological naming scheme of binomial nomenclature – honored him for using the back of the Quassia tree in Suriname to cure feverish sicknesses. A discovery which has enabled scientists to use the Quassia in medicines like bitter tonic and vermifuge.

Quassi who was a slave became a celebrity: many reports in that era talked about him as “the first discoverer” of the Quassia tonic. In Londa L. Schiebinger’s celebrated book on plant medicine, entitled “Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting In the Atlantic world” published in 2004, stated that Quassi is reported to have developed the roots and the back of Quassia plant into a hidden remedy against the “serious ill-fevers” of Suriname.

Quassia amara is a tree with bright red flowers

Lieutenant John Stedman, who stayed many years in Suriname, wrote this in the year 1730. Quassi’s hidden medicinal formula was sold for a sum which was considered by Daniel Rolander, one of the Linnaeus’ students, who then took the medicine back with him to Europe in the year 1756. A specimen of the tree from which the remedy comes was presented by Carl Gustav Dahlberg, a Swedish plantation owner in Suriname, to Linnaeus in 1761. Linnaeus immediately wrote a book and published it which provided details on the name, described, and provided an illustration of the plant, and then established it within the European study of botany.

Dahlberg became very sad when Linnaeus recommended Quassi for the name of the plant, which he, Dahlberg was hoping for the honor for himself. Quassia turned out to be a very popular “bitter,” which was praised for its effectiveness in suppressing vomiting and controlling fever, both in the Caribbeans and in all the European countries. Experiments by the European physicians showed it to be as potent as the Peruvian bark without any of the barks main side effects which was diarrhea. Known to be safe and effective, “Quassia” (used in infusion, extract, or pills) found its place in various European Pharmacopoeia.

The white physicians who were in Suriname became very unhappy for Quassi being given credit when he discovered the drug. The experimenter Philippe Fermin gave in 1769 that “this wood has been known for forty years to nearly all the inhabitants of Suriname.” Stedman, the military man, however, painted a picture of the “Graman Quacy” as “a very extraordinary black man in the world,” by his industry, “artifice,” and “genuity.” Stedman wrote, he gained his freedom from slavery,” and from his healing arts, also “very important consistency.”

From there on, Quassi made considerable fortune by cultivating a reputation as an herbalist, among the slaves and by selling his “Obeah” or amulets. His concoctions made from eggshell and fishbones when used by the slaved African soldiers made them fight like “bull-dogs” for the Dutch. And it caused his fellow Africans in Suriname to tag him as a traitor.

Fun fact: Quassi was the first botanist to scientifically describe the medicinal plant, which was named after him by taxonomist Carl Linnaeus.


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