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A depiction of freedman Graman Quassi standing with the Quassia amara plant. Source: Le Costume Ancien et Moderne by Giulio Ferrario (1816-1827).

Who was Graman Kwasi?

Though visitors can spot his namesake on the iconic gilded ceiling of the Museum's Hintze Hall, few will have heard of Graman Kwasimukambe (also known as Kwasi, Quasi, Quassi and Quacy).

A Surinamese freedman, Kwasi is just one of many natural scientists and collectors whose important contributions have been neglected or overwritten in the canon of Western scientific history. 

Museum Curator Miranda Lowe explains how she first encountered Kwasi, and her ongoing quest to give credit to natural scientists whose stories remain untold.

Quassia amara, a decorative ceiling panel from Hintze Hall

Quassia amara, a decorative ceiling panel from Hintze Hall

'I came across Kwasi long before I came to the Museum,' Miranda says. 'As a person of colour you get told about various people who may have done something special but are never acknowledged with more than a few lines in a book somewhere.'

Though his story is seldom told, Kwasi's legacy is in full public view: a place of honour on the ornate ceiling of the Museum's main hall.

Hintze Hall is home to 162 hand-decorated panels, which date from when the Museum opened to the public in 1881.

The eclectic mix of species includes plants of vital economic importance to the expanding British Empire such as tobacco, sugar and opium. Quassia amara, named after Kwasi, shares a prominent position above the stairs among other important medicinal and poisonous plants.

Freedman, healer, planter, spy

We know relatively little about Kwasi's early life. Born in West Africa around 1690, he was enslaved and transported to Suriname (Dutch Guiana) in South America as either a child or young adult.

In Suriname many enslaved Africans were forced to work on sugar plantations. Kwasi was skilled in obeah (medical and spiritual knowledge) and may have used this to gain influence among other enslaved people.

Kwasi is a controversial figure. Sources present him in different ways, from wise and canny to opportunistic.

A portrait of Graman Quacy, surinamese freedman in formal dutch costume

The celebrated Graman Quacy, an engraving by Wiliam Blake, Stedman, 1806

As well as tending to other enslaved people, Kwasi treated Europeans for medical problems and earned a considerable amount of money from his medicines and cures.

He also used his influence to help the Dutch capture escaped Maroons – Africans who had escaped from slavery in the Americas and mixed with the indigenous people in new settlements there.

John Gabriel Stedman was a Scottish-Dutch mercenary who helped the Dutch hunt down freedom fighters in Suriname. After meeting Kwasi in 1777 he 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.'

For his services to the Dutch in helping to defeat Maroon rebellions, Kwasi was given a golden breastplate engraved with 'Quassie, faithful to the whites'.

He was also assigned the position of personal slave to the governor and later given his own freedom (in an act called manumission).

Knowledge and betrayal

Between the 1960s and 1990s anthropologists Richard and Sally Price worked with the Saramaka, one of several distinct Maroon communities in Suriname.

The Saramaka recall Kwasi in their oral histories as Kwasimukamba of Tjedu, which may have been his father's clan in Africa. He is remembered primarily as a traitor who gained medical knowledge from them, then led European soldiers into the forests.

According to their story, their then-chief cut off Kwasi's right ear.

Quassia Amara

Quassia amara - also known as amargo, bitter-ash, bitter-wood, or hombre grande (Spanish for big man) - is a small tree with elongated, bright red flowers. Quassin, a chemical derived from the plant, is one of nature's most bitter substances.

Kwasi was the first botanist to scientifically describe the medicinal plant, which was named after him by taxonomist Carl Linnaeus.

Photograph of the bright red flowers of the Quassia Amara plant

Quassia amara is a small tree with bright red flowers. Source: Forestowlet Via Wikicommons (CC BY 2.0)

Quassia amara is a powerful emetic (a substance that can cause vomiting) and in traditional medicine it was used in the form of a tea as a digestive, as a febrifuge (to treat fever) and also to ward off parasites such as lice, fleas and mosquito larvae.

After Linnaeus had publicised the plant's medicinal benefits, it became one of Suriname's major exports.

In good company

Although the timing and location of Kwasi's discoveries aren't precise, researchers think he probably discovered the properties of Quassia amara before 1730.

He may have shared his findings with a visiting Swedish naturalist Nils Dahlberg around 1761 who was in touch with Carl Linnaeus.

'When Carl Linnaeus learned about Kwasi he was already a freedman, and Linnaeus  may have directly observed how he treated people with a tonic using the amara plant,' Miranda explains.

'It is really unusual that a European would name a plant scientifically after a previously enslaved African.

'European explorers often mention their interactions with people of colour but they don't always acknowledge that they were gaining the medicinal, herbal and scientific knowledge directly from locals.

'It does make you wonder whether there might be a lot more scientific names with stories like this.'

Turncoat and slave owner

In 1776 (at the age of around 80) Kwasi was sent to The Hague. There, the Prince of Orange decorated him for his service to the Dutch. Kwasi was also given a suit of blue and scarlet, trimmed with broad gold lace and a hat with a white feather -  in the style of a Dutch general.

At the end of his life, Kwasi lived in a grand house in Paramaribo, Suriname, paid for by the Dutch government. He was also a plantation owner in his own right, profiting from his own enslaved workers.

Kwasi in a suit of blue and scarlet in the style of a Dutch general

Kwasi in a suit of blue and scarlet in the style of a Dutch general standing with the Quassia amara plant. Image from Il Costume Antico e Moderno by Giulio Ferrario (1816-1827).

Science and empire

The history of science, slavery and imperial conquest are deeply intertwined.

The British Empire of Victorian times was based on trade in plants and plant products which provided the raw materials for commerce and industry.

An eclectic combination of plants make up the selection of species on the gilded ceiling of the Museum's Hintze Hall

An eclectic combination of plants make up the selection of species on the gilded ceiling of the Museum's Hintze Hall. These include cotton, tea, coffee, sugar cane, tobacco and opioids. Slave labour was a mainstay in the economy of the British Empire, through cultivating plants that scientists identified as useful. From left to right: Coffea arabicaGossypium barbadense (Sea Island Cotton) and Nicotiana tabacum (tobacco).

Miranda says, 'Collectors were repackaging local plant knowledge and bringing specimens and insights back to Europe, but it was those white explorers who received worldwide fame and financial gain.'

'It's time for scientific museums and all places of culture to bring out more of these hidden stories and better acknowledge the contribution that people of colour, black and ethnic minorities have made to science and the world as we know it.'

Addressing painful histories in Museums

Subhadra Das is curator at University College London's historical science collections and works closely with Miranda as part of the Museum Detox group, a network for black, Asian and minority ethnic heritage professionals in the UK. Their approach is to deal head-on with painful histories that museums tend to shy away from.

'Museums in general - and museums of science in particular - are not neutral, and any attempt to appear neutral is at best disingenuous, at worst it is racist,' Subhadra says.

'In the case of natural history museums, a tradition of sticking to what are considered objective, "scientific" facts - and the resulting lack of consideration of the historical and cultural contexts of the natural sciences - is a lie by omission.

'This lie perpetuates a system of structural racism by whitewashing a history in which science and racism were inextricably bound.

'By focussing on stories such as those of the scientific contributions of Graman Kwasi, the fact the Sir Hans Sloane's money came from slavery, and how the idea of race was a scientific construct of the Enlightenment - museums were instrumental in that construction - we as museum professionals can stop being part of the problem and become part of the solution instead.'

Acknowledgements

Accounts of Kwasi's life mentioned in this article were first published by the Museum in on Slavery and the Natural World - A project completed in 2007 to commemorate the British bicentenary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.

Explore the collections

From giant fossil mammals to mysterious moths, uncover the colourful stories behind some of the Museum's most fascinating specimens.

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Visit Kwasi's namesake

It's currently on display on the ceiling of Hintze Hall. For the best view head for the sequoia on the second floor balcony.