Graman Kwasi

Graman Kwasi was a healer and collector with extensive botanical knowledge whose many accomplishments include descriptions of medicinal plants. He was recognized by his contemporaries for his deep understanding of plant properties and his talent for using them to cure ailments. Quassia amara was one plant that he described and used to treat intestinal parasites without any undesirable side effects. It was eventually named in his honor. Now of significant economic importance, Q. amara has been studied for its application as a natural remedy against several health problems including diabetes and leukemia. A depiction of this species is featured as one of the panels decorating the ceiling of Hintze Hall at the NHM in London. In short, Graman Kwasi was a gifted botanist whose contributions continue to impact society.

While his origins are uncertain, Graman Kwasi was transported to Suriname as a slave in the late 17th or early 18th century after being abducted from Ghana. He eventually gained notoriety among his fellow enslaved for his practice of spiritually guided healing (sometimes referred to as Obeah), a practice he learned through the oral traditions of the Maroon (self-liberated communities of formerly enslaved Afro-descendants), specifically the Saramaka peoples. These abilities proved useful to Europeans suffering various ailments. Given the obvious value of his knowledge, Graman Kwasi gained the favor of his enslavers. His renown, knowledge and abilities were largely used in the service of his oppressors to uphold slavery. In fact, his aid in recapturing escapees and quelling Maroon rebellions afforded him a sort of social advancement that culminated in his eventual freedom.

While his accomplishments as a naturalist were impressive, the life of Graman Kwasi serves as a cautionary tale. First, as a slave himself, the exploitation of his botanical knowledge by colonialists to expand the Western tradition of natural history research and collection is a poignant illustration of the colonial legacy of this branch of science and its intimate association with the slave trade. Second, Graman Kwasi leveraging his competence and skills to establish himself in the oppressive role of a system of subjugation cannot be ignored. His service of the Dutch was a betrayal to the Maroon peoples, not only threatening their lives, but Kwasi may have been credited with discoveries ultimately facilitated by their unrecognized expertise. Furthermore, after gaining his own freedom, he lived the remainder of his life on a plantation served by his own slaves. Unfortunately, his paradoxical willingness to adopt the oppressor’s social norms likely led to the unusual acknowledgement of a Black man by colonialists for his discovery. “Quassie, faithful to the whites” let an oppressive system of power and prestige corrupt him.