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BITTER BREW

One of the beverage world’s favorite plants is named for the slave who discovered its promise

A glass of what appears to be gin and tonic on a dark wooden table on a raised coaster. There is a slice of lemon in the glass.
Seedlip/Rob Lawson
Quassia Amara has largely replaced quinine in the beverage industry over the years, as it contains nature’s most bitter substance —Quassin — which is 50-60 times bitterer than quinine.
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If you are a Ghanaian boy of Akan origin who was born on a Sunday, it is very likely that you are named Kwasi. You share the same name as a bitter medicinal plant whose importance in the food and beverages sector is unrivaled – as far as bitters go. If you have ever had a beer, tonic water, bitter lemon soft drinks, bitters, aperitif liqueurs, or even marmalade or  dairy desserts, you may have already tasted the bitter flavor of Quassia Amara.

The plant is used in much the same manner as quinine plant—as a bitter agent as well as treating malaria and fevers—and has largely replaced quinine in the beverage industry over the years, as it contains nature’s most bitter substance—Quassin—which is 50-60 times bitterer than quinine.

Quassia Amara which is the Latinized term for Quassi bitter was named in 1762 by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus—who developed the system by which we name all plants and animals today—in honor of a former enslaved African in Suriname who the Europeans called Graman Quassi (signifies Great-man Quassi.) He was credited for discovering the medicinal properties of the plant as a tonic and remedy for fever in about 1730.

The tonic became a popular bitter in the Caribbean and Europe soon after Linnaeus named the plant, and the bark of the plant became a major Suriname export. In the 1780s, Quassia gained relevance in Europe as a cheaper and bitterer substitute for hops in the production of beer.

The historical satirical painting, ‘The triumph of Quassia’ by James Gillray in 1805 shows how important quassia was in England of the time – as well as the racist viewpoints. The satire was of a proposed tax affecting brewers and the alleged substitution of quassia for hops. “Its main target seems to be quassia, a tropical plant used as a digestive, that in some way competes with British beer while not paying taxes” according to George P. Landow, a Professor of English and Art History Emeritus, Brown University.

Who was Kwasi?

The Saramaka maroons of Suriname who are Africans that had escaped from slavery to live freely with the indeginous people of the land in forest settlements, knew Kwasi as Kwasimukamba of Tjedu or “Kwedü”, in their oral histories. Tjedü, or “Kwedü”, is now thought to be his father’s name (or name of his father’s clan or tribe) says Richard Price, a Professor of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins  University who did extensive research on Saramakas oral history of Kwasimukamba.

Unfortunately the Saramakas remember Kwasimukamba as a traitor who gained knowledge from them and later led Europeans to destroy their villages.

In Suriname, the name Kwasi is still very much used to describe the plant and items made from it. For instance, the plant and remedy are locally called “Kwasi bita” (Kwasi bitter), and a cup carved out from the wood of the plant for medicinal use is called “Kwasi bita beker” (Kwasi bitter cup.) When filled with water or alcohol, the bitterness of the cup is transferred into the liquid and is drank as a remedy – a local practice that has existed for centuries.

Kwasi became the colony’s leading dresiman (curer) and lukuman (diviner,) with vast influence not only among Blacks and Indians but also among the European colonists.

The changing of the names of enslaved Africans and places in Africa during colonization as commonly practiced by European colonists and slavers with disregard to the cultural or historical values attached to these names has contributed to the erasure of the cultural identities and history of many people and places.

Born on the coast of Guinea in west Africa about 1690, Kwasi was enslaved and transported to Suriname (Dutch Guiana) where he became an Obeah man—one who harnesses spiritual and medical knowledge for personal use—a practice that originated from the Ashanti and Kormantine tribes in the Gold Coast (Ghana.)  Obeah men and women are known to have intricate knowledge of herbs and poisons that enabled them to accumulate power and respect that sometimes rivaled that of European plantation owners, as Kwasi did.

Kwasi, faithful to the whites

“Kwasi became the colony’s leading dresiman (curer) and lukuman (diviner,) with vast influence not only among Blacks and Indians but also among the European colonists”, wrote Richard Price, a Professor of Anthropology who did extensive research on maroon ethnography and history.

He accumulated wealth and power not only from selling medicine and other healing services but also from military and espionage services which involved finding and prosecuting enslaved people who wronged their masters, and runaways, and as well spying on the maroons.

“He was the colony’s principal intermediary in dealings with runaway slaves, serving first as a scout, then as a negotiator, and finally as the spiritual and tactical advisor of the specially selected black troops who fought alongside European mercenaries in the great battles of the 177Os and 1780s’, Price wrote.

Kwasi was well rewarded for these extraordinary services to the colony, first receiving a golden breastplate engraved with ‘Quassie, faithful to the whites’ as early as 1730. He was then purchased by the Governor of the colony to be his slave finally receiving his letter of manumission in 1755, making him a free man. As a free man, Kwasi had the privilege of having the plant named after in 1762.

In the 18th century, it was very unusual to acknowledge the contribution to science by a Black person.  Modern historians have shown that Black people contributed significantly to modern science but were either not given credit, their identities kept anonymous or their contributions never mentioned.

Where references are made, their identities are limited to terms such as “a famous Negro Poisoner” for the Black man from whom European explorers got the antidote to a deadly Indian poison in the West Indies 1743 and “a native at Bembe” for the person from whom Europeans bought the poisonous Casca bark in Angola in 1877.

Charles Darwin—the British naturalist credited for the theory of evolution by natural selection—did not mention the name of the Black man who tutored him in taxidermy during 1826 but only referred to him as “a blackamoor.” Historians suggested the man was the formerly enslaved Guyanese, John Edmonstone.

Naming a plant after a Black person was unusual

Linnaeus’s naming of a plant after a Black formerly enslaved person may have been frowned at by many Europeans at the time such as in the case of Carl Gustav Dahlberg, the Swedish plantation owner in Suriname. Dahlburg was the one who in 1761 gave Linnaeus a specimen of the tree which Linnaeus used in the same year to publish the dissertation with an illustration of the plant that first named the plant, “Quassia Amara” described it and therefore establishing it in the European system of botanical nomenclature.

“Dahlberg was appalled when Linnaeus commemorated Quassi in the plant’s name; he had hoped for this honor himself. No one at the time considered naming the plant for the Amerindians from whom the cure seems to have originated.” Londa Schiebinger, Professor of History of Science at Stanford University wrote in her book Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World.

Historians have come to the conclusion that actually, Kwasi did not discover the remedy but only brought the remedy which was already widely used by the “natives” of the land to the attention of “learned Europeans.”

With this being the reality at the time in addition to the racist view and attitude toward the Blacks, there may be more to why the plant was named after Kwasi considering that Linnaeus likely first knew about Kwasi and the bitter remedy in 1756, from one of his students who bought the remedy in Suriname and took it back with him to Europe. The student, Daniel Rolander, may have learned about the tonic and Kwasi the year before when he was being celebrated and living as a free man.

Schiebinger explained that Kwasi should not have qualified as a recipient of botanical fame if Linnaeus were to follow his own criteria because Kwasi was a healer or a medical man and not strictly speaking a botanist.

“One might conjecture that it was for his service in supplying troops to the Dutch colonists and quelling rebellions among his own people as much as for his priority in the discovery that Quassi was eventually rewarded with immortality in the European system of botanical nomenclature.”

Kwasi’s history is one that presents him as an example of one man’s meat and another man’s poison. The white slavers remember him as a Great man (“Graman”) and being “faithful to the whites” but his own people remember him as a “traitor.”

In later years, Kwasi who became a plantation owner continued to work with the colonial government, who had given him a good house in the country’s capital along with the services of two slaves. The spread of the quassia bitter in Europe and stories of his services for the Dutch government made Kwasi a known figure in Europe. In 1776, he was sent to The Hague, the Dutch capital city in Europe where he was received by Willem V, the Prince of Orange and decorated for his service to the Dutch nation.

He had leprosy for many years before his death in 1787.  Though the disease had no cure, his medical knowledge helped him stop its progress.

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