Like many ecologists I have a fascination with the scientific names that attach themselves to species. Sometimes these celebrate the person who discovered or described the species*, or a benefactor, or are made as a tribute to a notable person. One that I recently stumbled across is the South American tree Quassia amara, a common understorey species of disturbed lowland forests. Until I encountered the backstory to its name while reading The Ethnobotany of Eden (which I strongly recommend) I had no idea where its name came from. The story is complex and revealing.
The tree is one of a relatively small proportion of tropical species which owes their name to Linnaeus, indicating that its significance was recognised early in the development of modern taxonomy. That a Swedish botanist came to hold a sample is due to its potential as a remedy for fevers, a serious concern of the European powers whose hold over tropical lands was still tenuous while their colonists struggled with malaria and other unfamiliar afflictions.
The tree’s Latin name celebrates the man who introduced the plant to Europeans as a medicine, the freed slave Graman Quassi (c.1690–1787), originally of the Akan people of West Africa from modern-day Ghana, hence his Kwa name Kwasimukámba which I will use in preference here. He arrived in Suriname as a child slave of the Dutch empire. So successful was Kwasimukámba that he not only lived an unusually long and ultimately comfortable life but was also celebrated internationally. He even travelled to The Hague and received an audience with Willem V, the Prince of Orange, who bestowed a number of extravagant gifts on him in recognition of his service to the empire.
If we ended the story here then it would be almost heart-warming. But let’s delve deeper. How did Kwasimukámba come to be a freed slave?
Many other slaves escaped from servitude in South America and formed independent communities, known as the maroons, often deep into colonised territories. Some of these became well-established enough to effectively become trade partners of the European powers and were tolerated. Others, such as the Saramaka, fought lengthy insurgencies before eventually winning this recognition. It was in this struggle that Kwasimukámba first demonstrated his worth to the Dutch, acting as a negotiator and tracker on behalf of the white colonists. Later he led a corps of African conscripts known as the Black Rangers, even losing one of his ears in the fighting against the rebels. For his efforts he was gifted a gold breastplate on which was inscribed ‘Quassie, faithful to the whites’. The Saramaka remember him as a traitor.
What then of the tree that bears his name? It was Kwasimukámba who introduced it to Europeans as a local remedy for fever in his other noted capacity as a herbalist and sorceror**. It was soon overtaken as a cure for malaria by Cinchona, another South American tree and the source of quinine. Nevertheless, Quassia amara is still used as an effective treatment for intestinal parasites, an insecticide, and a bittering agent in foods and drinks. The second part of the species name, amara, comes from the Spanish word meaning ‘bitter’. Even here Kwasimukámba is memorialised because the most bitter of the tree’s chemical constituents is now known as quassin, one of a family of chemicals called the quassinoids. These are amongst the most bitter-tasting chemicals in nature and form ingredients of Angostura bitters***.
Without wishing to be unfair to Kwasimukámba, whose reputation as a healer cannot be entirely unfounded, it is highly unlikely that he personally discovered the medicinal benefits of Quassia. More likely is that he learnt of its efficacy through his interactions with the Saramaka or other maroons. They, in turn, are likely to have acquired the knowledge from the indigenous peoples they encountered in the forests. My scepticism about who deserves the credit is simply based on a matter of probability. Native healers had been using the tree for many generations before the African slaves and their European masters arrived, and continue to do so.
We will never know who first named the bitter tree and divined its useful medicinal properties. In a fair accounting of history they would receive the credit for Quassia, although Kwasimukámba deserves his recognition too. He can hardly be blamed for the accolade of being immortalised in science as the tree was named for, not by, him. Then again, in his later years he styled himself ‘Professor of Herbology’, so he was not averse to personal aggrandisement.
So who was Kwasimukámba: a manumitted slave who achieved fame in his lifetime? An imperial collaborator? A talented herbalist? Or a charlatan who took credit for the insights of others? The truth must be all of those things, and no single story is complete without the rest. We should beware making moral judgements on our forebears, as I’ve argued before, because these were complex people making personal decisions in very different times. The name Quassia links a bitter-flavoured tree to a bitter history, one that invokes slavery, oppression, forgotten indigenous peoples and the legacies of colonialism. The struggles of the Saramaka for recognition of their rights continue to the present day. Perhaps we shouldn’t resent Kwasimukámba his place in the annals of science though. At least this once an oppressed slave managed to make a decent life for himself. I can raise a glass to that.
* Which usually means the first person from the Global North to place the species in the context of a largely imperial system of classification. That a species was long known to local people in its place of origin is usually overlooked, although taxonomists are getting better at this.
** Not all of his concoctions were as widely approved of.
*** Amusingly Angostura bitters do not contain the bitter-tasting bark of Angostura trifoliata, but are instead named after the town in Venezuela from where the recipe originated. I should write another blog post about that.