This case history is based on 18th century historical documents about an enslaved African man called Graman Quacy who lived in Suriname and practiced obeah.
According to this story, Graman Quacy (or Kwasi) was originally from the Akan community in Ghana and was transported to the Caribbean as an enslaved African child during the early 1700s. Historians think that he was from Ghana in West Africa (formerly known as the Gold Coast during colonial times) because “Quacy” is similar to the Ghanaian name traditionally given to a male child born on Sunday – Kosi/Akwasi/Kwasi/Kwesi.
During the 1700s Suriname was a Dutch colony that had been taken over from the British during the Anglo-Dutch War of 1667 and, over several decades, the colony was turned into a major slave trading area and plantation economy by merchants and traders involved in the West India Company. The brutal regime of forced labour set up by these traders in Suriname meant that many enslaved Africans transported to this part of the Caribbean region suffered very harsh treatment and the death rates were extremely high. For example, even though more than 300,000 enslaved captives were taken against their will and transported to work as plantation labourers in Suriname between the years 1668 and 1823, the population never rose above 50,000 because of the high incidence of illness and death from very harsh and brutal working conditions.
Many enslaved African men and women regularly escaped from the plantations and set up separate communities of fugitives who were known as ‘Maroons.’ ‘Marronage’ became a major form of resistance against enslavement and these communities of free African people developed effective fighting tactics and combat skills to wage guerrilla warfare against the Dutch plantation owners.
During Graman Quacy’s early life in Suriname he became widely known as a skilled medical practitioner whom other enslaved Africans called a “doctor man” or “obeah man.” The Dutch plantation owners also recognised that Graman Quacy was an effective healer, as well as a good political strategist, and so they started to write about his medical skills and his effective skills as a communicator which made him very famous throughout the region. Some accounts of his life suggest that by the 1730s Graman Quacy was trusted by so many people that he became the principal intermediary and negotiator in this Dutch colony in trying to suppress the wars that took place between Dutch plantation owners fighting to maintain plantation slavery in Suriname, and the communities of escaped Africans living as Maroons who wanted to destroy the plantation system and bring slavery to an end.
According to John Gabriel Stedman’s book, 18th century Surinamese plantation owners regularly invited Graman Quacy to their estates and asked him to perform rituals that would cure the sick and dying enslaved Africans. They often paid him lots of money for his medical services because they wanted to keep the enslaved Africans working as much as possible to maintain their profits. One of Quacy’s most popular remedies was a drink known as “Quaciae Bitters.” Although some people dismissed this drink as a harmless concoction, many others believed it was powerful and effective for curing serious illnesses.
Over several decades Graman Quacy used his skills and his fame as an obeah man to accumulate enough money to buy his own freedom. As a free man he was also invited to travel to the Netherlands for an audience with William V, the Prince of Orange, at The Hague, where he was rewarded for services to the Surinamese community with a gold-laced coat, a feathered hat, a gold medal and a gold-headed cane. These are the elaborate clothes and objects that William Blake featured in his 1796 engraving of Graman Quacy.
This engraving – titled “The Celebrated Graman Quacy,” by the British artist and poet William Blake (1757-1827) – is one of the earliest sources to feature a picture of Graman Quacy. The image was first published in a book called Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition, against the Revolted Negroes of Suriname, from the year 1772 to 1777, by John Gabriel Stedman (London, 1796). The author, Stedman, was a member of the Scots Brigade in the Netherlands who travelled to Suriname in the 1770s.
The title of this image suggests Graman Quacy had already achieved fame and wealth by this time. In addition to stories circulating about Quacy’s medical skills, many people thought that his knowledge of herbal remedies was also linked to supernatural and spiritual powers that enabled him to heal the sick by prescribing potions for them to drink or giving them amulets to wear for protection against harmful or evil spirits.
Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland.
• The colour engraving of “The Celebrated Graman Quacy” first appeared in Captain John Gabriel Stedman’s 1796 book –“Narrative, of a five-year expedition against the revolted Negroes of Suriname, from the year 1772 to 1777” (London, 1796). Copies of this publication are held in the collections of several libraries, including the National Library of Scotland.
• A black and white illustration of William Blake’s engraving “The Celebrated Graman Quacy” (1796) is also on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the Prints & Drawings Study Room. See also: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O127387/the-celebrated-graman-quacy-print-blake-william/
Some questions to think about when interpreting this case history
• Why do you think a famous British poet, painter and printmaker like William Blake (1757-1827) chose to create an engraving of Graman Quacy?
• Do you think this is an accurate likeness of Graman Quacy, or not? Please give reasons for your answer.
• Why might it be helpful to know whether the artist William Blake and the writer John Gabriel Stedman were in favour of, or against, the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean region? How might their attitudes towards slavery affect the accuracy of their illustrations and accounts about Graman Quacy?