Graman Quacy (or Kwasi) was a healer in the eighteenth century Dutch colony Suriname. He was probably born in the late seventeenth century, in the part of Africa that is now Ghana. The main way historians know about him is through the writings of John Gabriel Stedman, a British soldier and writer. Stedman wrote about Quacy in his Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, which was first published in 1790. Graman Quacy was remarkable as an African-born healer in a European colony, who was greatly respected by the European colonists as well as by enslaved Africans, and who became well off as a result of his healing activities.
John Stedman knew Quacy personally. He described how Quacy visited him to show him ‘his Coat, Gold medal, &c. Which he had got in a Present from the Prince of Orange’. Stedman believed Quacy was ‘one of the most Extraordinary Black men in Surinam or Perhaps in the World’.
Quacy obtained his freedom from enslavement and then, Stedman stated, ‘by his Wonderful artifice & ingenuity … found the means of Acquiring a very Competant Subsistance.’ This subsistence was in working as a healer. Stedman mentioned two distinct ways in which Quacy worked. Firstly, Stedman described how Quacy was hired to detect criminals:
‘having got the name of a Loocoman, or Sorcerer among the vulgar Slaves, no Crime of any Consequence is Committed at the Plantations but Graman Quacy/which Signifies Greatman Qwacy/ is Sent for to Discover the Perpetrator, & Which he so very Seldom misses by their Faith in his Conjurations, & looking them Steadily in the Face, that he has not only often Prevented further mischief to their masters, but Came home with very Capital rewards to himself.’
Quacy also sold magical amulets for protection. Stedman stated:
The Corps of Ranger & all fighting free negroes are next under his Command, to Whom by Selling his Obias or Amulets to make them invulnerable, /they under the Power of this Superstition fearing no danger & fighting like bull dogs.
The substances and materials used by Quacy were commonly used by spiritual healers throughout the Caribbean. He used:
small Pebles, Egg Shells, Cut-hair, Fish bones &c. the whole Sew’d up together in Small Packets which are tied in a String of Cotton Around Some part of theyr Body.
Quacy also discovered a ‘Valuable Root’ which became known at the time as ‘Qwacy Bitter’ and was used, according to Stedman for ‘strength’ning the stomach, Restoring the Appetite &c’. The plant was named Quassia amara by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, and is still used as an insecticide and as treatment for stomach pain.
When Stedman was with some Rangers near Claas-Creek he observed them using Quacy’s medicines. He recalled:
We now Followed Along the Banks of the River Cottica till near the Claas-Creek Which I Formerly Swimmed Across With my Sabre in my Teeth, and Early Slung our Hammocks While I Was Detached with a few Rangers to Lay an Ambuscade in the Mouth till it was Dark – here however I Discovered Nothing at All Except that the Rangers Were Possess’d of the Same Superstition As the Rebels With Regard to their Amulet or Obia’s Making them invulnerable – Which they told me as the Latter for it from their Priest, so they Bought it from their Gramans Qwacy …’
Stedman also included an engraving of Quacy, stating ‘having taken a Portrait of this Extraordinary man with his Gray Head of Hair, & Dress’d in his Blew & Scarlet with Gold Lace, I here take the Liberty in the Annex’d Plate to Represent him to the Curious Reader.’
Stedman, John Gabriel. Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, Transcribed for the First Time from the Original 1790 Manuscript, edited Price, Richard and Sally Price. New York: iUniverse, 2010.
Susan Scott Parrish, ‘Diasporic African Sources of Enlightenment Knowledge’ in Delbourgo, James, and Nicholas Dew, eds. Science and Empire in the Atlantic World. New York: Routledge, 2008, pp. 281 – 310.