In Suriname Kwasibita is a herbal cure well known for it’s healing properties to cure fever and stomach ailments. In the West it is known as Quassia. This cure and the plant is named after the infamous healer and slave, Quassie.
The strength of this herbal medicine is in the wood. Traditionally it was made into a cup, which is filled with water and left to sit for a few days after which you simply drink it. It is very bitter and the local name literally means bitter Quassie.
Quassie was reviled among the slave population as a traitor yet by many he was renowned and respected as a healer. He was instrumental in helping the Dutch colonials score some victories against some maroon tribes as well as helping capture runaway slaves.
Quassie was a saltwater slave, meaning he was born in Africa. Why he was so willing to help the Dutch colonials is not clear, but what is known is that he was very proud in character. He was also seen as a seer or lukumang, and a herbal healer.
According to oral tradition he was one of the traitors responsible for the fall of Fort Boekoe, from rebel leader Boni.
The first time he gained attention was when he rang the alarm bell of his master’s plantation during the attack of Jacques Cassard in 1712. This started a long career of devotion and service to the whites, who proved themselves properly grateful.
Quassi was soon singled out by his master because of his intelligence and was employed as a trader with the Indians (bokkeruylder). During his sojourns among them, he learned their languages and all he could about their use of medicinal herbs. Around 1730, he discovered the remarkable qualities of the plant that became known as kwassibita. It soothed fever and stomach troubles. Linneus, who received a sample from the planter Dahlberg, classified it as Quassia amara L. During the next 50 years, Quassi established an enviable reputation as the best dresi– and lukuman of the colony. He was regarded with awe by black and white alike.
Quassi started to get into trouble with his (new) master after he had been employed by the Court of Police as a guide in the campaign against the Maroons. If we believe the testimony of director D’Anglade, he may have had good reason to be dissatisfied with the behavior of Quassi, which was not befitting of a humble slave. In a long letter to Frederik and Abraham Camijn, the administrators of Nieuw Timotibo, D’Anglade complained that “he goes, he comes, he moves, he brings along and takes away again some Negroes, and as many as pleases him, without condescending to inform me”. When he objected to such irregularities, Quassi turned insolent and replied: “I may be a Negro, but such a Negro as I am, is worth more than ten whites”. The much-plagued director came to hate him so much that he wrote: “wouldn’t it be better if the heads of all the Negroes, who are like Quasje, would be used to decorate the tops of the gallows, in my opinion this is the only place where one should allow them, I know no better one”.
Governor Mauricius explained to the States-General (in his defense against accusations that he employed a criminal): “The truth is, that he, shortly before I bought him, has been in jail, and his whole crime had been, that he had been used to be treated as a free Negro under the former Administrators [but] nowadays had to live under the severe Government of a Frenchman, named Danglade, and possibly well-known in the Fatherland, who, being more demanding than another, wanted to employ this Negro, who sometimes had advised him too boldly for his taste on the Direction of the Plantation, for the dirtiest Jobs. When Quasje did not answer respectfully enough, d’ Anglade sent him to the Fort, as the Owners often do who do not want to punish a Negro themselves.”
To alleviate these problems and to retain Quassi’s invaluable services for the government, Mauricius proposed to the Society to buy him for the Mineral Company and when he did not receive permission to do so, he bought Quassi himself (giving in return two slaves valued at 600 guilders). He employed him as a scout and bokkeruylder. [The profits of the trade with the Indians had traditionally accrued to the Governor, but by the time Mauricius came to power, they had dwindled to almost nil.] The contract of sale explicitly forbade Quassi “strictly and at the peril of his life … to come directly and indirectly on the aforementioned Plantation Nieuw Timotibo, or even to traverse the River Perica”. Neither was he permitted to wander around freely in Paramaribo, but he had to go straight to the Waterkant to preclude ‘correspondence’.
The Court of Police was soon convinced of the usefulness of Quassi. Jan van Sandik, for example, informed the members that many of the young slaves on his plantation Correpinibo had died and that he suspected poisoning, but had been unable to ferret out the culprits. Therefore, he asked the Court permission to employ Quassi, who was believed to be a clairvoyant, but only discovered the truth “by his Intrigues during [the] examination of several slaves, when he spent a couple of days on such a Plantation, and also by the fear the other Negroes feel for him, [pretending] as if he could see it like a clairvoyant, and also only for this reason playing this this way, so they would fear him, because he has always uncovered the deeds in advance, as he has proven repeatedly”. The Court mused that “no honest man will believe in the superstitions of clairvoyancy, and in order to discover such evil-doers who are so ruinous for every planter, one should use the best measures available, to bring a people like [the] Negroes who are so obstinate, that before they would confess anything to a white [they] would let themselves be beaten to death, to Confession by this superstition they are afflected with”.
For more than forty years, Quassi was also the most prominent intermediary between the colonial authorities and the Maroons, “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 1770’s and 1780’s”, according to Price. The Saramaka still feel a enormous hatred for the ‘traitor’ Kawsimukamba. What made them so angry was the following: in 1754, Quassi came back to his patron after a long absence and told him that he had been living among the Saramaka for a year and was willing to direct a patrol to their hideout. Within a year, a force of 500 men, commanded by Captain E.G. Hentschel and guided by Quassi, mounted an attack. The mission was a dismal failure, however. When years later the Saramaka were sounded out about the possibility of a treaty, they demanded Quassi’s head as part of the deal. Not surprisingly, this was refused. In the memory of the modern Saramaka, Quassi lives on as a “self-appointed secret-agent, a spy who almost brought about a terrible defeat which, thanks to the Saramakas’ gods, was transformed into a famous victory”. In their legend about these events, the Saramaka cut off one of Quassi’s ears in revenge, and Price saw their claim substantiated in the drawing made of him by Stedman, in which he indeed seems to miss an ear.
Quassi was showered with rewards for his services. To name but a few: in 1730 he was presented with a golden breastplate stating “Quassi, faithful to the whites”; in 1747 the Court of Police allowed Mauricius to give Quassi his freedom, because this would increase his loyalty even more; in 1776, Governor Nepveu sent him to the Netherlands, where he was presented to the Stadhouder.
After helping to bring about the peace treaty with the Djuka at the end of the 1760’s, Quassi became a planter himself. He established a plantation on the Perica Creek and persuaded some Carib Indians to work for him. In order to lure more of them to his plantation, he spread the tale that the earth would be destroyed in the near future by apocalyptic floods and fires and that only his plantation would be spared. Many Indians took refuge with him, some coming from as far as the Coppename River, but most of them soon realized that nothing was about to happen and they left again. In 1772, Maroons burned his plantation to the ground and Quassi, who had already celebrated his eightieth birthday and was “grey like a dove”, in vain tried to put together a patrol of slaves to pursue them.
In 1777, Governor Nepveu reported that Quassi, at his own request, had been presented with a yard in Paramaribo. The Society paid for the construction of a sturdy house with a lean-to kitchen, which cost about 4000 guilders. He was cared for by a couple of slaves, also donated by the authorities. Quassi was not granted his other request: freedom for three relatives who were still living on Nieuw Timotibo.
During his lifetime, his fame not only spread all over Surinam, but to Europe as well. He was deluged with letters by European admirers, addressed to “The Most Honorable and Most Learned Gentleman, Master Phillipus of Quassy, Professor of Herbology in Surinam”. His was a remarkable life, but of course utterly different from that of most freedmen.