American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World

American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World

American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World

American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World


Colonial America presented a new world of natural curiosities for settlers as well as the London-based scientific community. In American Curiosity, Susan Scott Parrish examines how various peoples in the British colonies understood and represented the natural world around them from the late sixteenth century through the eighteenth. Parrish shows how scientific knowledge about America, rather than flowing strictly from metropole to colony, emerged from a horizontal exchange of information across the Atlantic.

Delving into an understudied archive of letters, Parrish uncovers early descriptions of American natural phenomena as well as clues to how people in the colonies construed their own identities through the natural world. Although hierarchies of gender, class, institutional learning, place of birth or residence, and race persisted within the natural history community, the contributions of any participant were considered valuable as long as they supplied novel data or specimens from the American side of the Atlantic. Thus Anglo-American nonelites, women, Indians, and enslaved Africans all played crucial roles in gathering and relaying new information to Europe.

Recognizing a significant tradition of nature writing and representation in North America well before the Transcendentalists, American Curiosity also enlarges our notions of the scientific Enlightenment by looking beyond European centers to find a socially inclusive American base to a true transatlantic expansion of knowledge.


In 1761, a Swedish immigrant living in Dutch Surinam wrote a letter to his famous countryman, Carolus Linnaeus, telling him of the discovery of a South American root that was esteemed “for its efficacy in strengthening the stomach and restoring the appetite.” The discoverer of the root was, not the Swedish immigrant Mr. D’Ahlbergh, but instead a freed slave of local fame and, some would say, notorious reputation. Linnaeus named the tree Quassia amara in the African’s honor. In Surinam, where it became a major pharmacological export, it was called “Quassiehout” or “Kwasi-bita.” Because this former slave’s story diverges so dramatically from our current notions of an Enlightenment man of science, it bears telling in detail.

At his birthplace on the coast of Guinea circa 1690, he seems to have gone by the name Kwasímukámba of Tjedú, Tjedú probably signifying his father’s clan. After being enslaved and brought to Surinam around 1700, he became known to his masters and fellow slaves as either Kwasi or, more importantly, Gramman (or Great Man) Quacy. By the end of his turbulent life, when he was a free man living in his own planter’s house in Paramaribo with his own three slaves, he received letters from such places as the Hague and Uppsala addressed to “The Most Honorable and Most Learned Gentleman, Master Phillipus of Quassie, Professor of Herbology in Suriname.”

We know of Kwasi’s history, on the one hand, from European sources,

1. J[ohn] G[abriel] Stedman, Narrative, of a Five Years’ Expedition, against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam…, 2 vols. (London, 1796), II, 347. This edition differs markedly from Stedman’s 1790 manuscript, now housed at the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota and printed under the editorship of Richard Price and Sally Price in 1988. An abridged version of this authoritative edition is Price and Price, eds., Stedman’s Surinam: Life in an Eighteenth-Century Slave Society: An Abridged, Modernized Edition of “Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam” by John Gabriel Stedman (Baltimore, 1992) (see the note on 339–340 for details of Kwasi’s life). In 1869, the colony exported 245, 622 kilos of Quassia amara for medicinal purposes and for making English beer. See Richard Price, First-Time: The Historical Vision of an Afro-American People (Baltimore, 1983), 155.

2. Price and Price, eds., Stedman’s Surinam, 340n.

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