Africa in Our Lives: Hermann von Hesse

Hermann von Hesse is a History PhD candidate whose research focuses on the urban, architectural, cultural, and art history of Africa and its trans-Atlantic diasporas in the 18th and 19th centuries. Before coming to UW, Hermann received his master’s degree from the University of Ghana. He has won several awards for his research, including the Graduate School Dissertation Fellowship, Mellon Wisconsin Fellowship, History Department Summer Fellowship, and IRIS Summer Fieldwork Fellowship.

Tell us about your dissertation project and the research you did during your year of fieldwork.

“My dissertation is entitled, ‘Materiality and Real Estate: Evolving Cultural Practices of Security on the Urban Gold Coast in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.’ I am currently a PhD candidate under the supervision of Professor James H. Sweet. I specialize in the urban, cultural, and architectural history of Africa and its trans-Atlantic diasporas in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

“My research explores the ways in which Gold Coast merchant families increasingly deployed private property—stone houses, family heirlooms, and material goods —as new wealth-building mechanisms during the transition away from the Atlantic slave trade. My dissertation, “Materiality and Real Estate: Evolving Cultural Practices of Security on the Urban Gold Coast in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” situates Gold Coast merchant households in the context of African Atlantic and black diaspora history. With the British abolition of the slave trade in 1807, European and American-based commercial establishments increasingly began to demand stone houses and material goods rather than captives as collaterals or mortgages for foreign imports Gold Coast merchants obtained on credit. But houses were spaces of ancestral burials, as well as material and spiritual accumulation. Though Gold Coast merchants’ increasing subjection of their family houses to the market, gave them greater access to European credit, they also became vulnerable as they risked losing their ancestral burial spaces and family heritage. Consequently, Gold Coast merchant families began to contest which measure of security, protection, and power was more important – monetary wealth through real estate or family/ancestral wealth and heritage. More broadly, my research contributes to the history of global capitalist expansion and how these processes influenced African and non-Western ideas about value, property, and security.

“In the summer of 2016, I conducted preliminary archival research in Ghana and Denmark. I also did a bit of oral interviews and ethnographic research. In 2017, I returned to Ghana to do pre-dissertation research visiting the public Records and Archives Administration Department (PRAAD), Accra, and the Deeds Registry of the Lands Commission of Ghana. In the 2018/2019 academic year, I won a UW-Madison Graduate School Fellowship Award which made it possible to return to Ghana to do conduct research at PRAAD, the Deeds Registry, and the Presbyterian Church of Ghana Archives. I also conducted extensive ethnographic research in coastal Ghana, visiting more than twenty extant houses. The ethnography of historic merchant houses and surrounding landscapes constitute a historical archive. Contemporary rituals, for example, reveal the ways in which the material culture of these historic establishments reinforced ancestral memory, family disputes, and social hierarchies and cleavages as it related to power, security, and the contestation of real and movable property. I read these ethnographic and oral traditional sources against European travelogues, archival and deed records on African merchants kept in Ghana, England, The Netherlands, and Denmark.”

How did you come upon this project and why did it speak out to you?

“As a descendant of Euro-African merchants from Osu, I spent part of my childhood in eighteenth and nineteenth-century stone houses. Some of these houses like the Wulff House on Castle Drive, which was my childhood playground contained graves, and these historic buildings later influenced my research and academic interests. I was literally born into history and storytelling.”

What are the key lessons you hope readers take away from the history you study?

“I started my research journey with family histories and the ways in which memories are tied to physical spaces and objects connected to kin groups such as houses and relics. These objects, spaces, and landscapes tell stories and therefore constitute a historical archive that should not be ignored in historical investigations.”

Tell us about your teaching experience. 

“I have taught survey courses on African and African Diaspora History as well as History of Science courses. In my African and African diaspora classes, I always center the voices and experiences of students of color as a way of recognizing their skill-sets and intellectual contributions in the classroom.”

How do you communicate the importance of African history with your students?

“I strive to integrate my personal lived experiences in Ghana into my classroom teaching. By sharing my family’s connections to the Danish-Norwegian-built Christiansborg Castle and the slave trade, I find that students begin to think about the traffic in human cargo not as a statistic or mere commerce – but of African merchant families and enslaved Africans negotiating different levels of power and oppression in Africa and the Diaspora.”

What is the most memorable part of your graduate school experience—in the History Department or beyond?

“I have two great memories: when I first got admitted to Wisconsin-Madison and when I passed my preliminary exams and became a PhD candidate!”

Published by Carly Lucas