An independent review: Java Hill: An African Journey


“The personal is political”. So went a popular saying in the heady 60s.  In presenting the story of the Ulzens and Elmina as a metaphor for the African condition in history, this novel is an eloquent corroboration of this idea – without of course erasing the specificities of the personal and the familial. I like the manner in which the author employs the device of disjunctive narrative to make such connections.


I applaud the brutal honesty, not unmixed with touching empathy, with which the author narrates the details of political events and family dramas: characters, personalities, roles and relations marked by conscious and unwitting paradoxes, complicities, mixed motives behind noble stances and deeds. In a word, IRONY is the dominant prism through which the events are rendered. An emblematic case in point is Elmina’s resistance to being traded by the Dutch for British rule and King Kobina Gyan’s message to Governor Ferguson. “We are not slaves and we do not want to see any other flag on the fort, not even on its ruins”. Call it selective anti-imperialism. But it vies with a general principle: the idea of freedom, autonomy and agency. That principle is worth remembering. Is there any anti-imperialist stance, any oppositional stance for that matter, which is free of ambiguity? Sobering thought.


It is fashionable of a certain version of so-called “postcolonial theory” to tout and stress “collaboration” between the colonizers and segments of the colonized as the true story of the colonial encounter, as opposed to the picture of an implacable antagonism between two camps. Sometimes this idea of collaboration (and its cultural consequences – “hybridity, creolization and so on) comes close to papering over the violence and brutality and venality of the whole business. The great merit of this account is that it is cognizant of ironic kinships but not at all oblivious of the enslavers’ and colonizers’ exercise of brute force.


Ato Sekyi – Otu

Professor Emeritus of Social and Political Thought

York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada


Review of Java Hill: An African Journey – 10 generations of a family’s history linking four continents


Part of the world’s historical pathos lingers in Elmina.  For many years, scholars have associated “The Mine” with ruthless profits and the ineffable sadness of the Atlantic slave trade.  Europeans and Africans alike benefitted from the traffic in humans, but those who lost their freedom, their family, their land, and their sanity were Africans.  Approximately one million humans, many captured and force-marched overland to the coast by the Ashanti, had no maritime respite from the overwhelming grief of inland bondage.  Today, anyone walking deep within Elmina Castle’s dank, gloomy holding rooms can sense the restless aura of weary, festering spirits.  Yet, if you are a couple of miles east of the castle on the ocean road and gaze westward toward it, you can see the castle jutting out and firmly anchored on its peninsula, its white walls shining brilliantly in Ghana’s sun, its recurrent tides unable to wash away its enormous irony.  How can something so massively beautiful from without have been so thoroughly depraved from within?  One’s head literally swims with Elmina’s natural and supernatural phenomena.


There is far more to Elmina, however, than its castle’s painful history.  Elmina, which locals call Edina, is also a village that has nurtured generations of families who have laughed and cried, played and worked, planted and harvested, and rested on Tuesdays out of respect for the sea and its bounty.  They have their own stories of life, of freedom, of marriage and of children beyond the shadow of the castle.  And what a welcome story it is, for if sensitive Elminians and scholars were only to engage the cruelty of the Atlantic slave trade, their overbearing companion would be despair.  Sankofa’s backward gaze can tip the balance, and nudge us forward with hope.


Thaddeus Ulzen, a ninth-generation Elminian, has published an important family history that Africanists and students of the Atlantic World will find of great interest.  Viewing Elmina village from the inside as Edina, Ulzen documents its maritime life through centuries of African and European interaction.  Part autobiography, part family history, and divided into thirty-eight short chapters, _Java Hill_ contains over fifty photographs, as well as documents, genealogical tables, and a map.  Readers will need magnification to discern the detailed, valuable genealogical tables.  They will not, however, need anything of the sort to see how _Java Hill_ balances the relationship between Edina the village and Elmina the castle.


Students of Elmina will be familiar with the Asafo companies, which are groups of militia who carried out complementary functions of leadership in Elminian society.  Ulzen discusses the responsibilities of the Asafo companies and their relationships with the Dutch and the British.  Ulzen’s ancestors were associated with Asafo Company No. 7, Enyampa, responsible for electing Elmina’s kings.  Enyampa elected the great Fanti king, Kobina Gyan, whom the British exiled for life without a trial to Sierre Leone for refusing to collaborate with their colonial rule.  Visitors to Elmina sometimes snub the Dutch cemetery, thinking visiting a graveyard full of former European overseers of the Atlantic slave trade is not a moral investment.  The heroic King Kobina Gyan, however, is also buried there, making the graveyard’s spiritual character far more complex than might be assumed.  The Dutch cemetery is like most graveyards–saints and sinners share the same hallowed acreage.


_Java Hill_ takes its name from one of Elmina’s three hills where the Dutch settled Elminians who served as soldiers in the Royal Dutch East Indies Army in Indonesia during the nineteenth century.  Thaddeus Ulzen’s Elminian ancestor, Manus Ulzen, served in Jakarta, recovered from wounds in Holland, and returned on pension to Elmina in 1837.  Prior to this book and as part of his effort to document Elmina’s long relationship with the Dutch and his family’s history, Ulzen established Elmina Java Museum in 2003.  The museum’s exhibits present Elmina’s relationship with the Dutch from an African perspective.


Another valuable section of Ulzen’s book is his account of his family’s relationship with Kwame Nkrumah.  Thaddeus Ulzen’s father, Edward Abraham Kofi Ulzen, was a student of Nkrumah’s when he was the head teacher of St. Joseph’s Catholic School.  In 1935, Nkrumah left for the US to earn degrees at Lincoln College and the University of Pennsylvania.  Edward Ulzen welcomed the Pan-Africanist Nkrumah back home in 1947, worked in Nkrumah’s Office of the President as an assistant secretary for education, and later became the first registrar of the newly established Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST).  When Nkrumah was overthrown in early 1966, the Ulzens were forced into exile.  After a stellar international career in education in Kenya, Zambia, Botswana, and Swaziland, where he helped those countries carry out the Africanization of university curricula, Edward Ulzen returned to Ghana in 1992.  Scholars will come away especially from this section wanting much more.


Few first edition books, whether published by academic or private presses, are free from mistakes in content or language.  The invaluable _Java Hill_ contains its share of minor errors that can be remedied in its next printing.  Yet it speaks.  Its familial voice is soothing, almost healing–certainly easing, nurturing and nudging the entwined pasts of Edina and Elmina forward to meet our present, helping us envision a more hopeful future for Global Africa.  In his poem, “Elmina has no Twilight,”  Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang eloquently wrote that Elmina Castle is:

…History on tiptoe;

The races speak to each other

Of the drama of the sea in the sand.

And so the conversation continues, observed by a steadfast sentinel of Edina, Java Hill.

By Ken Wilburn, Department of History, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC

Originally published on H-net