#Us too: How small European nations are discovering their colonial past: Nr. 2 Switzerland

When we hear the term “colonial empire”, what usually comes to our mind are the huge, often profit-driven, hierarchically structured and racially justified realms that spread over the globe in the Age of Imperial Expansion (16th to early 20th century): the Spanish, Portuguese, British, French or Dutch Empires. We might also recollect a few smaller nations which only joined the imperial game in the late 19th century and whose exploitative verve in their quest to make up some ground has become notorious: for example the German, Itlian or Belgian colonial empires.

Who would think of Denmark, Sweden, or Switzerland, though? Yet, these smaller, ‘peripheral’ European nations are all currently exploring their own contributions to the history of European colonialism. In the small series #Us too I would like to introduce you to the many ways in which academic researchers and cultural institutions are presently re-writing these “black chapters” of their national past. Part one of the series introduced you to Danish colonialism. Part two leads us all the way south to Switzerland.

“Made in Switzerland”, a label from the Swiss textile company Brothers Volkert, exhibited at the Indiennes exhibition at the Landesmuseum Zürich, 2019-2020, https://www.landesmuseum.ch/the-indiennes.

Nr. 2 Switzerland – “Colonialism without colonies”

While Denmark actually was a colonial power with colonies in the North Atlantic and in the tropics, Switzerland really, REALLY! never had any colonies. Nevertheless, researchers have come up with the term “colonialism without colonies” to describe the phenomenon that even “neutral” European countries like Switzerland were all in some way or the other involved in practices of colonial exploitation based on racial discrimination. These connections and their postcolonial repercussions in Switzerland have been the subject of books, exhibitions, data bases, theatre plays, as well as a series of guided city tours and online maps.

1 Swiss individuals in Dutch East Asia

First of all, the growing awareness that Europe’s transoceanic colonial empires were not secluded national businesses, but transnational meeting places – and work spaces – for all kinds of individual adventurers even from the most inconspicuous European nations has also reached Switzerland. Thus, for example, a couple of research projects and resulting publications, all centred around the Chair of History of the Modern World at the ETH Zurich, have traced the histories of Swiss individuals involved in projects of colonial expansion or consolidation in Dutch East Asia.

For one, there is Bernhard Schär’s highly readable book “Tropenliebe” (“Love in/of the tropics”, 2015) which follows the scientific expeditions of two patrician natural scientists from Basel, Paul and Fritz Sarasin, on the island of Celebes (today Sulawesi) in the name of the Dutch colonial administration in Batavia (now Jakarta). Their project of seeking the border between the “Asian” and “Australian” fauna helped the Dutch penetrate and subsequently establish their rule over the Indonesian island. At the same time, the countless animals, plants, and ethnographic artefacts that they brought back with them laid the foundations for the ethnological museum (now Museum of Cultures) in Basel. The ambigious love story – the two scholars infatuated with the tropical landscape were also homosexual lovers – was adapted as an immersive theatre play, exhibition and public dicussion project at the Theatre Basel in 2020 (see image here).

Another type of transnational adventurer that Switzerland is rather more famous for is the figure of the Swiss mercenary. After 1815, the field of activity for young and socially disadvantaged men from poor, rural Switzerland seeking a fortune abroad moved from the battlefields of Europe to the armies of the big colonial empires. A total of 40.000 Swiss mercenaries joined the French Foreign Legion between 1830 and 1960.

The lives of the ca. 5.800 men that served in the Dutch colonial army in Indonesia are currently investigated in a research project entitled “Swiss tools of Empire” (by Philip Krauer). It traces the experience of the young migrants in the tropics, which, if they survived the first few months, was a combination of tedious military drill and of acts of excessive violence: The soldiers from the home of the Red Cross would be utilized to increase productivity on local plantations by spreading a climate of fear and to subjugate local leaders by enacting a policy of scorched earth. Following their at least six years of service, they would often return as ostracized members of Swiss society, sometimes together with their imported families. Their letters home, their tales and memoirs, though, were an important source for the views – and stereotypes – that small and secluded Alpine villages would harbour of foreign societies and cultures. (Find more details here).

2 Swiss business and Swiss missions in and beyond the slave trade

As postcolonial researchers and journalists stress, Switzerland also profited more systematically from economic involvement in Europe’s colonial ventures: through investments, trade, or textile production The different shapes of this kind of “economic imperialism” without empire are currently being explored and put in the context of continuing systems of labour exploitation between the Global North and the Global South.

Statue of businnes leader and railway pioneer Alfred Escher (1819-1882) on the Bahnhofsplatz Zürich. Since Escher’s family derived part of its fortune from coffee plantations in Cuba, there have been calls to remove the statue.

A representative case of how Swiss politicians, historians and journalists are reappraising the darker pasts of their Conferederation’s prosperous cities is the report “Zürich and Slavery” (“Zürich und die Sklaverei”). It was commissioned by the city council of Zürich in preparation for the 200th birthday of its prominent, but controversial citizen Alfred Escher and published in autumn 2020 by researchers from the Chair of Modern History at the University of Zürich. Political calls to wipe the monumental traces of the “Tsar of Zürich” from Zürich’s city scape because of his family’s dubious riches led to a detailed inventory of the city’s involvement with the slave trade from the 17th to the 20th centuries. The findings include:

1) (semi-)official capital investments of the city itself in slave-trading companies and, interestingly, in the slave-trading and slave-holding economy of the Danish! West Indies (personal networks between the reformed Republic and the Lutheran Kingdom were decisive here).

2) numerous individual trading companies, merchant families and their employees who were somehow involved in the transatlantic triangular trade, for example by cultivating slave-holding sugar, coffee or tobacco plantations in Brazil, Guadaloupe, Guyana or Sumatra, or by directly investing in slave expeditions;

The association “Cooperaxion”, aiming to point out colonialist practices then and now, has put up a database recording all known individuals from Switzerland involved in slavery and the slave trade.
From 2019 to 2020, a special exhibition at the Landesmuseum in Zürich told the story of the famous Indiennes, tracing their production, discussing colonial heritage and traveling the trade routes between India, Europe and Switzerland.

3) and finally, decisive interdependencies between the (proto-)industrialized cotton textile industry as one of the pillars of (early) modern Swiss economic success, and the slave trade. During the 18th century, Zürich became a European centre of production of Indiennes, that is artistically printed cotton textiles which were both desired commodities at home and used as an exchange value in the triangular slave trade. In the 19th century, textile production was industrialized and the high need for raw cotton in the Zürich region led to the foundation of the Brothers Volkart Company in Winterthur, which, by becoming a leading exporter of Indian cotton, turned Switzerland into “a central hub of the global cotton industry”. Both the raw cotton from India and, even more so, the raw cotton from the United States were cultivated by way of slavery or slave-like conditions. Even after the formal end of slavery in the USA, Swiss textile manufacturers would source their raw materials from colonial India, where farmers were often forced to grow cotton instead of food.

A weaving mill in Calicut, image from the Indiennes exhibition at the Landesmuseum Zürich.

How development aid morphed with compliance and self-interest is visible from the role of missionaries within this system of exploitation. While they scorned local practices of slavery and caste division, introduced schools and translated books, the missionaries of the famous Protestant Basel Mission also profited themselves from the economic measures they installed in India from the 1840s. Because proselytized “heathens” were cast out by their home societies, they were employed in the mission’s own weaving mills and brick factories. Together with a flourishing cocoa and plamoil trade, this brought great riches into the coffers of the Protestant benefcators. In West Africa, the Basel missionaries even depended on the unpaid labour of the children they taught in their schools.

The equally ambivalent history of Catholic mission work in North America has recently been discussed by Manuel Menrath from the University of Luzerne in his book “Mission Sitting Bull“. The Benedictine Martin Marty from the famous Abbey of Einsiedeln was one of the most prominent Catholic missionaries accorded the task of “civilizing” the Sioux as part of President Ulysses S. Grant’s wider “Peace Policy”. Complying with the American ‘colonizers’ after a period of bloody warfare between white settlers and indigenous inhabitants, the missionaries tried to extinguish Indian culture by re-educating the children of the Sioux in boarding schools. While Marty was hailed as the “Apostle of the Sioux”, and while many Sioux actually adopted the Catholic faith, the “success” wasn’t permanent, though, as many of the traumatized Sioux would later return to the beliefs of their fathers. (read more here). Only in the 20th century would missions such as the Immensee mission begin to clearly distance themselves from European paternalism and colonialism.

3 Walks and maps of shame

As becomes evident from the Alfred Escher controversy in Zürich, Switzerland’s “colonialism without colonies” left its traces all over the city scapes of the Alpine Republic. A number of guided tours, digital maps and exhibition projects have made it their task to point out these often overlooked spots in the light of the postcolonial turn.

Thus, the charity “Cooperaxion” is offering a number of guided tours in Bern and Neuenburg as well as cooperations with city tours in Basel, St Gallen, Winterthur and Zürich. All of these tours take their audience to imposing buildings, public monuments, popular shops, hidden guild signs or street names that highlight the individual cities’ connections with colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade.

In St Gallen, citizens and tourists can follow Hans Fässler “On the traces of racism”. Fässler, a former comedian, politician and historian, is one of the most prominent faces of Swiss anti-Racist activism and a pioneer of research on Swiss colonialism without colonies. In his book, Reise in Schwarz-Weiss. Schweizer Ortstermine zur Sklaverei (Travels in black and white, 2005), he made twenty on-site visits to places all over Switzerland that illustrate the connections of Swiss merchants, bankers, companies, soldiers, emigrants, travelers or philosophers with the institution of slavery.

In Winterthur, the association “Kehrseite” (“Downside”) introduces interested walkers to the secret colonial history of the industrial city, with a special focus on its role in the global cotton and textile industry.

In Basel, the centre for African studies developed a guided walk re-telling the city’s entanglements with Africa, from the Basel Mission to human zoos, from musical influences to the Apartheid regime.

Zürich, meanwhile, offers a special guided tour (Zürich: Exotisch und Global) about the city’s global trade connections, with a special focus on the rise of Swiss chocolate as a national brand (Companies like Lindt or Sprüngli tend to overlooke the entanglements between cocoa farming and slavery).

For those interested in an adventure of their own, equipped only with their mobile phones, a team of university researchers under the header of “Zürich Kolonial” have developed a guided audio tour: a city map showing 10 different places in Zürich where you can scan a QR Code and then listen to/or read astonishing histories, for example about the wide popularity of the “Swiss Greenland expedition” of 1912.

Swiss plantation owners in Sumatra, photo from the exhibition “Patumbah liegt auf Sumatra”, https://www.heimatschutzzentrum.ch/index.php?id=3210&utm_source=infolettre_09_2017&utm_medium=e-mail&utm_campaign=chocolat

One of the most prominent stops on Zürich’s colonial city map is the Villa Patumbah, now housing the Swiss Cultural Heritage Centre. The impressive mansion is part of the wider so-called “Plantagengürtel (plantation belt) an der Zollikerstrasse” , a collection of impressive houses built by several rich merchant returnees from Sumatra and Guatemala, whose fortunes were based on slave-cultivated tobacco, coffee, and sugar plantations. It currently houses a special exhibition entitled “Patumbah liegt auf Sumatra” (Patumbah is in Sumatra, until 31 October 2021), which re-tells the colonial history of the building. It exhibits photographs and objects illustrating the lives and plantation economy of the many Swiss fortune seekers in Sumatra, introduces us to modern Sumatra and invites visitors to explore the mansion with a view to its colonial past.

Finally, I would like to highlight the latest online project compiled by cooperaxion in 2020: The pioneering, intruiging and also highly entertaining Online city map Bern-kolonial:

Screen Photo from the start page of the online city map Bern-kolonial, https://bern-kolonial.ch/wilkommen, drawings by Simon Kiener.

The original, interactive city map, illustrated with pithy comic sketches by the local illustrator Simon Kiener, wants to present “a kind of inventory of visible and invisible colonial traces in Bern” by selecting 30 historical events from the 15th to 20th centuries and connecting them with relevant places. You can either follow the “Traces” (“Spuren”) individually or take “Tours” (“Touren”) connecting different aspects. The themes addressed range from the manufacture of Toblerone chocolates, gereniums as typically Swiss balcony plants imported from Africa, the greed for profit of multinational companies like Nestlé, or the first black member of the Swiss National Council. Even more than the physical city tours, the online map is meant to acquaint ordinary people with the concept of “Swiss colonialism without colonies” as well as to invite public discussions of colonialism and racism today. (see media announcement here).

Further suggestions?

This is just a small collection of projects that I know of because I happen to live in Switzerland. Are you missing a research project, exhibition, city tour or newspaper controversy worth mentioning? Please let me know in the comments!

Further reading:

Purtschert, Patricia/Fischer-Tiné, Harald (eds), Colonial Switzerland. Rethinking colonialism from the margins (2015).

Patricia Purtschert, Barbara Lüthi, Francesca Falk (eds.): Postkoloniale Schweiz: Formen und Folgen eines Kolonialismus ohne Kolonien (2012)

Thomas David, Bouda Etemad, Janick Marina Schaufelbuehl, Schwarze Geschäfte. Die Beteiligung von Schweizern an Sklaverei und Sklavenhandel im 18. und 19. Jahrhundert (2005)

Andreas Zangger, Koloniale Schweiz. Ein Stück Globalgeschichte zwischen Europa und Südostasien (1860-1930) (2011).

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