Unravelling Switzerland’s Slavery Past

by Hans Fässler, independent scholar and performing artist, St. Gallen (Switzerland)

Let me begin with two quotations which together might be taken as representative of an average or even educated Swiss view onto that country’s role in the 18th century.

1) In September 2001, Jean-Daniel Vigny, Swiss representative for human rights with the UN, stated in the context of the debate held at the UN Durban Conference on African reparation demands addressed to Europe that such demands on principle presented no problem for Switzerland since "we have had nothing to do with either slavery, the slave trade or colonialism".

2) In its invitation to a national conference on „The Shadows of the Past and the Weight of Images – Anti-black Racism in Switzerland“ the “Swiss Federal Commission against Racism“ wrote in 2002: „Switzerland has neither been a colonial power nor have they participated in slavery.“

For the last three years I have done extensive research into this field and have been trying to shatter the peculiar Swiss myth that we have just encountered above. And my talk today will have the same objective.

But first let me tell you how I stumbled into this project or even mission. The story you are going to hear will not strike you as being very scientific. But bear in mind that I am not only a historian but also a performing artist in the field of political satire – the German „Kabarettist“ being untranslatable – and that the genesis and the accidental nature of my findings as well as the reactions so far seem to me to constitute a very telling comment about the historiographic landscape in this country.

In the beginning there was my preoccupation with the history of the canton of St. Gallen, who (like Graubünden, Aargau, Turgau, Tessin and Waadt) is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year. Of course, the historical part of a satiricial programme for the celebration of my home-canton's 200th anniversary would have to start with its founding, the French Revolution and the "Helvetik" period, Napoelon's "Mediation"-constitution of 1803 and with St. Gallen’s "founding father" Mueller-Friedberg.

But then I am known for sometimes having a mind for heated political debate and provocation. Why not enrich the official festive mood of mainstream St. Gallen by celebrating the anniversary of another event in history dating back to 1803? Or why not an altogether different anniversary, entirely unprovincial and un-Swiss ? The search in my own head, in history books and on the internet yielded interesting and ironic results: the 350th anniversary of the "Swiss Peasants' Revolt", 250 years of scurvy, the 200th anniversary of the “Lousiana Purchase“, 200 years of chocolate, 100 years of Bolshevism, the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the DNS...

And then at last, by accident, I came upon the death of Toussaint Louverture in the year 1803 at the Fort de Joux, near the Swiss border, and the expulsion of the French from Haiti by the black revolution and movement of independence of that same year. Suddenly everything fell into place.There were the similarities between Switzerland and Haiti: two small countries, two national movements of independence under the influence of the French Revolution and Napoleon‘s foreign and imperial policy. And there were above all the differences: White vs. Black, the exploiting "first world" vs. the colonized "third world", conditions for setting out into national development that could not have been further apart. And today, still, the result of these differences: one of richest countries on this planet in stark contrast with one of its poorest.

In my satirical show „Louverture died in 1803“, with which I have been touring the canton of St. Gallen and some parts of Switzerland since the first night on 19th February, I start the second half impersonating the American lawyer Ed Fagan. Slightly out of breath I come on stage and tell the audience that I have been chased by an angry crowd from St. Gallen’s market square where I had planned to do a news-conference outside a bar called „Non Olet“. This is, as you probably know, the famous Latin dictum „Money does not stink“, and the bar does exist, and it is run by one of the most successful private banks of Switzerland. I then continue to announce (still in the role of Ed Fagan, Esq. of Fagan and Associates in New York) that I am working on a new class action filed by descendants of Haitian slaves as plaintiffs against some Swiss merchants and merchant bankers of the 18th century as defendants.

The audience react with a peculiar mixture of disbelief and amusement. When – after changing my role into that of secretary of a fictional „Swiss Slavery Connection Campaign“ (complete with logo and German with a thick French accent) – I show them a picture of a projected „Sklavereiwanderweg“ (a scenic theme hiking route related to slavery) to be realised together with UNESCO’s „Route des Esclaves“ , they usually burst into laughter because it is beyond them. They recognize in the overhead-projected picture the palatial homes of the Zellwegers from Trogen (AR), the Gonzenbach mansion in Hauptwil (TG), the Belvoir palace in Zurich and the „Hôtel de Ville“ in Neuchâtel. They go home with the feeling that a lot may have been ironical and the product of an artist’s imagination, but also with the suspicion that there may be more slavery in Swiss history than meets the average eye.

A sometimes cursory and sometimes detailed look at various works and studies into the social and economic history of Switzerland, as well as a re-reading of older standard publications [e.g. Herbert Lüthy’s „La Banque Protestante en France“ of 1959], have lead me to the conviction that Swiss involvement in slavery and the transatlantic slave trade has been much closer than previously known. Let me give you those facts that I included into the draft of a parliamentary move („Interpellation“) that was submitted to the Swiss government (the „Federal Council“) by the Green member of Parliament for St. Gallen, Pia Hollenstein, on 5th March 2003:

1) The Bâle-based trading company Burckhardt financed commercial enterprises for slave-trading in Nantes and in 1790, via its affiliated company "Bourcard et fils", contributed to the equipment of a slave ship, in which enterprise Christoph Merian took part, too.

2) "Illens et Van Berchem", a company from the canton of Vaud, were engaged in the equipment of the slave ships "Pays de Vaud" and "City of Lausanne", both of which were bound for Mozambique to transport slaves across the Atlantic. A third vessel, the "Helvétie" (“Switzerland”), later undertook a similar voyage.

3) Banking firms from Geneva, such as "Thellusson et Necker", "Cottin" or "Banquet et Mallet", as well as the trading firm "Picot-Fazy" financed and supported the trade with African slaves above all via the French sea-port of Nantes. Members of Geneva's trading and banking families Bertrand, Peschier, Flurnois, Butini, Gallatin, Dunant and Fatio owned various plantations with slaves in the Caribbean (Dominica, Grenada, Surinam).

4) For almost a century members of Bâle's patrician family Faesch owned plantations with "negro slaves" in Surinam; Johann Jakob Hoffmann, citizen of Bâle, took part in the Curaçao slave trade.

5) Berne's bank Marcuard and Zurich's bank Leu acquired shares of the French "Compagnie des Indes", a chartered trading company which, among other activities, held a monopoly of the Westafrican slave trade and of whose shares some 30% were in Swiss hands at one point in time. Bernese banker Emmanuel Haller was a wholesale colonial trader, and Zurich's bank "Rougement, Hottinguer & Cie" invested in overseas trade via the French slaving ports of Le Havre, Nantes and Marseilles.

6) Members of St.Gallen's families Rietmann, Högger and Schlumpf owned the Surinam plantations "L’Helvétia" and "La Liberté", including their slaves, the Züblin family were the owners of a plantation called "Züblin's Lust" (“Züblin’s Pleasure”).

7) There were Swiss plantation administrators in Surinam, among them people from the Grisons (Conrad), Appenzell (Schläpfer) and Schaffhausen (Winz).

8) In 1763 Colonel Louis Henri Fourgeoud from Geneva assisted in suppressing a slave uprising in Berbice (Guayana) and other uprisings in Surinam (1773-78); Captain Wipf from Schaffhausen was commander of a Swiss battalion instrumental in Napoleon’s attempt to re-establish slavery in Haiti.

9) In 1652 Isaac Milville, citizen of Bâle at the service of the Swedish-African Company, founded a slave-castle off the coast of modern Ghana (Cape Coast Castle); Reinhard Iselin from Bâle became financial advisor to the King of Denmark and a great colonial entrepreneur.

10) In the French seaport of Nantes, five Swiss families were engaged in the slave trade. There the Swiss had the monopoly of the production of "Indiennes-textiles", an important good in the triangular trade.

11) Some respectable Swiss merchants, merchant-bankers and their families (above all in textiles and colonial products) profited from the transatlantic slave trade through a more or less direct involvement in the triangular trade. The names to be mentioned here are Escher (Zurich), Rieter (Winterthur), Zellweger and Wetter (Appenzell Ausserrhoden), Riedy (Bâle), Kunkler and Zollikofer (St. Gallen), Ammann (Schaffhausen), de Pury, Pourtalès, Favre and Rossel (Neuchâtel), as well as Labhardt and Gonzenbach (Thurgau).

As far as I know the credit for putting some of these important facts into a wider, truly international or transatlantic, context must be given to a scholar and teacher of History in Berne. Daniel Moser’s article “Switzerland and the Black Holocaust“ appeared for the first time in 1997 in the „Schweizerische Lehrerzeitung“ [Swiss Teachers’ Magazine], whose editor Moser then was. The title and the date of publication were by no means accidental. In the previous years the “Independent Commission of Eminent Persons“, also known as the “Volcker Commission“, had been mandated to audit the search for assets of Nazi victims in Swiss banks; Stuart Eizenstat had been appointed Special Envoy of the U.S. Department of State in the search for unclaimed assets, and Swiss President Delamuraz had spoken of „extortion“ and „blackmail“ in connection with Jewish restitution demands.

In the summer of this year I was having lunch in a Zurich restaurant with the Honorary Consul of the Haitian Republic, Monsieur Brave Hyppolite. He was telling me about Haitian demands to restitute the so-called „Debt of Independence“, the scandalous sum of 60 million gold francs (today’s equivalent of $ 21.7 billion) that France had demanded in 1825 with 14 of their warships in Port-au-Prince harbour, supported by nearly 500 guns, in return for recognizing Haiti's independence and to "compensate" French plantation slave-owners for their "financial losses". When I outlined to the Honorary Consul my historical project of, after the holocaust and the Apartheid debates, confronting Switzerland with a third dark chapter of its history, namely that of Swiss participation in slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, he quippped: „Vous me permettez, Monsieur, ça serait alors le premier chapitre, et non pas le troisième!“ (“Will you permit me, Sir, this would then be the first chapter and not the third!”)

When, quite by accident, I came across the concept and the first programme of this conference on „Imperial Culture in Countries Without Colonies“ I wondered. How on earth (or indeed in Switzerland) was it possible to speak of explorers, travellers, soldiers, ethnographers, missionaries, scientists, officials and others as bearers of Swiss interest in Africa, to mention geographical curiosity, cartography, anti-slavery agitation, commercial enterprise, cultural and scientific interest as driving forces for that same Swiss interest, without ever talking about Swiss slave holders, Swiss plantations owners, Swiss founders of slave-castles, Swiss slave traders, Swiss shareholders in slaving companies, Swiss producers of key-goods in the triangular trade, Swiss officers and soldiers suppressing slave risings, and Swiss owners of great palaces and mansions erected with the profits from exploiting African slave labour?

Since I wrote to the organizers of this conference and met with genuine interest in my project and research and a willingness to widen its scope (for which I should like to thank you), I have discovered another two particularly interesting sources that I should finally like to share with you.

1) In an unpublished and anonymous document „Voyage to Brazil in 1836“ [“Voyage au Brésil en 1836”, Le Havre/Rio, 25 février/10 mai 1836] advertised by a Geneva auctioneer in his internet catalogue, a young Swiss is invited by a certain Mr Flach, plantation-owner from the Swiss canton of Schaffhausen. He writes enthusiastically about how, on the plantation overlooking the bay, he is first treated to certain European spirits of renown („de l'absynthe et du kirsch“) and then to a copious dinner served by some twenty black or coloured slaves („une 20enne de nègres, négresses et mulâtresses“). „You in Europe have no idea “, he goes into raptures, „of the grand manner in which they practise their hospitality in this country where one is regularly invited to dine if the time of dinner happens to coincide with that of the sojourn.“

2) In the conceptual text adjoined to the invitation to this conference and in the programme, together after all some 1200 words of length, the term „slavery“ appears exactly once. It is, ironically enough, contained in the expression „anti-slavery agitation“. Thanks to a letter to the editors of the Swiss conservative daily paper „NZZ“ [Ronald Roggen, Lucerne, 11/9/03 edition, Nr. 210, p. 55], we know now that no less than the history of Swiss pro-slavery agitation remains to be written. In his influential work „The Restauration of Political Science“ [„Die Restauration der Staatswissenschaften“, Band 3, 1818], which lent its name to a whole period of European history, Bernese professor of constitutional law Karl Ludwig von Haller (1768-1854) advocated slavery by defining it as „permanent subservience“ in exchange for „permanent livelihood“, by calling it „in principle neither harsh nor inhuman“, by explaining its origins in the assumption that, instead of killing one’s enemies, one granted them the opportunity of „lifelong service“, by insisting that it was not slaves that were sold but merely the right to their labour force, by justifying the enslavement of the children of slaves with the argument, that by their adult slave work they could compensate for the costs of their housing, food and education.

Ladies and gentleman: Should everything that I have told in the last quarter of an hour have been an old historical hat, I kindly ask your forgiveness for having taken up so much of your precious time. Should you have learnt anything new, I would now gladly enter into a discussion on the subject of the slavery past of a country without colonies but with a considerable proportion of imperial culture. Of a country whose third dark chapter of history is really its first. Thank you.

© by HF and Basel Conference 2003