Colonial and Postcolonial Coincidences

Hans Fässler, historian and satirical performer, Saint Gall

Anyone concerned with the history of slavery has to learn to think in leaps; has to try to hop from continent to continent and from epoch to epoch; has to cope over and over again with the simultaneity of the nonsimultaneous, and with the normality of the monstrous. In his Traité du tout-monde, Édouard Glissant cited a West Indian saying: “An nèg sé an sièk” (A Negro is a century). Slowly I am beginning to understand this.

This past 7th April I travelled for the fourth time to Pontarlier in the department of Doubs in order to participate in the annual “pilgrimage” to Toussaint Louverture's (1743-1803) death cell at Fort de Joux. Until a few years ago I knew nothing of the Haitian slave, coachman, revolutionary, slave liberator, general, statesman, and martyr other than that first line from a sonnet by the English romantic poet William Wordsworth: “Toussaint, the most unhappy man of men!”

On this particular April 7, the anniversary of Toussaint Louverture's death, a diverse crowd was welcomed by the mayor in the ballroom of the Pontarlier town hall. The entire municipal council of this politically rather conservative provincial town was present, accompanied by a female representative of the sous-préfecture with Martinican roots. Also present were representatives of the "Société d'Histoire et de Géographie d'Haïti", Haitians mostly living in exile in France who place flowers by the monument for Toussaint Louverture each year. The head of the society mentioned, on the quiet, that Jeb Bush, governor of Florida, also wanted to participate in this pilgrimage in the future, to secure the votes, of course, of the large number of Americans with Haitian roots. Also there, the Haitian author who spoke about the unifying bond of the French language and presented the mayor with her book, Les beautés noires de Baudelaire, and the woman from Martinique who always carries the Code Noir, the French slavery law from 1685, in her handbag, and quotes from it: “What am I? A 'meuble'-a moveable object!”

The most important guest appears to have been the permanent representative of Haiti to UNESCO in Paris, a distinguished diplomat whose choice of words was careful and deliberative and who referred to the “Route des esclaves” in her presentation. This project, under the auspices of President Chirac, intends to foster the memory of the abolition of slavery in three places: in Fessenheim in Alsace, the birthplace of Victor Schoelcher, who achieved the abolition of slavery for the second time in France in 1848; in Champagney, a small village in the Franche-Comté, whose inhabitants expressed their desire for the abolition of slavery in the “Cahiers de Doléances” in 1789 on the eve of the French Revolution; and at the Fort de Joux.

The small Swiss delegation in the ballroom of the town hall consisted of representatives of CRAN (Carrefour de reflexion et d'action contre le racisme anti-noir), whose speaker emphasized the significance of the fight against racism in today's society, two high school students from Trogen in Appenzell, my eighteen-year-old son, and me. In my short speech I exercised myself by jumping from continent to continent and from century to century: the immense patrician houses of the Zellweger family in Trogen, where I teach English and history, were chiefly built, I explained, with the wealth from the cotton trade and cotton processing. In copybooks of correspondence and bookkeeping records found in the public archives there are references indicating the origin of this cotton: “Coton de l'Amérique,” “Coton de Cayenne,” and “Coton de Saint-Domingue.” Cotton from slave production in the New World, I continued, from the French colonies of Guyana and Haiti, brought wealth back to Europe, to the Appenzell region.

Two weeks ago, a historian friend of mine in the National Council, the people's chamber of the Swiss Parliament, submitted, at my prompting, a parliamentary move that represents a concise and sober summary of the historical-political debate that started at the end of the 1990s in Switzerland and has since grown in depth and breadth. It also includes the inevitable reference to Haiti, the historical and emotional epicenter of the “Black Atlantic.”

The text of the parliamentary question, signed by forty Members of Parliament from the red-green (Social Democratic Party and Green Party) camp, reads:

From the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries Swiss merchants, the Swiss military, and Swiss scientists participated in all activities relevant to slavery: investment in colonial companies, participation in the triangular trade, trading in slave-based products, slave trade proper, slave ownership, as well as safeguarding slavery by means both military and ideological. According to estimates more than 100,000 slaves were transported and exploited on New World plantations with Swiss participation. Thus Switzerland's share in slavery, in relation to the country's size and population, was certainly on average with the rest of Europe. Moreover three publications demonstrate that it was not only private enterprises that participated in slavery, but in a few cases (Bern, Solothurn, Zurich) state-controlled or semi-public institutions as well.
Since 2005 three studies have made possible a first stocktaking of Swiss connections to transatlantic slavery: Stettler et al., Baumwolle, Sklaven und Kredite: die Basler Welthandelsfirma Christoph Burckhardt & Cie. in revolutionärer Zeit, 1789-1815 (Cotton, slaves and credits: The Basel-based global trading company Christoph Burckhardt & Cie. in the age of revolution); David et al., La Suisse et l'esclavage des noirs (Switzerland and black slavery), as well as Fässler, Reise in Schwarz-Weiss: Schweizer Ortstermine in Sachen Sklaverei (Travels in black and white: Swiss dates with slavery). These publications reveal that the degree of Swiss participation was much greater than hitherto assumed.
I therefore submit the following questions to the Federal Council:

(1) In view of the extent of Swiss participation in slavery, is the Federal Council willing to draw conclusions concerning a critical reappraisal and reparation measures that will go beyond its reply to the interpellation submitted by Member of Parliament Pia Hollenstein on June 16, 2003?

(2) To what extent has Switzerland been performing its mediating role between African states and former colonial powers in the United Nations Commission on Human Rights?

(3) Is Switzerland willing to take an initiative in the United Nations Human Rights Council, its working groups, or in other appropriate United Nations bodies, that will strive for a critical reappraisal of Europe's colonial past and its participation in slavery, to be affected in cooperation with the descendants of the victims?

(4) Is Switzerland willing to advocate vis-à-vis France that negotiations be initiated with regard to Haiti's justified demand for restitution of the 90 million gold francs extorted from the slave colony after its independence in 1825?

When I give public readings from my book, speak about Switzerland and its participation in slavery, or talk to people over white wine and regional specialties at an occasion like the one in Pontarlier, I am asked over and over again how I hit upon this topic. To this day I have responded each time with my story-how I wanted to do a satirical one-man show for the 200th anniversary of my home canton of Saint Gall in 2003, how I was afraid of provincial narrow-mindedness, how I looked for an event for 1803 that was completely unlike Saint Gall and un-Swiss, how I typed “1803” into Google, and came across the Haitian revolt, Toussaint Louverture, and the trail of those 600 Swiss soldiers who by order of Napoleon wanted to reintroduce slavery in 1803. And how I prepared a first parliamentary question on this topic with Green Member of Parliament, Pia Hollenstein.

But the more I think about it, the more I believe that it cannot have been a coincidence. The time was simply ripe for this topic. The thought barriers of the Cold War had been removed once and for all in the 1990s and emerging from behind, or beneath, the East-West conflict, which had dominated everything and which, to my generation, had seemed eternal, were the much older, much more important North-South conflicts. Black intellectuals, African historians, and grass-roots movements had long been talking about that “unbroken chain” of colonialism, slavery, racism, and imperialism, but suddenly their voices were beginning to be heard. With the declaration of the French National Assembly that slavery and the slave trade constituted a crime against humanity (1998) and with the final declaration of the United Nations conference in Durban (2001), decisive breakthroughs were achieved.

In Switzerland, important essays on the slavery pasts of Basel, Neuchâtel, and Geneva were published in the 1990s. In 1997, just as the Holocaust debate was reaching its peak in Switzerland, Daniel Moser published a text in the Schweizerische Lehrerinnen- und Lehrerzeitung titled “Schweizer Banken und der 'Black Holocaust'” (Swiss banks and the “Black Holocaust”) that, though inconspicuous, contained all the basic starting points and themes that would shape the coming debate. He not only cited the most important ways in which the Swiss participated in slavery but also positioned himself in the current context of the international, primarily American, debate on reparations. Five years before the racism conference in Durban and seven years before the publication of the jolting book, La férocité blanche: Des non-Blancs aux non-Aryens; Génocides occultés de 1492 à nos jours, by Rosa Amelia Plumelle-Uribe, a Columbian woman of black and Indian descent, the white, Swiss teacher from Bern wrote:

"The dungeons in the fortresses on the West African coast remind one of crimes against humanity much like the remains of Auschwitz do; slave labor on the sugar plantations of the New World is comparable with the forced labor of the concentration camp inmates."

I had torn out Moser's article “by chance” and placed it on that stack of texts, copies, and articles that one intends to read at some point or another when there is enough time. When I then pulled it out again, under the influence of Haitian history, and started to work on the subject, I “coincidentally” came across the work of those French Swiss historians around Bouda Etemad and those in Basel around Robert Labhardt; they had been working on their books longer than I had on mine. Our contributions were then published “coincidentally” in quick succession: in 2004, that by the Basel group on the slavery-related businesses of the Burckhardt family, in spring of 2005, the survey work of the French Swiss, and in the fall, my “pamphlet” (as the Neue Zürcher Zeitung called it) with the nineteen Swiss dates having to do with slavery.

The subject of Swiss and European participation and, with it, the share in the responsibility in transatlantic slavery and its consequences will-and I am convinced of this-remain a subject. The debates will increase and expand, not least thanks to coincidences that are not coincidences at all.

David, Thomas, Bouda Etemad, and Janick Marina Schaufelbuehl. La Suisse et l'esclavage des noirs. Lausanne: Editions Antipodes, 2005. Translated by Birgit Althaler as Schwarze Geschäfte: Die Beteiligung von Schweizern an Sklaverei und Sklavenhandel im 18. und 19. Jahrhundert. Zurich: Limmat Verlag, 2005.
Debrunner, Hans Werner. Schweizer im kolonialen Afrika. Basel: Basler Afrika Bibliographien, 1991.
Fässler, Hans. Reise in Schwarz-Weiss: Schweizer Ortstermine in Sachen Sklaverei. Zurich: Rotpunktverlag, 2005 (to be published in French in 2007 by Éditions Duboiris).
--- et al. Material on Hans Fässler's cabaret program, his book project, and ongoing debates at
Glissant, Édouard. Traité du tout-monde. Paris: Gallimard, 1997.
Lang, Josef (Green/SGA [Sozialistisch-Grüne Alternative], Zug). Interpellation in German, French, and Italian, Additional parliamentary initiatives on the subject (federal, cantonal, city) at:
Maurouard, Elvire. Les beautés noires de Baudelaire. Paris: Editions Karthala, 2005.
Moser-Léchot, Daniel V. “Schweizer Banken und der 'Black Holocaust.'” Schweizerische Lehrerinnen- und Lehrerzeitung 11 (1997): 14-16.
Plumelle-Uribe, Rosa Amelia. La férocité blanche: Des non-Blancs aux non-Aryens; Génocides occultés de 1492 à nos jours. Paris: Albin Michel, 2001.
Röthlin, Niklaus. “Koloniale Erfahrungen im letzten Drittel des 18. Jahrhunderts: Die Plantagen der Firmen Thurneysen aus Basel und Pourtalès aus Neuenburg auf der westindischen Insel Grenada.” Offprint from Basler Zeitschrift für Geschichte und Altertumskunde 9 (1991): 129-46.
Stettler, Niklaus, Peter Haenger, and Robert Labhardt. Baumwolle, Sklaven und Kredite: Die Basler Welthandelsfirma Christoph Burckhardt & Cie. in revolutionärer Zeit, 1789-1815. Basel: Merian, 2004.
Streckeisen, Sylvie. “La Place de Genève dans le Commerce avec les Amériques aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles.” In Mémoires d'esclaves. Geneva: Musée d'ethnographie, 1997, 31-50.
Wordsworth, William. “To Toussaint L'Ouverture.” In: Sonnets Dedicated to Liberty and Order, vol. 4 of The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940-49.