Parliamentary Move (Interpellation) by Pia Hollenstein, Green Party, Saint Gall, submitted to the Swiss Federal Government as a member of the Swiss National Council ("House of Representatives") on 5th March 2003):
Swiss Involvement in Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade
As late as September 2001, Jean-Daniel Vigny, Swiss representative for human rights with the UN, could be heard to state in the context of the debate held at the UN Durban Conference on African reparation demands addressed to Europe that Switzerland "had had nothing to do with either slavery, the slave trade or colonialism". Meanwhile studies carried out by European/American (Wallerstein 1980, Wirz 1984), African (Ki-zerbo 1978, UNESCO 1979, Thornton 1998) as well as by Westindian (Williams 1944, Fanon 1961, Rodney 1975) historians have made it increasingly clear that beyond the great sea-faring nations of Europe (Spain, Portugal, England, France and Holland) the whole European continent was, through a far-reaching network of commercial and financial links, integrated into the triangular trade between Europe, Africa and America. In fact some historians have even gone so far as to argue that the economic rise of Europe between the 16th and the 19th century and thus also the industrial revolution were to a considerable degree based on that specific economic relationship and consequently also on slavery and the transatlantic slave trade.
Moreover a merely cursory look at various works and studies into the social and economic history of Switzerland as well as a re-reading of older standard publications (Lüthy 1959, Peyer 1968, Meyer 1969) lead to the surprising discovery that the Swiss involvement in slavery and the triangular trade has been much closer than previously known:
- 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.
- "Illens et Van Berchem", a company from the canton of Vaud, was 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", later undertook a similar voyage.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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 31% were in Swiss hands. 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.
- Members of Saint-Gall's families Rietmann, Högger und Schlumpf owned the Surinam plantations "LHelvétia" and "La Liberté" including their slaves, the Züblin family were the owners of a plantation called "Züblin's Lust".
- There were Swiss plantation administrators in Surinam, among them people from the Grisons (Conrad), Appenzell (Schläpfer) and Schaffhausen (Winz).
- 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 batallion instrumental in the attempt to re-establish slavery in Haiti.
- 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.
- 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 "Indienne-textiles", an important good in the triangular trade.
- 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 involvment in the triangular trade. The names to be mentioned here are Escher (Zurich), Rieter (Winterthur), Zellweger and Wetter (Ausserrhoden), Riedy (Bâle), Kunkler and Zollikofer (Saint Gall), Ammann (Schaffhausen), de Pury, Pourtalès, Favre and Rossel (Neuchâtel) as well as Labhardt and Gonzenbach (Thurgau).
I therefore submit to the Swiss federal government the following questions:
1) What assessment does the Swiss federal government make of the fact that apparently in the second half of the18th century (the so -called "Age of Enlightenment") certain sectors of the Swiss economy were much more closely linked to new world slavery and the transatlantic slave trade than public opinion and historiography have so far been aware of?
2) Considering the statement made by Defence Secretary Samuel Schmid on 1st August 2002 ("We have the strength to reassess our history. We have set right, what had to be set right.") and considering the fact that from Africa can be heard not only the call for a reassessment of and reparations for European (and Arabic) participation in slavery and colonialism but also louder and louder the call for responsible action on behalf of African civil society (Soyinka 1999, Afrikanische Union 2002), is the Swiss federal government willing to take the necessary steps for new historical research into the above-mentioned Swiss involvement in slavery and the slave trade to be initiated or to possibly support such research by African, European or Swiss historians ?
3) By signing the final declaration of the UN Durban conference Switzerland has also signed the following statement: "We acknowledge that slavery and the slave trade, including the transatlantic slave trade, were appalling tragedies in the history of humanity not only because of their abhorrent barbarism but also in terms of their magnitude, organized nature and especially their negation of the essence of the victims, and further acknowledge that slavery and the slave trade are a crime against humanity and should always have been so, especially the transatlantic slave trade, and are among the major sources and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance (...) The world conference acknowledges and profoundly regrets the massive human suffering and the tragic plight of millions of men, women and children caused by slavery, the slave trade, the transatlantic slave trade, apartheid, colonialism and genocide." Is the Swiss federal government willing to develop, in cooperation with African and European organisations of civil society devoted to these issues, concepts of reconciliation and reparation towards Africa, should a historical reassessment confirm the aforementioned thesis of a far-reaching Swiss involvement in the slave system ?