Switzerland is arguably one of the most globalized countries in the world. It consistently ranks among the world’s top 10 foreign investors, with a potent finance sector, vibrant commodity trading industries, and global recognition for its cheese, chocolate, tennis champions, and top-ranked universities. A full twenty-five percent of its population consists of ‘foreigners’ and almost 40% of its inhabitants have at least one parent who was born abroad. Yet, a systematic historiographical analysis of how this politically neutral, land-locked country with a remarkably strong sense of national exceptionalism was, ironically, always at the forefront of European expansion and globalization is still largely absent.
In a ground-breaking move, this proposed research project systematically breaks away from conventional national and Eurocentric approaches to Swiss history. It thereby also offers a new perspective on European imperial history more broadly conceived.
The reason for this is simple: Switzerland could only participate in imperial globalization because its larger imperial neighbors were always open to Swiss emigrants, investors, missionaries, mercenaries, merchants, and many others who sought opportunities in Europe’s larger imperial formations. The case of Switzerland makes visible, in other words, how European imperial expansion was not only driven by undeniable national competition, but also by intra-European border crossing collaboration. In a sense, the case of Switzerland sheds light on processes and structures of European economic, cultural, and social integration through mutual and collaborative imperial expansion.
This project thus investigates European integration through collaborative expansion through the lens of Switzerland. It focuses on three regions that saw a particularly strong and long Swiss presence throughout the 19th century:
1) Mangalore in the erstwhile South Canara region of British India (coastal Karnataka today), where the Basel Mission established an extensive network of mission stations, factories, schools, and a trading company;
2) the Kingdom of Lesotho in Southern Africa, which entered into a symbiotic relationship with Swiss missionaries from the Paris Evangelical Mission Society during the realm’s struggle against advancing Boer states and British colonialism; and
3) Bahia and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, which saw the influx of one of the largest Swiss merchant communities of the era that then became involved in a variety of activities ranging from the running of (slave) plantations, philanthropy to modernizing infrastructure to the export of cash crops.
Methodologically this project proposes crucial advances. All three sub-projects will collaborate with universities from the above-mentioned countries, examine sources in European and non-European languages, and interpret them for academic and broader audiences within and without Europe. Offering insights into how our shared histories differentially affect populations in Western Europe, Latin America, Southern Africa, South Asia and beyond opens up new possibilities on building common futures in a globalizing world.
Check our latests activities:
- Zürcher «Mohren»-Fantasien. Eine bau- und begriffsgeschichtliche Bestandesaufnahme, ca. 1400–2023
- Reading group – Spring 2023
- “The colonial history of Switzerland” : a podcast with Bernhard Schär
- “Décoloniser la ville” : a podcast with Bernhard Schär
- “Impérialisme et colonialité suisse” : a podcast with Bernhard Schär