Interview with Hans Fässler on Swiss participation in the Slave Trade
In an exclusive interview with Simon Inou, the author of "Reise in Schwarz-Weiss. Schweizer Ortstermine in Sachen Sklaverei", Hans Fässler talks about his motivation to write the book, the obstacles he faced while researching for it, the reaction of descendants of the Swiss slave traders to his book and why there is no difference between direct and indirect participation in the atrocious trade
"No short-cut to the revision of a country's history"
Afrikanet: What led you to take up this topic?
Hans Fässler: Questions relating to Human Rights have always interested me. I was a co-founder of the organisation called Justice for Paul Grueninger, which succeeded in fighting for the rehabilitation of that police officer from St Gallen who allowed Jewish refugees to immigrate into Switzerland, despite the closed borders during the World War II. During my research work on a cabaret programme, relating to the Haitian slave liberator Toussaint L'Ouverture, I came across historical material which suggested that Switzerland was involved in the Slave Trade and had worked towards its military sustenance. From there onwards, the topic did not leave me cold anymore.
How did you gain access to the sources of information?
There is a lot of information in scattered publications, information that does not necessarily focus on slave trading per se, but deals with economic history, personal adventures, histories of emigration or military exercises. Most files in the archives were accessible without much problem but difficulties arose when it came to the files of one Pourtalès of Neuenburg (owners of plantations and slaves, merchants of slave products), whose descendants refused to let me look into their files.
How did the families in question react? Did you know them?
There were very positive reactions from some descendants who had an interest in this section of their family history. There were also descendants who did not want to have anything to do with the topic and even went as far as to claim that their families were not involved in any such activities, despite the evidence in the files. I do not know most of these families and have so far also not received any reactions from them.
What has been the resonance to your book so far in Switzerland?
Till now, almost all have been positive. After the controversy on the undisclosed amounts of Jewish money stashed in Swiss bank vaults and after the reappraisal of the history of Switzerland during World War II conducted by the Bergier Commission, there appears to be an increased readiness to confront ourselves with some of the uncomfortable aspects of Swiss history. Civic organisations, especially those of my home Canton St Gallen (FDP, SVP), however, tried to use outrageous arguments and contortions to either hinder my work or vilify it.
The same topic has been dealt with in Switzerland with the book "Schwarze Geschäfte" by Thomas David, Bouda Etemad and Janick Marina Schaufelbuehl. Why are so many people suddenly interested in this topic?
I think, with the breakdown of our habit to think in blocks during the Cold War, the pressure which came from African, American and Caribbean NGOs during the World Anti-Racism Conference, held in Durban in September 2001, together with the further development of International Law with regard to crimes against humanity (from Nuremberg to Yugoslavia and Rwanda), and finally after the payment of compensations and reparations (Swiss banking settlement, charges against Apartheid) in 2000, various Swiss historians had a feeling that a critical mass had been reached. With the help of scattered files, publications and other evidence, a "Swiss slavery connection" needed to be researched.
In the introduction (on page 7) to the above book "Schwarze Geschäfte" the authors write, "Switzerland has never possessed a slave trading fleet or colonies with sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean or on the American continent." However, on page 21 of your book (Introduction) you write, "Among the slave ships with "Swiss participation" were some with symbolical names like the 150-ton ship, which called itself 'la Ville de Bâle', or a 500-ton ship named 'Les treize Cantons' and a frigate called 'l´Helvetie'. How are readers to deal with such equivocal research results?
It is true that Switzerland as a nation (as far as it existed in those days) did not have any merchant fleet. But Swiss entrepreneurs, merchants, bankers etc. participated in slave trading expeditions. Therefore, I do not see any contradiction.
On page 21 of your book you say that you do not want to differentiate between direct and indirect participation. Why?
I would like to define the slave trading and the Slave Trade as part of an economic system which could only function on the exploitation of millions of people. For this reason, I do not make any difference between the whip-swinging plantation manager and the cotton merchant. In the long run, both profited from the same unjust system.
Is it possible today to make a financial evaluation of the slave labour that was provided to Switzerland?
Three French-speaking Swiss authors, taking account of Swiss investments in the most important colonial companies, have counted more than 172,000 slaves who were deported with Swiss participation, which sums up to about 1.5 per cent of the entire Trans-Atlantic trade. In my book, I tried to compile a total of all slave plantations and properties owned by Swiss citizens. Assuming an average lifespan of 10 years for a plantation slave, and assuming that about 100 slaves worked on a plantation which could be worked for 30 years, one can reckon with about half a million man-years for a roughly estimated figure of 50 Swiss plantations in Latin America, the Caribbean, North America and South Africa. To be added would be the figure for those slaves who worked in Swiss households and factories. I assume that this figure, compared with the total volume of the man-years spent in the slave economy of the New World, would amount to a percentage in the lower single-digit range, which could be considered as also being appropriate for Swiss participation in military operations.
Since Switzerland, a landlocked country, took part in slave trading, do you think that there were more countries involved in the trade other than the classical ones like France, Portugal, Spain and Britain?
The Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Brandenburg (now part of Germany) are also well-known. According to the Nigerian historian, Inikori, the economic system which was based on slavery defined itself as follows: "The terms 'Atlantic World' and 'Atlantic Basin' are used interchangeably in this study and define a geographical area including Western Europe (Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Great Britain, Ireland), West Africa (from Mauritania in the northwest to Namibia in the southeast, including the two modern regions of West and Central/West Africa) and the American continent (including all of today's countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, USA and Canada)."
With your book, you have rewritten the history of Switzerland. What do you recommend for all the other countries which have hitherto denied or ignored their role in the Slave Trade?
There is no short-cut to the revision of a country's history. This can also be regarded as a process of emancipation. Whoever suppresses the uncomfortable chapters of his history will find himself confronted with them over and over again in the course of time. Reappraisal must take place, and in close co-operation with the descendants of the victims, who might still happen to be victims till today. The indispensable steps to take should be: recapitulation, admission of past wrongs, gesture of apology to the descendants of the victims and compensation.