Between 1815 and 1914 around 7,600 Swiss mercenaries served in the Dutch colonial army. In search of work and adventure, they aided the violent expansion of the Dutch colonial empire in what is now Indonesia.
Philipp Krauer is a historian at ETH Zurich. Together with Bernhard C. Schär, he is researching the history of Swiss colonial mercenaries in Indonesia in the ‘Swiss Tools of Empire’ project.
The story of Switzerland’s mercenaries is always told as a European story. According to that accepted version of the facts, this brutal enterprise with its roots in the Middle Ages gradually came to an end in the 19th century, as it was no longer compatible with the progressive and liberal ideals of the era. However, this narrative glosses over one important point. From the late 16th century onwards, the mercenary business had also been an imperial one. And it continued into the 20th century. It is a story of poverty, violence and racism. All of this is also part of the history of modern Switzerland, as the following example of the Dutch colonial army illustrates.The Dutch East India Company (VOC) was already employing workers from the old Swiss Confederation in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 the Dutch state had claimed the former possessions of the VOC as colonial territories, and because it could recruit only limited numbers of volunteers from its own country, it stuck to the practice of employing non-Dutch workers. In addition to soldiers from its own country and its African and Southeast Asian colonies, the Netherlands therefore relied on thousands of mercenaries from Belgium, France, Germany, Denmark, Poland and Switzerland. In the period from 1815 to 1914, an estimated 7,600 Swiss mercenaries fought in the Dutch colonies in what is now Indonesia, as well as several dozen in the Caribbean and Suriname. At times, they made up up to 11% of the contingent of European troops.
Contrary to the widely held assumption, military service for the Dutch colonial army was not prohibited under Swiss law. The Federal Constitution of 1848 banned new troop provision agreements (known as capitulations) with other countries. And the legal requirements were tightened even further in the years that followed. In 1859, advertising for such services was made a criminal offense. But individual mercenary service was still allowed. Against the prevailing backdrop of mass poverty and emigration, many politicians were happy to see poorer Swiss choose the cheap way out via the colonial army.
In addition to fleeing poverty, many mercenaries were also inspired by a spirit of adventure. In the barracks on the equator, however, romantic notions of the tropics quickly gave way to harsh reality: heat, tropical diseases and drill made everyday military life unpleasant. Almost half of the recruits died in service. In addition, from the mid-19th century onwards there were few opportunities to pursue a military career that went beyond the rank of non-commissioned officer. Most such positions were reserved for the Dutch. Many of the mercenary forces therefore regretted their step, and turned to the Swiss consul in Batavia (now Jakarta) in the hope that he could extricate them from their contracts – mostly, however, in vain.The mercenaries chose various strategies to cope with their frustration. Some took their own lives. Others physically assaulted their superiors. In 1860 there was even a series of mutinies among the Swiss and French, which were suppressed with the aid of Indonesian soldiers. The ringleaders were hanged or sentenced to years of forced labour.Those who had resigned themselves to their lot washed down their bitterness with jenever, a Dutch juniper spirit. Some also sought solace in extramarital relationships with an Indo-European or Asian ‘housekeeper’. The ‘njais’, as these concubines were called in Malay, were completely at the mercy of the whims of their Europeans masters. A soldier could throw ‘his’ njai out of the house from one day to the next, and it often happened that he returned to Europe alone and left her and their children behind in poverty. Nonetheless, the Dutch army command endorsed the practice of concubinage. In their eyes, these women made an important contribution to combat strength by protecting the soldiers against sexually transmitted diseases, homosexual acts and alcoholism.
The Swiss mercenaries were among the most important pillars of a colonial and racist regime of violence. Their job was to crush rebellions by exploited Javanese or Chinese contract workers on the plantations of European trading companies. They also took part in the military subjugation of the Malay Archipelago – and that was done by extremely violent means.
While here in Switzerland, the International Red Cross was founded and there was discussion of a ‘humane conduct of war’ between western nations referred to as ‘civilised’, in Indonesia the Dutch colonial army was wiping out entire villages without a second thought for civilian casualties. So, if we look at Switzerland’s mercenary history in an imperial context, we see that it lasted well into the 20th century and was closely bound up with colonial violence.
From 1834 onwards, missionaries from Basel headed to India in their droves to convert the indigenous population to Christianity. The Basel Mission not only founded schools and hospitals in India, but also set up weaving mills and brickworks where the missionaries employed their Indian converts.