A bloody slaying in Bärschwil in Solothurn laid bare the global scars left by colonial violence in the late 19th century.
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.
On 23 March 1896, a cold-blooded triple murder shocked Switzerland. In a quiet hamlet near Bärschwil in Solothurn, 49-year-old Bernhard Jeker shot dead his landlord, along with the man’s wife and daughter. According to a number of newspaper reports, after committing the crime Jeker, allegedly very drunk, barricaded himself inside a farmhouse, where he remained until he was overpowered and disarmed by advancing gendarmes. It was only because his rifle snapped after the third shot that further bloodshed had been averted. As a motive, Jeker later told the police that on the morning before the crime he had had to appear in court because his landlord had slandered him. When he returned to the house, the landlord’s family had laughed mockingly in his face, which made him so angry he ‘decided to shoot them’.
Murders were hardly a daily occurrence in the 19th century, but they were not uncommon. What makes this case unusual, however, is the information about Jeker’s colonial past. For example, the newspaper Der Bund reported that Jeker had spent a long time as a soldier in Dutch East India, where he had acquired ‘an exceedingly brutish attitude’.And in one interrogation, Jeker admitted that he had served in the Dutch colonial army for 13 years, 4 of those years ‘in the field’, where he had ‘often been involved’ in ‘shooting at enemies’. Jeker had in fact fought in the Aceh War in what is now Indonesia from 1876 to 1880.
Colonial war in Aceh
The war on the north-western tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra was one of the longest and bloodiest in the history of Dutch East India. For a long time the Sultanate of Aceh had been able to fend off the expansionist designs of the Dutch – not least because Great Britain, the largest colonial power at the time, supported the Sultanate’s independence. But when the Dutch ceded their West African colonies on the Gold Coast to the British in 1871, the British gave in to the Netherlands’ imperialism. In 1873 troops of the Dutch colonial army finally occupied individual regions of the Sultanate. What followed was a war that lasted almost 40 years, in which around 75,000 Acehnese and 25,000 colonial soldiers, auxiliary troops and forced labourers on the Dutch side lost their lives.
Swiss fighters at the front
Jeker was by no means the only Swiss man who fought on the front lines for the Dutch colonial army. In the course of the 20th century around 7,600 Swiss served in the Netherlands’ colonial forces. Only a handful of sources that have survived to this day provide information on how the Swiss experienced the war in Aceh. Karl Schmid, a mercenary from Olten also known as ‘Batavia Schmid’, is one such source. In 1912 he recorded his feelings in his memoirs. For example, he gives an account of how he and other soldiers captured a village: ‘The enemy fled in all directions. The dead and dying lay in heaps. The sight made me shudder. A good comrade handed me his canteen; a hearty pull from it and I felt reinvigorated! Now we were advancing rapidly; all the houses were set alight.’ Schmid finally saw the full extent of the devastation when he looked out over the landscape from a hill: ‘As far as the eye could see, all the kampongs (villages) were in flames.’
A number of Dutch historians, such as Petra Groen, Emmanuel Kreike and Tom Menger, have shown recently that Schmid’s descriptions were not exaggerated. The Dutch colonial army tried again and again to break the resistance of the Acehnese fighters with extreme violence: they carried out massacres, shot prisoners and set entire villages, fields and forests on fire in an attempt to deprive the civilian population of their basic livelihood and food sources.
War and trauma
Jeker’s story reads like the overblown plot of a Hollywood movie about a traumatised US veteran of the Vietnam War or Iraq. But whether his experiences of the war in Aceh left the marks of trauma in Jeker’s psyche cannot be judged from today’s perspective – not least also because the medical concept of trauma is much more recent. After the Franco-Prussian (1870-1871) there had been a growing number of medical studies investigating the connection between war and nervous illnesses, but the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder didn’t find its way into conventional medical vocabulary until much later, against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. And even then, it was not because of the war-weary Vietnamese civilian population, but because of the scores of American GIs who suffered from the psychological impacts of the war. In any case, the director of the Rosegg psychiatric clinic in Solothurn attested that Jeker was in the throes of a ‘reduced soundness of mind’. However, this didn’t affect the verdict. The jury found Jeker guilty of the triple slaying and he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
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.