Portrait of Alois Wyrsch, who made history as Switzerland’s first non-white politician.
Portrait of Alois Wyrsch, who made history as Switzerland’s first non-white politician. Staatsarchiv Nidwalden

From Borneo to Bern

In 1860, Alois Wyrsch from Stans was the first non-white member of parliament. A Nidwalden citizen “of colour”? Wyrsch’s mother came from Borneo, where his father had served as a mercenary soldier.

Michael van Orsouw

Michael van Orsouw

Michael van Orsouw has a PhD in history and is a performance poet and author. He regularly publishes historical books.

Nidwalden in the 19th century was deeply Catholic, undiscovered by industry, and almost untouched by tourism. While this set of circumstances might tempt us to brand the region “backward”, there is one achievement to report that was very much ahead of its time. It was in the middle of the 19th century that the men of Nidwalden (yes, only the men in those days) on several occasions put their trust in a man with dark-coloured skin. First, in 1856, when the soldiers of Battalion 74 were electing a new commanding officer. They chose Alois Wyrsch, a 31-year-old lawyer and mill owner, son of Louis Wyrsch (1793-1858), the former battalion commander, local mayor and Landammann (chief magistrate). One might dismiss the election as an ordinary course of events, with the rural elite installing the next generation in an important post. And yet it was much more than that: Alois Wyrsch was a “person of colour”, as one says today.
Father Louis Wyrsch, here with his son, returned to Switzerland from Asia in 1832. The picture was taken around 1850.
Father Louis Wyrsch, here with his son, returned to Switzerland from Asia in 1832. The picture was taken around 1850. Nidwaldner Museum Stans
Alois Wyrsch was born in 1825 on the island of Borneo. His father, Louis, was an officer in the Dutch colonial army based in the Dutch East Indies, where he lived with a local woman named Johanna van den Berg. Was she his slave? In Wyrsch Senior’s diary he calls her “njai”, which means “housekeeper” in Malay. Historian Bernhard Schär from the University of Lausanne has discovered scattered references in the diaries. He suspects that Wyrsch sought to erase all traces of the woman from his records. But his censorship wasn’t thorough enough; it can be noted that Alois Wyrsch’s father also called his wife “Silla”. Was that perhaps her real name? Anyway. When his son Alois was eight years old, he was taken back to Nidwalden with his father Louis and his sister Constantia; the mother had died. Louis had been wounded and had been given a knighthood by the Dutch King, and he had an annual pension of 1,000 guilders (worth 170,000 francs in today’s money) to look forward to.
Louis Wyrsch Junior, painted by Karl Georg Kaiser, 1888.
Louis Wyrsch Junior, painted by Karl Georg Kaiser, 1888. Nidwaldner Museum Stans
Photograph of Constantia Wyrsch.
Photograph of Constantia Wyrsch. Staatsarchiv Nidwalden
The voyage home took five months, from the middle of May to the middle of October 1832. Wyrsch Senior, who was henceforth known as “Borneo Louis” in Nidwalden and officially as “Ritter Louis Wyrsch”, brought with him two children, both of whom clearly had Malay features. Or as the Nidwaldner Volksblatt had it: “To put it bluntly, the mother’s mongoloid type was inherited by her children.” The unusual appearance of the dark-skinned children was commented on in various sources. But the financial and, very shortly, political power of “Borneo Louis” saved the children from having to experience any prejudice or humiliation because of their origin.

Mother tongue banned

“Borneo Louis” sent his son Alois to a chaplain in Niederrickenbach to learn the “language of his new home”. From now on, his authoritarian father commanded, Alois was not allowed to speak a word of Malay. Only once, when he glimpsed the sun rising beyond the Nidwald mountain range, did the young Wyrsch let slip an awestruck “Mata!” for “Sun!” His primary school education was followed by grammar school in Engelberg and the junior seminary in Kreuzlingen. To make sure Alois didn’t turn into a cossetted officer from a good family, as was common in the rural elite, his father did not send him to university or to the military academy for officer training. He wanted his son to have practical skills. So he taught him the trade of grain and oil miller in the Au mill in Buochs, which he had by now bought.
The Au mill in Buochs, photographed in 1922.
The Au mill in Buochs, photographed in 1922. ARA Aumühle
But Alois Wyrsch fell in love with Franziska Christen, a Nidwalden local, and married her at the age of 20. It wasn’t long before the marriage started to fall apart, and Alois hit the road with a single thaler from his father. He had to learn to stand on his own two feet. His father recommended that he travel to the Dutch East Indies – his homeland, in a manner of speaking. In actual fact, Alois went to Germany and then to the Netherlands. The Nidwaldner Volksblatt later dramatised this moment: “Here, as he stood in anxious indecision on the seashore, a tumultuous yearning for his mother’s far-distant homeland tugged at his twenty-year-old bosom. But the briny tide threw a menacing spume of spray in his face.” Alois couldn’t bring himself to make the crossing. Nine months after leaving, he was back on the doorstep of his old home – just in time to fight with the Nidwalden troops under his father’s command in the Sonderbund War in 1847. This was a crucial experience for the young man, who went on to manage first the Au mill in Buochs and then, from 1850 onwards, the mill in Alpnach.
In the Sonderbund War of 1847, Alois Wyrsch proved himself under his father’s command. Print, late 19th century.
In the Sonderbund War of 1847, Alois Wyrsch proved himself under his father’s command. Print, late 19th century. Swiss National Museum
When the Nidwalden troops mobilised for the border occupation in 1856, they elected the young Wyrsch as their commanding officer. Alois Wyrsch, who now called himself Louis Wyrsch like his father, became a popular and well-liked figure, and a year later he used this acclaim as a springboard into politics; the Landsgemeinde (rural municipality) elected him to the State Council and to the office of governor, and the following year he was appointed Landammann. Another year later, on 3 December 1860, the young Louis Wyrsch took office as the liberal National Councillor for the Canton of Nidwalden. This gave the Federal Parliament its first politician “of colour”. Wyrsch was very successful financially and politically. From 1865 he handed over the management of the mill to someone else so that he could concentrate fully on politics. In Buochs, his place of residence, he was elected to the municipal council. He was thus politically active at federal, cantonal and municipal level simultaneously.

Supporter of the revised Federal Constitution

Even though he was a man with insight and experience, Wyrsch got caught up in the maelstrom of the Kulturkampf, Switzerland’s “culture struggle”. As a liberal in a Catholic conservative canton, he sometimes had difficulties, and he was not a persuasive speaker – more of a straight-from-the-shoulder blusterer. Because he snarled at a Valais National Councillor in 1869: “Blase mir, Du donners Walliser!” (“Drop dead, you bloody Valoiser!”) the conservatives nominated an opposing candidate in the Landsgemeinde. But the people endorsed Wyrsch. In 1872, Louis Wyrsch was a wholehearted supporter of the newly revised Federal Constitution. In Nidwalden, though, he had a tough job of it: 1,700 people opposed him, and only 80 shared his view. As a result, Wyrsch suffered a resounding, personal defeat. The people voted him out of the National Council. He took just 581 votes, while his opponent took 1,490.
Front page of the Nidwaldner Volksblatt of 10 March 1888.
Front page of the Nidwaldner Volksblatt of 10 March 1888. e-newspaperarchives.ch
After the dust had settled from the Kulturkampf the no longer so young Louis Wyrsch stood as a candidate for the National Council and for the Council of States several more times, but without success. On the other hand, the people continued to endorse him time and again in the state council elections; he was a member of the state council for a total of 27 years, and held office as Landammann 12 times. In addition, the people of Nidwalden entrusted him with the office of examining judge for 12 years. His obituary in the Volksblatt in 1888 noted: “Wyrsch often felt the ingratitude of the republic, but that did not benumb his courage, it did not break his resolve to create good, to foster good, to serve his fellow citizens.” A modern-day verdict would need to highlight another aspect of his story: as the first non-white politician in Nidwalden and in the Federal Parliament, Alois Wyrsch was a success not because he represented diversity, but because he personified diversity.

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