Kaspar Stockalper - his ascent was as steep as the path up the Simplon Pass. Illustration by Marco Heer
Kaspar Stockalper - his ascent was as steep as the path up the Simplon Pass. Illustration by Marco Heer

The geopolitician from Brig

In the middle of the Thirty Years’ War, Kaspar Stockalper made the Simplon pass into a major European transport artery. A man of immeasurable wealth, he was Switzerland’s first serial entrepreneur. Stockalper mixed with emperors, kings and popes. He was also involved in European politics – until it all fell apart.

Helmut Stalder

Helmut Stalder

Helmut Stalder is a historian, publicist and book author specialising in economic, transport and technical history.

350 years ago, travellers must have stared in amazement when they set eyes on the imposing construction in Brig at the foot of the Simplon pass. Stockalper Palace, in its baroque splendour, dwarfed anything that had gone before: a mighty, four-storey cubic structure with arches and ceremonial rooms towering above the small village in Upper Valais. The Mediterranean-style courtyard lined with arcades is stunningly beautiful and the only one of its kind in this part of the world. The grounds are reminiscent of the pleasure gardens surrounding French castles. And the three high towers bear witness to the eminence of their creator. Kaspar Stockalper vom Thurm (1609-1691) erected the biggest secular Baroque building in the Alpine region, his Alpine Versailles, an architectural symbol of his excess, his power and the man himself.
The Stockalper castle in Brig, built from 1660 to 1679 according to plans drawn up by Kaspar Stockalper himself.
The Stockalper castle in Brig, built from 1660 to 1679 according to plans drawn up by Kaspar Stockalper himself. Wikimedia
Kaspar Stockalper was a one-off. He dominated the economic and political scene in Valais during the 17th century. He also exercised considerable influence at federal level and (this is something historians have tended to gloss over) was even a player on the European stage. His career followed a steep upward trajectory. Stockalper was born to a patrician family in Brig in 1609. When he returned from the Jesuit Academy in Freiburg im Breisgau in 1628 on the cusp of his twentieth birthday, he had a solid humanist education and an inheritance to his name, spoke six languages and was set on entering politics in Brig. This plunged him into the thick of the rivalries among the major European powers.
Portrait of Kaspar Stockalper, ca. 1850.
Portrait of Kaspar Stockalper, ca. 1850. Swiss National Museum
The Spanish line of the House of Habsburg comprised mainland Spain, the Kingdom of Naples, Sicily and Sardinia, the Duchy of Milan and the Spanish Netherlands. France, wanting to expand but feeling hemmed in, had allied itself with Venice. The land corridors over the Alpine passes from the northern Italian cities of Venice, Milan, Genoa and Turin to Lyon and Paris or via the Free State of Burgundy to Flanders and the Netherlands were essential to both sides for troop movements, supplies and trade.

Exploiting the geostrategic situation

Kaspar Stockalper recognised that Simplon was in a key location between the major powers and that the pass was geostrategically important due to the “shortness and security of the route”. He saw this as an opportunity, especially as the ‘Camino Español’ (Spanish Road) routes so important to Spain, going west from Lombardy over the Savoy passes, straight up over the Gotthard and east over the Graubünden passes, were always fraught with danger. He understood that control of the Simplon artery would bring him great wealth and influence. Stockalper proceeded methodically. He started with a study tour that took him through Burgundy, France and Belgium to the coast of the English channel, familiarised himself with the market conditions and established ties with a transport consortium in Antwerp and a trading company in Solothurn. In March 1634, the 25-year-old achieved a major coup when the royal court of Turin appointed him to escort Bourbon princess Marie-Marguerite de Carignan, who was wife of the Count of Savoy and related to the King of France, and her entourage over the snow-covered Simplon pass. He took the convoy of 150 riding and workhorses and 200 assistants from Brig to Domodossola in two days. In addition to a generous fee for his efforts, he gained publicity for himself and for the pass. His network thus covered the French, Savoy and Lombardy royal courts, where he was known as the man to turn to in Simplon.
Kaspar Stockalper escorted Marie-Marguerite de Carignan over the snow-covered Simplon pass in 1634. The Valais native thus earned the trust of the ruling class.
Kaspar Stockalper escorted Marie-Marguerite de Carignan over the snow-covered Simplon pass in 1634. The Valais native thus earned the trust of the ruling class. Wikimedia
Stockalper threw himself into his business career. He set up as a subcontractor transporting goods across the pass. He also invested in a risky business: iron smelting in Gantergrund, which he ended up turning into a profitable venture through hard work and smart political manoeuvring. In 1639, at the age of 30, he started to really make a name for himself when he was appointed to a series of political offices, making him a key person of influence. His main achievement was acquiring a state-backed monopoly to transport goods over the pass. As a result, he became the owner of the transport infrastructure from Gondo over the Simplon pass through Valais to Lake Geneva. He engaged the Säumer associations who transported goods on pack animals, collected fees and tolls, widened the trail dating from the Middle Ages, built bridges and supporting walls, and set up warehouses and customs posts. He also established structures (known as Sustburgen) for use as staging posts, where travellers could stop for a rest and something to eat, store goods etc., at the top of the pass and in Gondo. These Sustburgen also served to show who controlled the pass. Moreover, Stockalper was quick to recognise the principles of globalisation: production based on the division of labour and exchange of goods over great distances increases profitability. Rapid transport routes, reliable transport and fast communication enable rapid capital flows and the price differences between the place of origin and place of sale yield a profit.
The Simplon pass: the key to Stockalper’s rise.
The Simplon pass: the key to Stockalper’s rise. Swiss National Museum
Goods transport proved highly lucrative and Stockalper built his transport and trading business into a conglomerate spanning half of Europe and unlocking synergies. His tentacles reached all the way to Geneva, Lyon, Paris, Brussels and Antwerp, Milan, Venice, Genoa, Rome, Naples and Sicily, Augsburg and Vienna, Savoy, the south of France and southern Spain. He exported many things, for example iron, leather, cattle, cheese and grain, from Valais. He also imported rice, citrus fruits, spices, gold leaf, gunpowder and weapons. Besides his iron mine, Stockalper acquired two lead mines and a copper mine in Valais and held a concession for gold digging in Gondo. He gained a monopoly on tinder polypore, larch resin and snails, something of a delicacy in France during Lent. In addition, he advanced his political career, graduating from offices held in the tithing of Brig to positions of power at national level. He was sent on diplomatic missions and benefited from holding every rank that the Republic of Valais had in its power to grant.

Combining business with politics

The secret to Stockalper’s success lay in the way he closely interlinked politics and business to derive maximum benefit from both. The more political influence he gained, the more business opportunities became available to him, usually backed by state privileges and guarantees. And the more money he made, the more political influence he acquired. He employed several thousand hauliers, carriage drivers, roadworkers, administrators, tradesmen, builders, had leaseholders work for him, kept debtors at the mercy of interest rates and operated an extensive system of business patronage that both favoured and disadvantaged other families of Valais high society. At the same time, he was a generous patron within the community, bestowing donations and gifts on churches, chapels, monasteries and schools. Thus, as war raged in Europe, Stockalper developed his own empire in Brig with many profiteers, loyal allies, debtors and dependent parties among his subjects, thus consolidating his power. When he was awarded his most lucrative monopoly yet in 1647 for the local supply of salt, he seemed unstoppable.

The King of Brig

In a three-part series, historian and author Helmut Stalder charts the rise and fall of Kaspar Stockalper, the “King of Brig”: Part 1: The geopolitician from Brig Part 2: Neutrality as a business model Part 3: Making money till the end

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