Entanglement in slavery revealed

Many structures and masterminds made the international human crime of slavery possible. (Image: Historical illustration of a slave ship, Grafissimo / istock)

The example of Zurich shows how extensively slavery was interwoven in the European economy of the 18th and 19th centuries: the city and some of its sometimes prominent families were integrated into the inhuman system through government bonds, trade and plantations. Similar to other cities in Europe, this center of Switzerland also invested in the misery of slavery and reaped the profits. This is what historians report, commissioned by the City of Zurich, to shed light on this dark point in history.

It is a particularly horrific example of man’s dark potential: According to estimates, around 12.5 million people were abducted from Africa to the New World under the most brutal conditions in the age of slavery and forced to work there. Almost two million of them have already died from the catastrophic conditions during the crossing. The basis of this system was contempt for human beings and greed for profit and products such as coffee, sugar or cotton.

Look at a dark chapter

From the 16th to the 19th century, slavery became an important element of the modern economic system. “Extensive interrelationships emerged from which the transatlantic economic and cultural community emerged that is now known as ‘the West’,” write the historians of the University of Zurich in their publication. As part of this study, they have now devoted themselves to clarifying the interdependence of their hometown and its citizens. To this end, they evaluated numerous sources and documents from the city archive and other institutions.

They were able to document that, like other cities of the era, Zurich also participated in the financing of the transatlantic slave trade. In the 18th century the city bought shares in the “South Sea Company”, an English company that was active in the slave trade. During the time that Zurich was involved, this company deported 8,636 people from Africa across the Atlantic to America. During this period she also shipped 27,858 slaves, mainly from British Isles such as Jamaica and Barbados, to Spanish colonial areas. “The city of Zurich was thus financially involved in the abduction of a total of 36,494 people,” says co-author Frank Schubert.

Direct and indirect participation

In addition, the city of Zurich invested in slavery through the semi-public “Interest Commission Leu”: It bought Danish government bonds that were used to finance the slavery industry in what was then the Danish Antilles. Several thousand slaves worked there and the island of St. Thomas in this archipelago developed into a hub for the slave trade. “Through these commitments, Zürcher Kapital financed a small but not insignificant part of the slave trade and the colonial plantation and slavery economy,” says Schubert.

As the historians further report, in addition to these direct investments, Zurich also benefited indirectly from slavery through its important textile industry. For example, the so-called indienne fabrics were also produced in Zurich, which represented a typical barter for the purchase of slaves in West Africa. In addition, in the 19th century, the cotton industry mainly obtained its raw material from slave plantations in the south of the USA.
The Zurich textile industry in turn formed the basis for the development of industrial and commercial enterprises, which, especially in the 20th century, developed into leading companies in the Swiss economy and made a significant contribution to Switzerland’s prosperity, the historians emphasize.

Contribution to the culture of remembrance planned

They highlight the Escher family as the most prominent example of the numerous Zurich families who were associated with slavery in various ways. Her descendants were Alfred Escher (1819 to 1882) who is considered one of the founding fathers of modern Switzerland. It is known that he defended himself in court against allegations that his family was involved in the then morally no longer acceptable “business”. According to historians, Alfred Escher himself neither owned plantations nor slaves. But his family was actually involved in slavery in many ways: His grandfather Hans Caspar Escher was the financier of at least one slave ship, his father Heinrich a successful trader and investor in the USA and his uncle Friedrich Ludwig the operator of the Buen Retiro coffee plantation with more than 80 slaves in Cuba.

Against the background of their results and the international debate on monuments and the culture of remembrance of slavery, the historians now propose that the City of Zurich should commemorate its participation in the system in an appropriate manner. The Mayor of Zurich, Corine Mauch, said: “We must not close our eyes to the colonial past of the city of Zurich. The city now wants to examine how the topic can be made visible and memorable in public space in a contemporary way, ”said the politician.

Source: University of Zurich, publication: Slavery Report

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