The nauseating past of the Swiss textile industry

Although Switzerland had no colonies, it benefited from colonialism. This is evidenced by the history of Indian printed cotton. The trade in these colorful fabrics was linked to colonial exploitation, religious proselytizing, and the slave trade.

In the 17th century, printed cotton came from India, the only region with the necessary know-how. But this technique of producing brightly printed fabrics was soon copied by the British and Dutch, who, thanks to mechanization, were able to produce them more cheaply. They displaced the Indian textile industry. The brightly colored, affordable "indies" produced in Europe became so popular that, under pressure from wool, silk, and linen manufacturers, Louis XIV was forced to ban their production and importation.

This prohibition was a boon to seventeenth-century Switzerland. French Huguenots who had fled to Switzerland to escape religious persecution in their homeland opened textile factories in Geneva and Neuchâtel, from where they could smuggle Indians into France. Demand peaked: in 1785, the Fabrique-Neuve factory in Cortayode, near Neuchâtel, became the largest indienne factory in Europe, producing 160 000 pieces of printed cotton that year.

The Swiss boom and the slave trade

The indien trade brought great prosperity to Switzerland, but it also had a dark side: at the time, these fabrics were used as currency in Africa to buy slaves, who were then shipped to America. For example, in 1789, on the ship Necker, bound for Angola, Swiss fabrics accounted for three quarters of the value of goods to be exchanged for slaves.

Swiss textile companies also invested their fortunes directly in the slave trade. Records show that between 1783 and 1792, the Basel-based textile company Christoph Burckardt & Cie helped finance 21 maritime expeditions that transported a total of 7 350 Africans to the Americas. The prosperity of Switzerland's textile centers had much to do with the slave trade, whether in Geneva, Neuchâtel, Aarau, Zurich, or Basel.

The colonial project

By the mid-nineteenth century, Switzerland had become one of the most important centers of the raw materials trade. Swiss merchants bought and sold goods such as Indian cotton, Japanese silk, and West African cocoa around the world. Although these goods never touched Swiss soil, profits were made in Switzerland.
The abolition of slavery in the United States after the American Civil War led to a crisis of raw materials, especially cotton production, which was largely based on a slave economy. The Indian market became even more important. The Swiss company Volkart, which had been operating in India since 1851, specialized in the raw cotton trade. To expand its operations in India, it worked closely with the British colonial regime.

The British controlled production, and under their yoke, Indian peasants were forced to grow cotton rather than food crops and pay a land tax that went directly to the colonial government's coffers. Combined with the expansion of the railroad network in the Indian subcontinent, this oppressive policy soon allowed Volkart to take a tenth of all cotton exports to European textile mills. With its headquarters in Winterthur, Volkart occupied a central position on the European continent from where it could supply the spinning mills of Italy, northern France, Belgium, the German Ruhr and all of Switzerland.

Volkart employees had to avoid racist behavior, but this did not prevent them from adopting some of the practices of the British colonial occupiers in India: Indians were not allowed to visit the rest rooms of European employees.

Missionary zeal

Another thriving enterprise during the colonial era was the Evangelical Missionary Society of Basel, or Basel Mission. Founded in 1815 by Swiss Protestants and German Lutherans, its aim was to convert "heathens" to Christianity. It had some success in southern India, in the present-day states of Kerala and Karnataka, especially among Indians from the lower social strata, who thus gained access to education and culture for the first time.
However, by converting to another religion, the locals risked exclusion from their community and loss of livelihood. In response, the Basel Mission opened spinning mills to provide work for the outcasts. In doing so, it solved a problem it had created and is still reaping the rewards: in the 1860s, the Mission operated four spinning mills and exported textiles to the four corners of the British Empire, from Africa to the Middle East to Australia.

The textile industry contributed greatly to Switzerland's prosperity, but many poor people in faraway lands paid a heavy price for it. Switzerland may not have been an independent colonial power, but it profited enormously from colonialism.


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