Written by Eliane Schmid and Julian Schellong; read by Denise Hasler und Michèle Breu
Zurich’s Kreis 2 is home not only to the arboretum, the aviary, and the succulent collection, which entice visitors with so-called “exotic” plants and animals, but also to the magnificent Belvoir Park where banana trees and other tropical and subtropical plants grow. Its flora is reminiscent of the colonial entanglements of its initial owner, Heinrich Escher.
Heinrich Escher, father of the well-known Zurich-born Alfred Escher, built the estate in Belvoir Park in 1831, upon returning from trading trips to North and Central America. There, he had become a rich man through trading with colonial goods.
Heinrich Escher was born into a wealthy family, yet his father’s shady banking business diminished the family fortune. With the remainder of the family savings, he managed to finance his education in Paris, as was customary for members of the Zurich bourgeoisie. He traveled to America in his late twenties, where he succeeded as a merchant and speculator. Thanks to the lucrative trade with plantation products such as cotton, coffee, tobacco and rice, the family fortune could be restored. At the time, slavery still prevailed in large parts of North America, so it is very likely that these products were grown and processed by enslaved people.
While such colonial careers overseas were not typical for the Zurich bourgeois in the early 19th century, they were plausible. Friedrich Escher, Heinrich Escher’s brother, for example, traveled across the Atlantic as well. He ran a coffee plantation in Cuba, which relied on the labor of at least 82 enslaved people.
The Escher brothers were able to further replenish the family capital in Switzerland via the established colonial economic structures. This money was, among other investments, put into the construction of the magnificent Belvoir Park, encompassing a villa, a large park and a collection of plants from overseas such as the aforementioned banana trees. The first cacti in the succulent collection at Mythenquai came from Heinrich Escher’s private estate. In addition, Escher left behind a considerable collection of insects that he had gathered in Central America. When he died in 1853, he bequeathed his large collection of native and foreign insects to the entomological museum of the ETH Zurich. Today, the entire Belvoir Park property is owned by the city of Zurich.
Anyone walking through Belvoir Park or down Alfred-Escher-Street today will witness the colonial entanglements of Zurich’s upper class in the early 19th century. At that time, Zurich’s educated citizens were interested in all things “exotic”, and sometimes traveled to colonized areas where they were introduced to the lucrative global trade of colonial goods. This manifests itself, not least, in Belvoir Park, which bears witness to the wealth of Heinrich Escher.
Eliane Schmid received her Master’s degree in History and Philosophy of Knowledge (M.A.) at ETH Zurich in 2021. Previously, she studied History with a minor in English Literature at the University of Zurich. Her Bachelor thesis, “The Making of Hakone Gardens: Entangled History of American Elites and Japanese Gardeners, 1915-1932”, reveals the center of her interest: the role of gardens in the early 20th century. Her research focuses on global history, specifically in East Asia.
Julian Schellong studied History and Philosophy of Knowledge (M.A.) at ETH Zurich. He is particularly interested in the history of climate science in the 20th century and completed his studies with a technical-historical thesis on the weather observation network in Switzerland (“Wetteraufschreibesysteme 1864/1978. Automatisierung und Digitalisierung im meteorologischen Beobachtungsnetz der Schweiz“).
Zeuske, Michael (2019): Tod bei Artemisa. Friedrich Ludwig Escher, Atlantic Slavery und die Akkumulation von Schweizer Kapital ausserhalb der Schweiz, in: Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Geschichte 69 (1).
Brengard, Marcel; Schubert, Frank; Zürcher, Lukas (2020). Die Beteiligung der Stadt Zürich sowie der Zürcherinnen und Zürcher an Sklaverei und Sklavenhandel vom 17. bis ins 19. Jahrhundert: Bericht zu Handen des Präsidialdepartements der Stadt Zürich. Zürich: Universität Zürich, Historisches Seminar.