Written by Lea Pfäffli; read by Alina Vimbai Strähler & Patrick Balaraj Yogarajan
Over 100 years ago, in 1912, a lecture took place in the beautiful auditorium of the Hirschengraben school. The speaker was the Arctic explorer Alfred de Quervain, who had just returned from the "Swiss Greenland Expedition". He had traversed Greenland from the west to the east coast along with three other men. The glacier covered island was part of the Danish colonial empire at the time.
In his lecture, de Quervain described the Greenland expedition as a national heroic story: the Swiss “love of high mountains, familiarity with snow and glaciers, and a certain adaptability and modesty" had enabled the men to cross the island. In patriotic fashion, de Quervain had timed the expedition so that the team reached Greenland's east coast precisely on August 1st, Switzerland's national holiday.
The explorer illustrated his talk with hand painted photographs portraying the Arctic landscape, along with its population, as “foreign and exotic”. The Inuit who lived on the coasts of Greenland were described by de Quervain as "children of nature" - although they often worked as catechists or in fish oil production.
De Quervain's lecture, tinged with colonial stereotypes, fit right in at the school; its auditorium is, even today, covered with sculptures of racialized people. Heads from seemingly every corner of the world were meant to serve as illustrations for the students. Like de Quervain's adventure stories and photographs, these sculptures served the curiosity of the supposed “other”.
De Quervain also used colonial images to raise money for his venture, because the crossing of Greenland required a considerable sum of money – and in contrast to great imperial powers such as Great Britain the Swiss government refused to finance the "Swiss Greenland Expedition".
De Quervain’s stories and pictures, however, aroused a broader interest. The explorer toured the country with his slide show – and the crowds were huge. Between 100 and 750 francs were collected per lecture, which were considerable sums at the time. In this way de Quervain could count on Swiss money after all.
The Neue Zürcher Zeitung made a decisive contribution to the expedition's budget. In return, it secured exclusive rights to the reporting. An early form of product placement was also part of the financing strategy of the "Swiss Greenland Expedition": food companies such as Maggi and Lindt sponsored expedition food, and in return de Quervain praised the patrons' products in his lectures and in the travel report.
What does this story tell us? Switzerland did not officially pursue any territorial ambitions in the Arctic as the Federal Council rejected the request for funding. But the Arctic fever of the Swiss middle class and private companies triggered financing otherwise. In the early 20th century, the imperial race for the polar regions was at its height. Norwegians, Americans and British wanted to be the first men to reach the North and South Poles. By crossing Greenland, de Quervain followed this logic of imperial first ascents – and served the Swiss longing for a polar hero of their own.
P.S. We thank Sally Schonfeldt for pointing out the statues in the auditorium.
Lea Pfäffli, Arktisches Wissen. Schweizer Expeditionen und dänischer Kolonialhandel in Grönland (1908-1913).
Patricia Purtschert et al. (Hg.), Postkoloniale Schweiz. Formen und Folgen eines Kolonialismus ohne Kolonien, transcript (Postcolonial Studies), 2013.