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The need for a city tour on Zurich’s colonial past. An introduction.

Written by Zürich Kolonial; read by Alina Vimbai Strähler & Patrick Balaraj Yogarajan

Colonialism is commonly referred to as the period between 1500 and the second half of the 20th century. For most Swiss people, it is a thing of the past that hardly affected Switzerland, as the country never possessed any colonies. But what exactly is colonialism? 

Colonialism denotes political domination over an area and its people, animals and natural resources. Control is exercised by a group of foreigners who are unwilling to adapt or consider the interests of the local population. Initially, European countries colonized non-European regions. Later, the USA and Japan followed suit. Switzerland never exercised such political control over a non-European territory, which is why Switzerland’s colonial history may seem non-existent. 

However, there is also an economic dimension to colonialism. Colonial powers justified their control over the colonies by claiming that the people were fundamentally different, and either culturally or biologically inferior. This alleged difference was used to justify the exploitation of people and the ruthless use of resources. Individuals and corporations from nations without colonies also had access to these colonial markets. In cooperation with colonial powers, they were able to generate wealth from which many still profit today. Zurichers too, were involved in this business by for example operating overseas plantations, often using labor of enslaved or forced laborers. Others directly invested in the transatlantic slave trade. 

Zurichers profited from a system of injustice that was an integral part of colonial rule. Violence was omnipresent in colonial societies. It was unleashed in the enslavement of people, or the brutal suppression of uprisings. Resistance against the colonial rule, usually by those affected by the violence, is also part of colonial history. The Swiss offered their services as mercenaries and thus helped other colonial armies defend their rule. 

Further, the colonial conquest of the world created a powerful framework of thought that included systemic racist devaluation, which was often confirmed by science of the time. In general, scientists used colonial events for their own purposes. Zurich ethnologists, biologists, and physicians traveled to European colonies to conduct their research. Evidence thereof can be found in Swiss museums, for instance, which contain thousands of ethnographic and zoological objects – sometimes even human remains – most of which were stolen by force from their local contexts. 

Colonially influenced ideas found their way into everyday life in Switzerland, via literary works that told of experiences in the colonies, for example, or school textbooks that passed on the world view of colonial powers. At public exhibitions, people from the colonies were put on display in a visibly subordinate position. These ethnographical expositions were popular into the 20th century and were also held in Zurich. 

Colonialism had a deep impact on European societies: economically, politically, socially, culturally, and scientifically. The colonial past continues to influence economic and governmental structures as well as our view of the world – also in Switzerland. Its effects are visible in wealth inequalities, museum representations, school textbooks, development aid, or in supposedly harmless popular and cultural images. The rift that European colonialism created still ensures that people with different skin colors or origins are exposed to racist structures and actions – even in Zurich.  

Colonialism has left its traces in Zurich, as its inhabitants were involved or influenced by it in many ways. This city tour points out places in Zurich where these entanglements become visible. 

*** Colonialism also shaped our language. Network bla*sh has compiled a glossary called "Sprachmächtig: Glossar gegen Rassismus", which explains hurtful racist terms and designations and why they should NOT be used in contexts critical of racism.***

Further reading: 


Trinh T. Minh-ha: Women, Native, Other. Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism, Bloomington 1989.

Walter D. Mignolo: Epistemischer Ungehorsam. Rhetorik der Moderne, Logik der Kolonialität und Grammatik der Dekolonialität (übersetzt ins Deutsche von Jens Kastner und Tom Waibel), Wien 2012.

Sebastian Conrad, Shalini Randeria & Regina Römhild: Jenseits des Eurozentrismus. Postkoloniale Perspektiven in den Geschichts- und Kulturwissenschaften, Frankfurt a.M. 2013.

Frantz Fanon: Schwarze Haut, weiße Masken, Wien 2016.

Jürgen Osterhammel & Jan C. Jansen: Kolonialismus. Geschichte, Formen, Folgen, München 2017.

Yvonne Adhiambo Owour: Derelict Shards. The Roaming of Colonial Phantoms, Keynote für die internationale Konferenz “Colonialism as Shared History. Past, Present, Future”, Oktober 2020; online: [last accessed: 04.04.2021].

Switzerland & Zurich: 

Purtschert, Barbara Lüthi & Francesca Falk: Postkoloniale Schweiz. Formen und Folgen eines Kolonialismus ohne Kolonien, Bielefeld 2012.

Shelley Berlowitz, Elisabeth Joris & Zeedah Meierhofer-Mangeli: Terra incognita? Der Treffpunkt Schwarzer Frauen in Zürich, Zürich 2013.

Christof Dejung, Die Fäden des globalen Marktes : Eine Sozial- und Kulturgeschichte des Welthandels am Beispiel der Handelsfirma Gebrüder Volkart 1851-1999, Köln 2013.