Neumarkt 27

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Photo by Monique Ligtenberg

Find out what the famous writer Gottfried Keller has to do with a sulky boy, Swiss mercenaries, and colonialism.

Written by Philipp Krauer; read by Michèle Breu & Patrick Balaraj Yogarajan

The stone plaque above the entrance at Neumarkt 27 points out the importance of the building from afar: “In diesem Haus wurde geboren Gottfried Keller den 19. Juli 1819.”  ("Gottfried Keller was born in this house on July 19th, 1819"). Keller is the author of many Swiss classics, such as ‘Der Grüne Heinrich’. But what does this writer, whose life took place exclusively between Zurich, Heidelberg and Berlin, have to do with colonialism?

Gottfried Keller is interesting because he weaves together threads of the globally interconnected world of his time. Keller passionately read literary and scientific works about overseas territories. These books were often far removed from reality and captivated a wide audience with "exoticizing" depictions. Keller used such images of the foreign world in several of his own stories, such as ‘Don Correa’, ‘Berlocken’, and ‘Pankraz der Schmoller’. The latter is the story of a notoriously sulky boy named Pankraz who leaves Zurich's Seldwyla to serve as a soldier first with the British East India Company in India and then with the French Foreign Legion in Africa. At the end of his service, Pankraz returns home a wealthy and respected colonel. Keller describes the escape to the colonies as a way out of the narrow-minded Swiss society. Young Swiss men – so the moral of his story – can achieve fame and fortune in the colonies through diligence and bravery.

That everyday life in the colonies ultimately had little in common with his fanciful stories was something Keller learned just a few years after publishing this novella. At that time, he was elected Zurich's highest official and was forced to deal with the fate of Zurich citizens who joined the European colonial armies. Unlike Pankraz, their life stories were rarely crowned with a "happy ending". Countless died in the colonies and Keller had to handle their estates with their parents, siblings, and children. 

But this was only the European side of the colonial entanglements. While the International Red Cross was being founded and humane warfare was being discussed in Switzerland, Zurich's colonial soldiers were wiping out entire villages alongside the French and Dutch in Africa and Asia. In this respect, the stone plaque at Neumarkt 27 refers to more than the birthplace of a well-known Zurich writer. It marks the place where "exotic" fantasies of Swiss literature meet bloody colonial stories of Swiss mercenaries.

Philipp Krauer is a historian conducting research at the Chair of History of the Modern World at ETH Zurich on Swiss mercenaries who served in the Dutch colonial army in the 19th century.

Further reading:

Dewulf, Jeroen: Mirroring Zambo in an Atlantic context: the open wound of slavery in Gottfried Keller's Don Correa (1881), in Atlantic Studies, 10(2), 2013, p.247-267.

Amrein, Ursula (ed.): Gottfried Keller-Handbuch. Leben - Werk - Wirkung: 2nd, revised and expanded edition 2018.

Krauer, Philipp: Welcome to Hotel Helvetia! Friedrich Wüthrich's Illicit Mercenary Trade Network for the Dutch East Indies, 1858-1890. BMGN - Low Countries Historical Review, 134(3), 2019, pp.122-147.

For more information on Swiss mercenaries in Indonesia, see this website.