Villa Patumbah

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Photo by Monique Ligtenberg

What connects the 19th century-built Villa Patumbah in the Mühlebach neighborhood with colonial tobacco plantations in Sumatra?

Written by Monique Ligtenberg; read by Michèle Breu & Patrick Balaraj Yogarajan

Built in 1885, Villa Patumbah remains one of Zurich’s most opulent buildings. Its builder, Karl Fürchtegott Grob, was one of the wealthiest Zurichers of the 19th century. The merchant and  son of a baker made a large part of his fortune on the island of Sumatra, which at the time belonged to the Dutch colonial empire in Southeast Asia. 

In the second half of the 19th century, Sumatra experienced a veritable “gold rush”. The fertile island, now part of Indonesia, promised Europeans quick money with the cultivation of colonial products such as coffee and tobacco. 

During a multi-year stay in Italy, Karl Früchtegott Grob learned by chance about the promising opportunities for profit that awaited him in the Dutch colony. In Italy, he also met his future business partner Hermann Näher, with whom he embarked on a three-week journey to Sumatra in 1869. 

Shortly after their arrival, the two founded the company “Näher und Grob“, to enter the particularly lucrative tobacco trade. They acquired 25,000 acres of Land within just a few years. But working the fields under tropical conditions was strenuous and dangerous and the local population was hardly willing to be recruited. So Grob and Näher deferred to hiring laborers from China and the neighboring island of Java, where unemployment was high at the time. Labor was so cheap that they were able to employ 4,300 Chinese and Javanese on their plantations. The tobacco business flourished, enabling the two businessmen to amass a handsome fortune in a very short amount of time. 

From the perspective of the Chinese and Javanese laborers, this story looks less pleasant. Plantation workers regularly succumbed to tropical diseases and exhaustion. Violence, arbitrary rule, and exploitation were part of the daily routine. Uprisings against the deplorable working conditions were brutally suppressed. 

In 1879, Grob sold his tobacco plantations and returned to Switzerland. Four years after his return, he commissioned the famous Zurich architects Chiodera and Tschudy to build his villa in what is now Seefeld. He named it after the town Patumbak, where his first plantation was located. Villa Patumbah is built according to the architectural style of Historicism, which combines elements of Baroque, Renaissance, and other periods. To commemorate his time in Sumatra, Grob had the upper floor designed in the style of the Dutch colonial architecture, decorated with Far Eastern motives. There is a shell in the fountain in front of the villa that Grob is said to have brought back from his return trip across the Indian Ocean. 

Today, Villa Patumbah is open to the public and has been home to the Swiss Heritage Center since 2013. 

Monique Ligtenberg is a doctoral candidate at the Chair for History of the Modern World at ETH Zurich.

Further reading: 

Andreas Zangger: Koloniale Schweiz. Ein Stück Kolonialgeschichte zwischen Europa und Südostasien (1860-1930), Transcriptverlag, Bielefeld 2011.

Schär, B. C. (2019). Introduction: The Dutch East Indies and Europe, ca. 1800-1930. An Empire of Demands and Opportunities. BMGN - Low Countries Historical Review, 134(3), 4-20. (open access).