A study of art and architecture revisits Swiss colonial history

Detail of artwork: Embroidery of texts from colonial archives. © Denise Bertschi
Detail of artwork: Embroidery of texts from colonial archives. © Denise Bertschi
In her PhD thesis, carried out jointly at EPFL’s Arts of Science Laboratory and the HEAD-Genève school of art in Geneva, Denise Bertschi examines Switzerland’s role in establishing a slavery-based colony in Brazil. Bertschi, who is also an artist, will display her work at both the Swiss National Museum and the Neuchâtel Art Center in September.

Numerous Swiss bourgeoise families emigrated to Bahia state in northeastern Brazil starting in the first half of the 19th century. They cleared out the forests and cultivated the previously indigenous land, establishing a coffee plantation conglomerate called Colônia Leopoldina, which eventually grew to become one of the state’s largest. Men, women and children forcefully displaced from Africa were enslaved to carry out the farm work. The coffee-growing business was so profitable at the time that the Swiss government appointed vice-consuls on the colony, who were themselves plantation owners and enslavers, to oversee the plantation shortly after Switzerland became a federal state in 1848.

The vice-consul protected the families’Öland during uprisings of repressed workers, leveraging his diplomatic ties with the Brazilian government. The consulate kept a record of the Swiss citizens’ possessions, including the names, ages, health conditions and attributed value of those they enslaved. In its heyday, up to 200 Swiss nationals and 2,000 enslaved people of African heritage lived in the plantation conglomerate. Switzerland’s colonial presence in Brazil lasted until 1888, when slavery was abolished in Brazil.

Long-term impact

For her PhD, Denise Bertschi decided to study the long-term impact of this colonial presence in an approach that combined architectural history, visual culture and artistic creation. "I wanted to show how this period had a lasting impact in both Brazil and Switzerland, with consequences that are structurally still embedded today," she says. In the 1940s, the plantation switched from coffee production to intensive eucalyptus farming; today, it’s run by a multinational that employs members of the Quilombo Helvécia community - descendants of those enslaved back in the 19th century - to work the land. Bertschi’s PhD was the first of its kind for EPFL and HEAD-Genève, and included artistic works thematizing the mark left by Switzerland’s colonization. Her public thesis defense will take place at EPFL on 27 June 2024. She will display her art work at both the Swiss National Museum and the Neuchâtel Art Center in September 2024.

Bringing the invisible to light

Bertschi’s research started by addressing the issue of how to unearth this hidden aspect of Switzerland’s history - a country that generally refers to its past as "colonialism without colonies." Bertschi wanted to give life to this episode that instead proves the opposite - Switzerland did in fact play an active role in coloniality. She visited Helvécia twice in 2017 to speak with the enslaved people’s Afro-Brazilian descendants, finding that today’s generation is still scarred by memories of past violence. They guided her as she filmed the port where the enslaved Africans landed and the cemetery where they were buried under what are now overgrown, scattered and illegible tombstones. They also took Bertschi to places where enslavers and the enslaved lived and where the enslaved were beaten - houses that are now destroyed, with the land now covered in eucalyptus trees.

Bertschi also dug through Helvécia’s archives held in the Swiss Federal Archives and found the colonial administration’s detailed lists and records, emblazoned with the Swiss government’s stamp of the colony’s own Helvetic vice-consulate. She also drew inspiration from these archives to create her artwork. For example, she had the colony’s stamp and the vice-consul’s records embroidered by the last remaining lace-making factory in St. Gallen - a vestige of what was a flourishing export product in 19th century Switzerland, also to Brazil. The eye-led embroidery is still worn today in Candomblé celebrations (a religious ritual), reflecting this material and economic history. The artwork’s idea was to give people an opportunity to view the slavery records kept by the vice-consul and that bind Switzerland’s colonial history to that of Brazil, thus bringing the invisible to light.

Traces in Switzerland, too

Bertschi also looked for traces of the Brazil colony within Switzerland. She studied both the Swiss Federal government’s and Neuchâtel Cantonal archives, discovering that the colonial landowners had been given the title of "consul" - which indicates the level of protection they received from the Swiss government. One landowner, James-Ferdinand de Pury, used his proceeds from the plantation to build a mansion (called Villa de Pury) in Neuchâtel. Upon his death, and in accordance with his wishes, the mansion was turned into a museum of ethnography, which opened in 1904 and still operates today.

Another businessman whose name appeared often in the archives was Auguste-Frédéric de Meuron. He had grown wealthy from slavery-based tobacco plantations in Bahia and Rio de Janeiro and played the key role of banker and arranger for Swiss families that wanted to set up plantations. In 1849, he converted part of his colonial capital to build the Préfargier clinic in Neuchâtel Canton - a psychiatric hospital that was at the cutting edge of its time and still serves this function today. "Those are just two examples," says Bertschi. "These facts can change our perspective of Switzerland’s built and institutional environment, in part by reminding us where the capital came from that was invested to build the prestigious buildings serving our state’s apparatus."
  • Public thesis defense on 27 June 2024, 18:00, EPFL. Bertschi’s thesis is the result of a new research partnership between EPFL and HEAD-Genève.

  • Denise Bertschi is among the finalist of the Swiss Art Awards ; Exhibition from 10.6.-16.6.2024, Messehalle 1.1, Basel.


Denise Bertschi, "Echoing Swiss Coloniality. Land, Archive and Visuality between Brazil and Switzerland," PhD thesis supervised jointly by Professors Nicola Braghieri at EPFL and Doreen Mende at HEAD-Genève, 2024.