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The history of the Swiss in South Africa

Why would I write about the Swiss in South Africa? Well, that is a story within itself, but I will give you the short version: I used to be a safari guide in Southern Africa... and then a Swiss girl stepped onto my safari truck. Unbeknown to me at that moment, this was the end of my life as I knew it, and here I sit in Switzerland writing about how the Swiss came to be in South Africa.

How did the Swiss arrive at the Cape, South Africa?

The starting point has to be with the formation of the Dutch East Company, the East India Company, and also referred to as the Company in history books. The Company's ships sailed from Europe around Africa on voyages to the East, the well known Spice Route. A halfway stop was needed on this journey to obtain fresh food and water. Present day Cape Town became this halfway stop. The first ships arrived in Table Bay in 1652 under the command of Jan van Riebeek. working on these ships was a last resort to employment for many or purely for adventure. This is where the story of most Europeans in South Africa begins.

Swiss men along with other nationalities formed the hard working teams that made these trading merchants and their voyages possible and prosperous.

Hard work disease and slavery: God bless their souls! The employment contracts they were handed were nothing like the contracts you would get today if you worked for a big company, lets say Migros for example, oh no... These ships were about 40 meters long and all low ranking staff (100 sailors and 300 soldiers) were accommodated below deck. Below deck, the only fresh air vents were at the trap door going to the upper deck and the gun flaps which had to be closed during bad weather. It was dark, wet, and sometimes smokey - from the galley or kitchen. in tropical climates it would have been unbearable. Add to that they survived off dried beans and wheat infested with worms and salty fish and pork. A death rate of 6% on trips to the Cape was the average. they faced scurvy, starvation, diseases and possible shipwrecks.

Albrecht Herport of Bern served the VOC in the East from 1659 till 1668 and on his return to Switzerland published his experiences. This is how he described the arrival in Table Bay

Arrival in Table Bay

“Water was again made freely available, which caused us such a great joy as cannot possibly be described by words and cannot be imagined by anyone who has not endured such thirst, when many had only that one wish, to drink their fill just once before they should die. The commander at the fort immediately sent us two cows and six sheep as well as green vegetables such as cabbages and turnips, which we, in our craving for fresh food, devoured leaves, stalks and all, and the lovely fresh water we drank as if it were good, new wine.”

After the hard years of setting up the station, the Cape Town area became known as paradise. Today, Cape Town is fast becoming a No 1 tourist attraction and overriding Rio as the worlds favourite and most beautiful city. (View of Table Mountain from Table Bay.)

Many men died in this period, either from the hard life on board the ship, or from punishment and discipline they received for petty crimes against the Company. Sometimes the reason for discipline was hardly even a crime. (The reasons for the petty crimes were because of the horrible conditions under wich they worked.) The employment contract with the Company was for five years. While in the Cape they had no civil rights and could not legally settle down or marry. The only woman in the Cape were wives and daughters of government or the Company officials, with whom they were denied contact. Some men married Khoi woman. This was not accepted as legal marriage, as the Kho were not seen as Christian, and the sailors and soldiers were not allowed church membership. A marriage was only legal if done in church.

Some guys made the best out the situation, like Hans Soeblee of Bougy-Villars VD who, in 1791, lived in the mountains above Simon’s Town with a Khoi woman by whom he had many children, all unrecorded of course. The roll and status of the mixed population at the Cape, 1652-1795 is described by Heese in Groep sonder Grense.

These were brave Swiss men, who worked out their contract at the Cape, went back home and then did this torturous voyage again to the Cape, which they had learned to love.

Only ten Swiss are known to have done this: Jakob Marik of Präz GR in 1710, Joseph Coen of Berne in 1746, Gabriel Jenny of Ennenda GL and Anthony Castelyn in 1757, Heinrich Schwarz of Wülflingen ZH in 1758, Coenraad Roets of Appenzell 1763, Hans Soeblee of Bougy-Villars VD in 1764, Johan Coenraad Wegelien of Diessenhofen TG in 1775, Nicolaas Schlaub of Basel in 1785 and Thomas Schoenmaker in 1790. / 1 Bruijn: Dutch Asiatic Shipping in the 17th and 18th Centuries, gives a detailed report on every sea voyage undertaken; 2 Thunberg: Travels in Europe, frica & Asia; 3 Boxer: The Dutch East-Indiamen; 4 Herport, Albrecht: Reise nach Java, Vorderindien & Ceylon 1659-1668.

In the 143 years from 1652 to 1795 a total of 453 Swiss were recorded, not including the members of the Swiss Regiment Meuron brought to the Cape in 1783. As there are missing records, the total could have exceeded 470. most of the mean came from Canton Bern which then included the Cantons of Vaud, Aargau and Jura, with a steady influx of men from Basel, and some from Appenzell. Few came from the catholic cantons.

Of the 453 Swiss recorded, eighty were sick men left behind to recover before resuming their voyage to the East on other ships. Of the remaining 373, thirteen arrived as free settlers and 360 were stationed here as Company servants. About 16 000 Swiss served in the Company’s overseas stations, of whom only 30% or 4 800 returned to Switzerland.

Swiss who climbed the ranks in the Cape while under service of the Company

Very few men elevated from low level rank as soldier or sailor to other positions. For any European who did not arrive in the Cape under free status, it was a long and arduous challenge to gain freedom.

Even though conditions were hard there were some Swiss who found a way to improve their lives. Until about 1695 they occupied only the lowest ranks. After 1775 Swiss also occupied high positions both in the military and the civil establishments.

Five Swiss who went to map out the land that lay beyond Cape Town

Relatively few Swiss may have moved up in the ranks, but they seem to have always been ready to serve in adventurous situations. Of the 37 soldiers in Beutler’s expedition, which in 1752 was sent out to explore the Eastern Cape as far as the Great Fish River, five were Swiss. Beutler’s party included 71 men including a diarist, a cartographer, a surgeon, a botanist, and the soldiers. There were, in addition, a large number of Khoi servants, 11 ox-wagons carrying food and equipment, and a small boat.

They stayed away from February to September, and in that time travelled beyond the Kei River where they encountered the first Xhosa. This was after the expedition had passed from the winter rainfall area into the summer rainfall area, the area populated by the Bantu people, where climatic conditions were suitable for the growing of sorghum, their staple food. From there Beutler had been instructed to cross the interior to the copper mines near the west coast. He found it impossible to travel across the dry Karoo because of the exhausted state of his party.

The expedition brought back valuable information on the topography, climate, vegetation and inhabitants, and beacons were erected as far east as Algoa Bay to take formal possession of the territory, thus forestalling any French settlement there. / Forbes: Beutler’s expedition. The five Swiss with Beutler’s expedition were Pieter Musiet (BE), Joseph Gundik (ZH), Hilarius Jene (GL), Benedict Gootje (BL) and Hendrik Frene (BE).

Samuel Filibert Scheer of Basel was assistant surgeon at the hospital. Another Swiss, Jan Hendrik Eswyler of Zurich, served as assistant surgeon at the hospital nearly a century later, in 1751.

Thomas Schoemaker of Sulz AG - 1787 he was appointed lieutenant in command of the important soldier’s post at St. Helena Bay.

Hendrik Stoeder of Zurich was serving as ensign at the British occupation in 1795, and six (one each from Cantons Berne and Geneva, two each from Canton Zurich and Grison) advanced to sergeants. Sixteen became corporals and thirteen, probably sons of well situated parents, undergoing military training, arrived as cadets.

Johan Hendrik Esbag of Basel was Chief Wagon-maker at the Cape for 18 years, 1778.- 1796.

Surprisingly, quite a few Swiss arrived as sailors and one even served as captain: Christiaan Marik of Klosters GR who, from 1719 onward, commanded various ships based at the Cape.

Hendrik Wolfensberg of Zurich had an unusual craft: initially employed as blacksmith, he became the Company’s brass-foundryman in 1741 and served in that capacity for six years, earning fl 18, the equivalent of a sergeant’s pay. Similarly, Joseph Jonie of Bossy VD, after working as labourer and soldier, became the Company’s seal-engraver in 1766 until his retirement in 1787.

The only Swiss scientist to come to the Cape during the Dutch Period was Jacob Baselr of Basel, an assayer, who was sent here in 1669 together with a party of miners to search for minerals. His task was to test ores extracted for their mineral content. Three Swiss who had served as soldiers, were appointed Company hunters: Soors Provoost of Solothurn in 1723, Joseph Klein of Porchet VD in 1771 and Andries Bertram of Grison in 1788.

Three Swiss were recorded as working in the Company’s offices. Roedolf Schitz of Berne was a scribe 1750-1752; Rodolphe le Camus, probably of Fribourg, became first clerk to the Council of Policy in 1737 and Adolf Juriaanse of Lausanne VD was Secunde to the first magistrate at Graaff-Reinet 1785-1789.

Pension and a free passage back home after the 5 years contract was complete.

Many chose to rather stay in the Cape than take the risky voyage back home. they could also extend their contract with the Company with better pay.

Free status: After a few years at the Cape, the Company realised that using the men to farm would secure a more steady flow of fresh produce. So after the initial 5 years labour contract was over, some men were given land to farm. They could also apply for free burgher status and permission to settle in the Cape, BUT, they had to stay in the confines of the Cape for 20 years. This arrangement of more freedom is what eventually lead to men moving all the way up to the Limpopo River in the north and the Orange River in the West.

Here are the names of some of the Swiss who successfully applied to the Company for grants of land: Alexander Blanck of Schaffhausen near Klapmuts in 1681, Jan Margra of Lutry VD near Stellenbosch in 1686, Hendrik Muller of Basel in the Franschhoek Valley in about 1691, and Abraham Matthee of Tramelan BE near Pearly Beach in 1750.

Many Swiss who gained freedom in the Cape became successful farmers and tradesman or set up businesses. The names of some farms remained unchanged until into late the 1900's.

  • The first recorded Swiss to arrive in the Cape was Isaac Manget

  • The first Swiss to successfully apply for free status/free burgher was the same Isaac Manget of Geneva in 1658, only six years after Van Riebeeck’s arrival, but he absconded soon after gaining freedom, and was thus recorded as dead.

There are some fascinating stories of Swiss characters who carved out adventurous and legendary lives in the Cape in those pioneering days that produced modern south Africa. Their language also influenced the formation of the Afrikaans language. Many Swiss German words are similar to Afrikaans words.

Information in this article was sourced from "The Swiss in Southern Africa Part 1, 1652 - 1970" by Adolphe Linder

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