Switzerland’s involvement in the African slave trade runs deeper than the history books suggest.
As Unesco marks the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition, history professor Hans Fässler told swissinfo it was time Switzerland faced up to its past.
Being a landlocked country did not stop Switzerland from playing its part in the transatlantic slave trade triangle, linking West Africa, America and Europe between the 16th and 19th centuries.
Swiss banks, for example, owned as much as a third of the Compagnie des Indes, a French company that held a monopoly over the West African slave trade, while trading houses financed and did business with slave traders.
Now that slavery has been internationally recognised as a crime against humanity, Fässler says Switzerland should take a fresh look at its past.
swissinfo: How do you explain the international community’s increasing interest in the African slave trade?
Hans Fässler: These international remembrance days reflect above all the willingness of countries, including Switzerland, to shed light on their past. These days there are many calls for reflection but also for an analysis of the consequences of slavery on today’s world.
We had to wait for the end of the Cold War before nations were ready to re-examine that chapter of history. Beforehand, the subject was completely taboo and those who brought the subject up were considered enemies of the state.
But the repercussions of colonisation and the slave trade are too important to be ignored. So much so that the global conference against racism in Durban in 2001 reopened the debate by recognising the transatlantic slave trade as a crime against humanity.
swissinfo: What concrete steps has Switzerland taken towards shedding some light on this chapter of its history?
H.F.: In the political arena, it’s an issue that still needs to advance.
But in the academic sphere, Switzerland’s role is coming under increasing scrutiny. Basel is trying to organise an international conference on the matter, while a book on Switzerland’s participation in the slave trade will be published shortly.
swissinfo: Why is this issue so important in your opinion?
H.F.: Like all western countries, Switzerland must answer questions over the source of its wealth.
Following the legal cases involving victims of the Nazi and Apartheid regimes, Switzerland must now look at this other chapter of its history.
swissinfo: So, is it a case of waiting for new compensation claims?
H.F.: Certain groups are looking into it. The main countries involved in the African slave trade are asking that western countries recognise their responsibilities.
For my part, I believe that Europe has an obligation to right its wrongs, but how it will do so still has to be decided. It could do so through symbolic acts, such as setting up new channels of cooperation with African countries, or by paying what they’re owed through development aid.
swissinfo-interview: Vanda Janka (translation: Joanne Shields)
The United Nations has designated 2004 the year to commemorate the fight against slavery and its abolition.
The transatlantic slave trade was formally recognised as a crime against humanity two years ago.
In 1997 Unesco designated August 23 as the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition.