A cross-imperial space of opportunities1

On 5 July 1888, the Bernese police finally managed a long-awaited arrest at the Swiss capital’s main train station: that of Friedrich Wüthrich, aged 58, after almost two decades of investigation. The prosecution accused Wüthrich of running an illicit network of recruitment agents from his Hotel Helvetia in Harderwijk, the Netherlands, which lured young Swiss men into the Dutch colonial army, the Koninklijk Nederlandsch-Indisch Leger (hereafter KNIL).2 Promoting foreign military services had already been banned in Switzerland in 1849, as it contradicted the liberal spirit of the newly founded nation state. However, this did not prevent Wüthrich from exploiting the Dutch demand for European mercenaries to his financial advantage.

Wüthrich joins a long list of Swiss actors and institutions who had been entangled in European colonial enterprises since the seventeenth century – even though Switzerland never formally possessed any colonial territories of its own. In addition to the British, French and German colonies, they were also connected to the territories of the Dutch East and West Indies trading companies (West-Indische Compagnie and Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie) and the subsequent Dutch empire. The Dutch East Indies, today’s Indonesia, in particular served as a destination for numerous Swiss naturalists, mercenaries, merchants and plantation owners who were involved in the trans-imperial circulation of commodities, ethnographic objects and knowledge. Thus, colonial spaces offered a variety of opportunities for Swiss people.3 Yet the emphasis of recent studies on Swiss colonial entanglements has primarily been confined to (urban) elites.

By examining how and why Friedrich Wüthrich built his mercenary trade network, I take his life as a case in point and argue that the Dutch empire provided a transnational space of demands and opportunities for members of the lower classes of non-Dutch European states as well. As I shall point out, the territorial penetration of the Indonesian archipelago pursued by the Netherlands resulted in the Dutch colonial army becoming one of the most important military employers for Swiss mercenaries in the second half of the nineteenth century. Such an opportunity offered the mercenaries an escape from poverty and the chance to pursue careers that would not have been possible within the rigid structures in Switzerland.

In order to support this thesis, I scrutinise Wüthrich’s networks from a micro-historical perspective. Using this approach allows me to let members of the lower classes who lived outside of the centres of power speak, and to highlight contradictions that might be neglected in macro-histories.4 Thereby, this article not only provides new insights on the webbed character of the Dutch empire5, it also emphasises the cross-imperial dimensions described by Bernhard C. Schär in the introduction of this issue. Moreover, it ties in with the debate about how ‘Dutch’ the Dutch empire actually was6, since these non-Dutch mercenaries give a further example for David Arnold’s concept of ‘contingent colonialism’. With regard to British India, Arnold argues that colonial enterprises were rarely purely British, but transnational. They involved the expertise and resources of outsiders from various nations. Even though these outsiders did not build the British empire, they made a decisive contribution.7 Comparably, Swiss men (and very rarely women) did not form the Dutch empire on their own, but nonetheless made a significant contribution towards maintaining and even expanding physical and discursive power relations in ‘imperial formations’ stretching from the Dutch East Indies as far as the European hinterland in the Swiss Alps.8 In spite of the important part these Swiss mercenaries played for the Dutch colonial expansion as well as in the history of colonial migration more generally9, their role has hitherto scarcely been studied.10

Transnational military labour markets

Wüthrich did not become a recruiting agent by chance but took advantage of opportunities within economic and social structures that had developed over centuries. Since the early modern era, Switzerland had been part of a European transnational military labour market with global extensions and related migration flows.11 From a Swiss perspective, working as a mercenary presented a viable way out of poverty. This option was widely popular in the nineteenth century, although compared to the previous centuries the number of mercenaries had declined by then.12 For a long time these military labour migrants had met the demand of European powers such as the Kingdom of France, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and the Holy See, and were therefore hired in whole regiments.13

The emergence of national armies and conscription at the beginning of the nineteenth century saw a decline in these mercenary regiments in Europe. These tendencies stood in stark contrast to the newly formed armies that were used in imperial wars, such as the French Foreign Legion or the KNIL. Both France and the Netherlands needed ‘indigenous’ troops as well as European mercenaries for the expansive penetration of their colonial empires.14 In this interplay between supply and demand, civilian newcomers were as welcome as experienced mercenaries were. After the expiration of their contract, numerous mercenaries pursued horizontal military careers; they did not return home but enrolled with another army. From 1856–1860, for example, 1.200 Swiss mercenaries transferred from Neapolitan services to the KNIL.15

Like many of his contemporaries, Wüthrich’s poverty probably drove him into the military labour market. His parents were financially dependent on the municipality and he had to take care of himself from an early age.16 He left Switzerland at the age of seventeen to join a Swiss regiment in Naples in the kingdom of the Two Sicilies. In all likelihood, he took part with the Swiss regiments in the suppression of the rebellions in Naples and Sicily in 1848.17 After ten years of service, he was released in 1858. Thereafter he browsed the military labour market and joined the KNIL just three months later to serve for six years.18 When he arrived in the Dutch East Indies, he was deployed in Borneo in 1860 and 1861 when the island witnessed repeated armed conflicts.19

Quite obviously, Wüthrich had no problem being on the payroll of various European monarchies. Influential voices at home, however, had a different view. Since the end of the eighteenth century, increasing criticism had been levelled against mercenary service in Switzerland, especially within liberal circles. From their perspective, military service for foreign rulers and states contradicted the dignity and honour of their own nation. Therefore, at the foundation of the Swiss federal state in 1848, they ensured that a ban on concluding new military capitulations – which were contracts between cantonal authorities and foreign powers for entire contingents of troops – was included in the liberal constitution. In a brief period, mercenary service was further legally restricted. In 1849, recruitment on Swiss territory was banned; in 1851 and 1853 the penalties were intensified.20

While Wüthrich was already fighting in the Dutch East Indies, Swiss mercenaries in papal service plundered the Italian City of Perugia, and his former colleagues in the Swiss regiments of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies mutinied. In 1859, in response to this turmoil, the Swiss parliament passed a far-reaching law prohibiting both the promotion of foreign military service and the entry into so-called ‘non-national’ troops, including not only the regiments in Naples and Rome, but also explicitly the French Foreign Legion and the KNIL.21 With regard to the KNIL, the problem seemed to solve itself. In reaction to a mutiny among Swiss and French mercenaries on Java, the Dutch stopped recruiting Swiss mercenaries on their own initiative in 1860.22

After being released from the KNIL, Wüthrich returned to Bern in 1864 where he attempted to find his way back into civil life. Integration into the civilian world, however, was difficult and it did not take long before he came into conflict with the authorities. In March 1866, the Bernese court sentenced him for seriously threatening a fellow citizen.23 In the same month, Wüthrich left Switzerland and took over the Hotel Helvetia in Harderwijk.24

This painting entitled ‘Strassenschlacht in Neapel’ depicts the 4th Swiss Regiment fighting for the King of the Two Sicilies in the streets of Naples during the uprising of 15 May 1848. Wüthrich was part of this regiment and like him, around 1.200 Swiss mercenaries transferred to the KNIL between 1856 and 1860. An unknown artist reproduced the painting several times in 1848. An identical piece can be found in the Swiss National Museum. © Arnold Geiger, Appenzell Meistersrüte.

Filling a gap in the market

In 1866, two incidents offered Wüthrich a promising economic perspective. Firstly, in the Canton of Bern, the former KNIL-soldier Johannes Flückiger, who had recently returned from the Dutch East Indies, was arrested for vagrancy. As further investigations revealed that Flückiger joined the KNIL after July 1859, the Bernese authorities were uncertain whether this constituted a violation of the aforementioned law and submitted a query to the Federal Department of Justice and Police. The Swiss authorities forwarded the query to the government in The Hague via the newly established Dutch Consul General J. G. Suter-Vermeulen, who was based in Bern. After consulting with the Dutch government, Suter-Vermeulen responded that the colonial troops ought to be regarded as national troops, since Dutchmen fought in the same forces with foreigners.25 The Swiss Federal Council, surprisingly, took note of this without objection – presumably, because the driving force behind the law of 1859, Jakob Stämpfli, had already resigned from the Federal Council in 1863– and reported the new facts to the press.26 Moreover, the two countries maintained a friendship of ‘a very amicable nature’27, as the Neue Zürcher Zeitung called it referring to the Netherlands supporting Swiss access to the Japanese market in 1864.28 Promoting the service in the KNIL, however, remained prohibited.

Secondly, Suter-Vermeulen reported to his government in The Hague that he regularly received requests from Swiss volunteers willing to join the KNIL. The Dutch colonial ministry decided to accept Swiss mercenaries again for colonial service in minor numbers. Consequently, unlike during the period from 1857–1860, this time the Dutch did not establish an official recruiting agency located close to the Swiss border and no further travel expenses were paid in advance.29

The restraint of the Dutch government to campaign for Swiss volunteers left a gap in the transnational recruiting market that was filled by private recruiting agents.30 Based on his own experience, Wüthrich was all too familiar with both the supply and demand aspects of this military labour market and soon took up his new role as an illicit recruiting agent.

Selling souls

In a nutshell, Wüthrich’s business model consisted of combining the demands of Swiss men willing to emigrate with those of the Dutch empire. A closer look reveals, however, that this was not quite that simple. Until 1853, Wüthrich’s plans would not have caused any problem. There was usually a consensus between him and the mercenaries, and Swiss citizens were allowed to cross the borders to their neighbouring countries without special conditions. It was therefore neither a matter of human trafficking, nor of smuggling. The only violation of Swiss law was the promotion of foreign service and the recruitment of mercenaries. In addition to this legal hurdle, there was stiff competition from other recruiting agents. Wüthrich was neither the first nor the only recruiter for foreign armies. In Switzerland, other recruitment agents also promoted the French Foreign Legion and the papal regiments in Italy.31 Thus, Wüthrich and other illicit recruiting agents tried to influence the migrants’ decision in their favour, which gave them a dubious reputation among the general population. In folk tales and accounts of veterans, recruiters were therefore often depicted as ‘soul sellers’ (Seelenverkäufer) who sent people to their doom by fraudulent means or even abductions.32 According to the statements in Wüthrich’s trial, he, too, was not beyond reproach. Many of the Swiss mercenaries were ill-disposed towards him because he allegedly overcharged his drunken guests and sold them watches merely to buy them back later at a lower price when they ran out of cash. Moreover, Wüthrich’s recruiting agents had deliberately promised Swiss compatriots to find well-paid work in France. When they arrived there and found no employment, Wüthrich and his subagents could easily recruit them.33

This drawing entitled ‘Christens Heimkehr’ dates from 1875 and illustrates the story ‘Wozu ein Unglück gut sein kann’. The young Christen is heartbroken and hence gets drunk. Two recruiters seize the opportunity to drug him and take him across the border, where he joins the KNIL. When he returns seven years later and sees his embittered ex-girlfriend, he is glad that he has not stayed with her. With his savings, he buys a blacksmith’s house and gets married. © Stämpfli Verlag AG, Bern, Hinkende Bot auf das Jahr 1875.

The question as to what degree Wüthrich had deceived the potential mercenaries with regard to their future employer is difficult to verify. Putting all the blame on the recruiting agents is nonetheless problematic, as this would deny the recruits any agency and reduce them to the status of mere victims. This would be an undue oversimplification, as there is ample evidence that numerous young Swiss deliberately wanted to be recruited, whether because of the lure of adventure, the hardships of utter poverty, or merely in order to escape the social obligations at home.34 It is equally well documented, however, that many mercenaries imagined life and service in the Dutch East Indies differently and had to come to grips with the stark realities of their everyday experiences in the East. Comparable to the Luxembourg KNIL-soldiers, the bulk of Swiss mercenaries probably saw themselves as ‘life cycle migrants’.35 In this sense, emigration was conceived as part of a life cycle supposed to be merely temporary and served to bridge a period of poverty. At the end of this life cycle, they intended to return to their home country to found a family or a business. Indeed, there were a number of Swiss returnees, for example, who received a pension or disability payment from the Dutch government for years and in some cases even managed social advancement.36 Nevertheless, this was easier said than done, as a number of requests from Swiss mercenaries to the Swiss authorities to release them from Dutch duties as well as the aforementioned mutiny testify of their dissatisfaction.37 Several reports by Swiss mercenaries deplore the boredom of everyday life in the barracks, the social isolation from the civilian European colonists and especially the tropical heat as a source of frustration.38 The Swiss consulate in Batavia had no other option but to warn against the idea of serving in the KNIL.39

An illicit network of recruiting agents, forgers and mercenaries

Most likely no ordinary Swiss hotelier would have thought of opening a hotel in Harderwijk since the town on the Zuiderzee was called ‘the sewer of Europe’. It had obtained this dubious reputation because it was home to the KNIL recruitment centre as well as to numerous traders, prostitutes, and musicians surrounding it. The flow of potential European colonial soldiers also lured many bar operators on the scene.40 Thus, Wüthrich’s hotel was only one of over a hundred places licensed to serve liquor. In the face of such considerable competition, Wüthrich had to be innovative, especially as many hotel guests merely stayed a night, unless they did not carry the necessary documents.41 If this was the case they had to dwell in the hotel until they either received the right papers or changed their minds and returned home. Wüthrich charged 1,5 guilders for board and lodging, which he deducted directly from the 160–200 guilders bounty that the mercenaries received in case of enlisting with the KNIL.42

Yet the sum of 1,5 guilders seems to be negligible in comparison to the 75 guilders that a Swiss mercenary usually had to pay Wüthrich for travel and expenses when he was recruited by him or one of his subagents. How exactly this illicit recruitment was carried out is difficult to reconstruct. The first contact between subagent and potential mercenary is scarcely documented. Did the recruits already know beforehand about Wüthrich’s network and the KNIL and therefore sought contact or were they persuaded by his subagents on the spot? Probably both. Either they received information about acquaintances who had also served in the KNIL, or they were addressed directly by the advertisers. Once the candidates had agreed on the terms and conditions, the subagents led them to a meeting point beyond the Swiss border near Basel where Wüthrich picked them up or sent them precise instructions on how to get to the Hotel Helvetia in Harderwijk. There, he also issued them a bill of exchange for 75 guilders. If the KNIL accepted the volunteers, Wüthrich deducted this sum directly from their bounty. In addition, he received a premium of ten guilders from the KNIL for the successful placement.43

Advancing travel costs and pointing the way were only two aspects of Wüthrich’s work. Since, in contrast to the French Foreign Legion, the KNIL demanded an impeccable reputation certificate as well as the birth certificate and – in the case of those volunteers who were considered minors in their home country – the consent of their parents or guardians44, Wüthrich and his collaborators also forged these documents for ten to twenty-five additional guilders. Here, too, they proceeded with an astonishing degree of professionalism. They printed a vast number of references beforehand and had a whole range of forged stamps from cantonal, municipal or police authorities. They proceeded so systematically that Wüthrich even issued a forged document to a recruit holding valid papers in order to conceal the difference from the fake documents.45

Postcard of 1902 depicting Harderwijk sent by a Swiss mercenary to his family in Switzerland, with the request to send him postcards from Zurich, the mountains or the Swiss military. © Privately owned by the Brandenberger family, Switzerland.

Wüthrich probably entered the illicit military labour market right from the beginning when the KNIL resumed enrolling Swiss mercenaries in 1866. Already in April 1867, the Swiss consul in Rotterdam complained about the latest extent of the recruitment and the involvement of a certain Swiss named ‘Wüthrich’ living in Harderwijk. Apparently, the latter had accomplices and travelled on a regular basis to Leopoldshöhe in Baden-Württemberg or St. Louis in Alsace (both neighbouring villages of Basel) from where he had already organised several transports of ten to twenty Swiss volunteers to Harderwijk. Since many of these mercenaries returned either sick or unable to work after their period of service, the consul argued that any kind of advertising of that colonial military service should be counteracted.46

Despite this warning, Wüthrich’s activities flourished for several years. The reasons for his success in this risky business were rooted in his caution and adaptability. These two skills helped him master the first serious threat in 1871 when Alsace, Baden and Württemberg became part of the newly founded German Empire. Under Prussian leadership, the German authorities no longer tolerated recruiting campaigns, which is why Wüthrich had to move his station to Belfort in France. Wüthrich himself never lived in Belfort. His subagents ran his business there while he dropped by from time to time. It cannot be determined how many Swiss people entered the KNIL during this period with Wüthrich’s help. Measured against the annual average of 60 Swiss mercenaries who joined in the 1860s (the corresponding figure for the period 1870–1872 was 47)47, his participation may have been quite significant. Nevertheless, Wüthrich’s heyday was yet to come.

Aceh’s long arm

In 1873, the Dutch authorities launched a new wave of recruitment that was triggered by the Aceh War in northwestern Sumatra. Both the island’s economic potential and the new strategic position at the mouth of the Malacca Street in the wake of the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 aroused Dutch desires. Officially, the British prohibited the Dutch from intervening in Aceh by the London Treaty of 1824. In 1871, however, the British abandoned their stance and lifted the ban on interference in exchange for the Gold Coast from the Dutch. To enforce control in the newly annexed territory the Dutch governor general initiated a confrontation with Sultan Mahmud Shah, and in 1873 a war broke out that was to last no less than forty years. This war would cost the lives of an estimated 75.000 Acehnese and 25.000 troops and coolies in service of the KNIL.48

A map of Basel and its trinational surroundings around 1870. North of the Swiss border lies Leopold’s Höhe in Baden, to the northwest of the French town of St. Louis. Both were important stations in Wüthrich’s network for a brief period. Reproduced by permission of swisstopo (JA100120).

The sluggish course of the war, the fierce resistance of the Sultanate and the scourge of cholera demanded high numbers of troops. To satisfy this demand, the KNILimproved the conditions of service and increased the bounty for foreigners.49 For its recruitment, the KNIL and also Wüthrich himself benefitted from a global economic crisis that also affected Switzerland in 1873 and prompted many Swiss to leave their country.50 In the summer of 1874, the increased Dutch recruitment efforts came to the attention of the Swiss government. The Swiss consul in Batavia reported to the Federal Council that more Swiss mercenaries were arriving in Java. According to his report, thirty-two of the last troop transport of 150 soldiers were Swiss. ‘For all those who are familiar with the conditions in Java,’ the consul wrote, ‘it is incomprehensible how so many can forget themselves so far to sell their freedom with inexplicable carelessness in a moment of excitement against an almost certain death or against a physical and moral wastefulness.’51 In order to prevent more Swiss people from finding themselves in this miserable situation, Federal President Carl Schenk issued a circular to all cantons stating that increased attention should be paid by the police to combat recruiting agents.52

As it soon turned out, Schenk’s warning was utterly hypocritical. The authorities of the canton of Bern took his orders seriously and paid more attention to offences against the 1859 law. They intercepted a letter containing a leaflet about admission to the KNIL. Nevertheless, the explosive thing about the letter was less the content, and more the sender: a stamp in the lower left corner pointed to the Dutch Consul General Suter-Vermeulen, based in Bern. This seemingly confirmed the rumours circulating previously, which claimed that Suter-Vermeulen was directly involved in or at least familiar with the illicit recruitment. However, the Bernese could not take action, because the Dutch ambassador was protected by international law.53 Schenk confronted Suter-Vermeulen with the accusations, which the latter rejected, as this would have constituted an obvious violation of the 1859 law. Suter-Vermeulen stated officially that he did not recruit Swiss individuals and it was in his personal interest to keep the number of Swiss mercenaries as low as possible, as most of the unpleasant consular business concerned these mercenaries. Only non-Swiss people were given information on the conditions of admission. The letter in question, he assured, must therefore have been based on a misunderstanding and, as far as the rumors were concerned, they might have been deliberately spread by individuals he had rejected.54

However, Suter-Vermeulen’s answer was a lie, as was President Schenk’s indignation. The two had been friends for some time and they had confidentially discussed Suter-Vermeulen’s recruitment activities in 1873, as a classified letter from the consul to the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Baron Gericke van Herwijnen reveals.55 The reason for the conversation back then was Suter-Vermeulen’s discomfort with the recruitment. In the course of the Aceh War, the Dutch consuls in Belgium, France and Switzerland were urged to do their utmost to promote the recruitment of local volunteers.56 In order to fulfil this task, Suter-Vermeulen had consciously crossed the border of illegality several times and was afraid of being discovered. He therefore sought advice from several members of the Swiss Federal Council on how he could proceed unnoticed.57 In 1874, the matter finally became too explosive for Schenk as well. In a classified letter, he asked Suter-Vermeulen to ‘double his caution in this recruitment process’ and to stop providing information about the KNIL.58 The fact that, unlike the rest of the correspondence between Suter-Vermeulen and members of the Federal Council, this letter is to be found exclusively in the Dutch National Archives, and that it was written in an unusually amicably tone without a formal address, suggest that Schenk wanted to keep the Dutch operations hidden from other Swiss authorities. Why Schenk played this double game remains in the realm of speculation. Perhaps he attached more importance to good diplomatic relations with the Netherlands as they represented a gateway to Asian markets, which the Swiss export industry increasingly aimed to penetrate at the end of the nineteenth century.59

In any case, Suter-Vermeulen was under pressure. The government in The Hague wanted to recruit more Swiss men because of the Aceh war. Suter-Vermeulen attempted his best to do so without being caught. He generously gave information to all potential recruits who either wrote to him by letter or even visited him at home. His commitment even went so far that he also suggested to the Dutch Foreign Minister to set up a registration office near the German town of Friedrichshafen and transport the volunteers by steamboat from Mannheim to the Netherlands, all under the guise of a removal company. He developed these ideas in consultation with several recruiting agents who had visited him personally, some of whom were Wüthrich’s accomplices. Additionally, in order to escort volunteers from Switzerland quickly across the border, he proposed paying the recruiters an advance.60 However, after the incident of 1874, Suter-Vermeulen changed his attitude towards the recruitment question. From then on, he reacted dismissively to questions concerning the KNIL.61

Catch me if you can

Wüthrich, on the other hand, continued to pull strings from Harderwijk, and his recruiting agents continued sending him volunteers. To avoid attracting the attention of the Swiss authorities, they corresponded with each other as if they were discussing the shipment of cheese rather than of mercenaries.62 Nevertheless, the noose of justice continued to tighten. One of Wüthrich’s agents, Johann Peter Wagner, was sentenced to three months in prison by the Basel court in 1874. He tried to evade his punishment and fled to Germany, where he was finally arrested in Mainz. Another long-time accomplice of Wüthrich and operator of the station in Belfort, Georg Hitz, was expelled from France in 1876 because of his recruitment activities.

Wüthrich himself remained untouched until 1878, when an anonymous person from the Belgian town of Verviers accused him of operating an advertising depot in Belfort.63 As the Swiss authorities knew neither the author of the letter nor any further details about Wüthrich, they instructed their consulates in Brussels and Rotterdam to investigate the matter. At first, these enquiries were fruitless. However, Wüthrich made a mistake. The Swiss authorities would have struggled to locate him in Harderwijk if he had not approached them himself in 1874 to make sure that his marriage to his Dutch wife, Mechteld Lieman, would be recognised in Switzerland as well. By notifying the Swiss authorities of his place of residence in Harderwijk, he inadvertently helped to uncover his identity. Finally, the Swiss consul in Rotterdam could confirm that Wüthrich was an innkeeper there and was associated with the recruitment network.64 Nevertheless, as long as Wüthrich was outside Switzerland, the police were unable to arrest him.

Arguably, another reason why Wüthrich was not stopped could have been that not all local Swiss authorities were interested in ending the mercenary service as the Bernese government was. Swiss authorities frequently considered these mercenaries as ‘work-shy vagabonds’. A community representative from the canton of Solothurn even went as far as contacting Wüthrich’s agents to deport an ‘individual annoying the community’. The planned deportation, however, was discovered and the municipal employee was convicted.65 In general, the Swiss authorities had a discretionary power at the local level, allowing them to determine the extent to which they would tolerate recruitment. According to the testimony of a convicted recruiting agent, the police lieutenant of Solothurn assured him that the police would not intervene as the deportation of such individuals would only be ‘beneficial to the country’.66 In the eyes of these exponents, the KNIL was one of the numerous means to maintain the bourgeois order in view of the growing proletariat. These voices – albeit on a smaller scale – tied in with the discourses of the German, French and English imperialists on the deportation of poor and so-called deviant ‘white subalterns’.67

Despite local sympathies, Wüthrich still had to act cautiously since not only the Bernese but also the German authorities kept an eye on him. Finally, the latter arrested him on his way to Switzerland in November 1879. Yet after two months, he was released because it could not be proven that he had recruited Germans within German territory. Wüthrich then boldly asked the Swiss government to support him to obtain satisfaction from the German government. They refused, pointing out that he had also been reported to them for recruiting activities.68

Besides these reversals, Wüthrich experienced further personal setbacks. In 1882, a Dutch court sentenced Wüthrich to a year in prison for concealing – according to his own statements – that his hotel guests used false papers. As soon as he was released from prison, he resumed recruiting. The principle was the same: Wüthrich set up a network of agents who picked up volunteers in Switzerland and led them across the border. The agents, however, were confronted with an increasingly difficult situation. Johann Jakob Cottier, who had already worked with Wüthrich earlier, managed a new station in Belfort together with his son when a retired sergeant from Harderwijk denounced him to the Swiss Ministry of Justice in 1884. Based on Cottier’s criminal record (from 1870 to 1883 he had already been sentenced seven times to shorter prison terms for illicit recruitment), the authorities started the investigation of this ‘incorrigible recruiter’. Witnesses in Switzerland and the Netherlands were questioned until Cottier was finally sentenced to a year in prison and a fine of 200 francs in January 1886. Cottier did not think of returning to prison and left for France, where he continued to hire mercenaries along with his son and Wüthrich.69

Once again, it did not take long before their activities were unveiled. On this occasion, it was the president of the Société Suisse in Belfort who was upset with the Cottier family. The association acknowledged that ‘this kind of slave trade is a necessary evil for good-for-nothings & riffraff, who are constantly in conflict with law & authorities, and also for the authorities here & there because it makes their tasks in criminal matters easier, but how many innocent people have to suffer as a result?’70 Thereupon, the Foreign Ministry informed the Swiss delegation in Paris, which in turn contacted the French authorities in Belfort. The Cottiers were finally expelled from France in autumn 1886 and were arrested at the border while crossing into Switzerland. Simultaneously, a resident of Harderwijk accused Wüthrich of illicit recruitment at the Swiss Federal Council. At least since the Cottier trial the Swiss authorities definitely knew that Wüthrich was an important part of the illicit recruitment network. However, as recruitment was not prohibited in the Netherlands, he could not be extradited. The authorities had no choice but to put him on the wanted list.71

In the summer of 1888, when Wüthrich allegedly wanted to visit his two sisters in Switzerland, the Bernese police finally arrested him. It seemed unlikely to them that Wüthrich solely intended to see his sisters. For one, he had recently visited other Swiss cities that were not on his itinerary. Furthermore, Wüthrich tried to hide some business cards from them, bearing the inscription ‘Hôtel et Restaurant Helvetia. F Wüthrich Harderwijk. Send travel money after sending in your certificate of origin and character reference’. He replied to the investigating judge that he had only made a detour via these cities out of ignorance of the Swiss railway network and that the cards had fallen into his trousers by accident. Overall, he denied being a recruiting agent and claimed that the accusations from Harderwijk were nothing more than slanderous rumours spread by his competitors.72

His excuses, however, no longer helped him; the circumstantial evidence was crushing. Furthermore, numerous witnesses incriminated him. Besides Johann Jakob Cottier, who revealed himself as Wüthrich’s subagent, Wüthrich was also burdened by three former Swiss mercenaries, as well as the landlady of a pension in Belfort. He was sentenced to one year in prison, but both he and the public prosecutor’s office lodged an appeal. Wüthrich pleaded for a lesser sentence and argued that for a long time he had been living in the Netherlands, where recruitment was not punishable. The appellate court replied to Wüthrich that this did not make him inculpable as he was a Swiss citizen, had lived in Switzerland previously and had maintained strong ties to his home country. In addition, he knew the Swiss laws well; after all, the Swiss legal authorities argued, this was precisely why he operated from abroad. His appeal was denied, and he was sent to prison.73 After his release in 1890 he returned to Harderwijk, where he died in 1899.74

A colonial state of violence and its demand for mercenaries

If one situates Wüthrich’s story exclusively in a European context – as I have done thus far in this article – his activities would seem rather harmless. One could easily be tempted to sympathise with this underdog from Switzerland, who for years fooled the authorities of several European states. However, there is another side to the story that also needs to be told. With his network, Wüthrich responded to the enormous Dutch demand for mercenaries. The Netherlands faced a paradoxical situation whereby, on the one hand, it was a small and vulnerable country in of Europe; while on the other, they had the second largest colonial empire.75 In order to maintain and extend their influence within its colonial sphere, the Netherlands installed ‘a state of violence’, as Henk Schulte Nordholt has termed it.76 Military violence – and the threat thereof – had been part and parcel of the Dutch colonial domination since the VOC took its first steps in the archipelago.77 While the VOC was less interested in territorial gains and confined its military control to a few strategic bases, the succeeding Dutch government expanded its influence in the archipelago through the course of the nineteenth century.78 Although the government in The Hague initially refrained from extending its military control to the outer islands of the archipelago after the gruelling Java War (1825–1830), a period of several wars and ‘expeditions’ followed from 1844 until 1914. Decisive for the unofficial change of policy were a combination of an increasing Dutch fear of other imperial powers as well as the colonial ambitions of local officials in the field who promoted a form of frontier imperialism.79

However, this colonial intrusion was never purely ‘Dutch’.80 From the very beginning of the Dutch expansion, the demographic resources of the Netherlands were too limited to raise a colonial army comprising solely of Dutch citizens.81 In the nineteenth century, the recruitment of Dutch citizens was further hampered by competition from the newly formed and far more popular Dutch National Army. Therefore, the Ministry of Colonies had to draw on the recruitment of non-Dutch European troops, primarily from Belgium, Germany, France and Switzerland. To recruit these mercenaries, a European network of Dutch ambassadors, official recruitment stations abroad and the support of illegal recruitment agents was necessary. Nonetheless, this network was not stable, as it was subject to the fluctuating demand of the Dutch empire and dependent on the initiative of individual players. In Brussels, for example, in the middle of the 1870s, the business with forged papers for potential KNIL soldiers flourished and in Germany, too, there were recruiters who operated illegally. Thanks to formal and informal connections, the Dutch Ministry of Colonies was able to expand its network into nearby countries. The KNIL managed to recruit about 72.000 non-Dutch European mercenaries (approximately 40 percent of the European contingent) from 1814–1909.82 Together with forces recruited among Africans and Dutch colonised subjects, this transnational army was thus able to promote the ruthless colonial expansion of the Dutch empire.83

Pencil drawing made by the Swiss mercenary Josef Arnold Egloff. Egloff joined the KNIL in 1889 and planned to return to Switzerland after six years. However, half a year before the end of his service he succumbed to the injuries he had suffered during the Lombok campaign in 1894. In several letters he reported to his family in Switzerland about his life in the barracks in Malang. He supplemented these reports with numerous pencil drawings, like the one displayed here. Starting in the middle and going up clockwise: the barracks and surroundings, company house, Egloff’s self-portrait in front of his bed, music hall, washing chamber for the face, washing chamber for the hands, canteen, buffet, name day party, field service, battalion school, battle with the enemy, music ensemble. © Privately owned by the Egloff family, Switzerland.

The estimated 7.600 Swiss mercenaries recruited from 1815–1914 fully participated in this violence, as individual testimonies corroborate. In 1859, for instance, a mercenary from the French-speaking part of Switzerland wrote to his parents about his participation in the Boni campaign on Celebes, present-day Sulawesi, that ‘there, it was a real butchery: we walked in blood and corpses up to our knees. […] As for me, I have already given you knowledge of this rage that carries me away like a furious tiger: everything in front of me falls under my blows.’ He went on to describe how they ‘hunted’ in nearby villages and burned everything down ‘without sparing anyone’.84 Wüthrich, too, took part in such ‘expeditions’ and in 1864, he was awarded the Order of Willem Knight 4th class as he had fought at the front line during the storming of a benteng (a small fortification) on Borneo.85 It is therefore obvious that both Wüthrich and the mercenaries contributed to this state of violence.


In this article, I have followed the global traces of Friedrich Wüthrich, who throughout his life tried to escape the fate of his impoverished parents, while not hesitating to cross both national and legal borders. In doing so, two salient points become apparent. First, for Wüthrich and other Swiss mercenaries coming from the lower strata, the Dutch empire served as a space of opportunities for decades. This was possible in particular because the structures of the international military labour market changed fundamentally in the second half of the nineteenth century. From the point of view of the mercenaries, Wüthrich offered unemployed or adventure-seeking Swiss men the knowledge and opportunity to emigrate and strive for financial advancement in the colonies. The colonial reality, however, disenchanted the expectations of the majority of them shortly after their arrival. The KNIL, on the other hand, welcomed Wüthrich’s supply since they depended on the influx of non-Dutch European soldiers. While the VOC was still primarily limited to securing strategic bases and carrying out expeditions, in the nineteenth century local officials in particular pursued a frontier imperialism that required the military support of the KNIL and led to the territorial penetration of the archipelago. Because of their limited demographic resources, the Dutch had to extend their search to a transnational European recruitment zone to meet the demand for European mercenaries.

Secondly, the threads of the Dutch empire also influenced areas such as Switzerland that did not possess any formal colonies. This influence went beyond the mere formation of cultural and scientific discourses for elitist circles. In its material and political dimensions it encompassed people from all social strata, from impoverished vagrants and their families to the Federal President. Moreover, on all administrative levels of government, from the municipality to the canton to the federal state, the Dutch demand for mercenaries caused tensions. Although liberal politicians wanted to ban foreign military service – especially because the activities of the Swiss mercenaries in Neapolitan and papal services tarnished the reputation of the federal state – a complete ban on supporting colonial regimes that rejected the values of freedom and self-determination remained short-lived. Consequently, only recruitment activities and their promotion remained prohibited. However, the application of this law was also contested. While the cantonal government of Bern intended to take vigorous action against the recruitment and sought the support of the federal government, the latter secretly warned the Dutch consul to exercise more caution. The matter was also dealt with differently at the local level. On the one hand, mercenary service required an enormous administrative effort, since in addition to the criminal investigations against recruiting agents there were numerous enquiries into the Swiss mercenaries themselves. On the other hand, a few local Swiss representatives endorsed the emigration of poor people to the Dutch empire in order to ease the financial burden they posed.

As this story demonstrates, the micro-historical approach can illuminate colonial entanglements and tensions across borders. Looking at the case of Friedrich Wüthrich, it becomes evident that the Dutch empire was not merely a national affair, but a European one – although the degree of participation of the actors involved varied.