Geneva's Early Double Standards On Colonialism

(MENAFN- Swissinfo) Following the example of several European cities, Geneva is also reviewing its historical links to colonialism. But a new exhibition shows that some of the most offensive expansionist behaviour came from humanitarian icons.

This content was published on May 23, 2024 - 09:02 9 minutes

Paula Dupraz-Dobias is an award-winning Geneva-based journalist covering environment, business, international organizations, humanitarian crises and Latin America.

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Often viewed as the global cradle for international humanitarian response and human rights values, Geneva's history is also linked to a darker side that helped promote inequality and racism. Many of the same figures central to laying the cornerstones of international Geneva also committed what are now recognised as human rights violations.

An exhibitionExternal link on Geneva's role in the European colonial enterprise lays bare this contradiction.
It shows how Geneva actively supported and financed Belgium's colonisation and crimes in Congo, among others, and questions motivations of the Red Cross's founders in the late 19th century.

“You have this Switzerland that's engaged in humanitarian aid and development assistance with the founding of the Red Cross movement yet at the same time is concerned about keeping its spot on the chessboard of global capitalist plundering,” Fabio Rossinelli, professor of Swiss colonial history at the University of Lausanne, said about a dichotomy of popular images of the Alpine country.

On the one hand, a country that identifies with an international ecosystem striving towards peace and humanitarianism, while, at the same time, it is the base for some of the biggest global firms accused of social and environmental abuses.

“It's the continuity of what was observed in the 19th century,” he told SWI swissinfo.

View of the exhibition“Memories: Geneva and the colonial world” that runs until January 2025 at the city's ethnological museum (MEG). KEYSTONE/© KEYSTONE / SALVATORE DI NOLFI Not whom you may expect

In an interview at the Musée d'Ethnographie de Genève (MEG), Rossinelli explained the role of the Red Cross movement's founders, Henry Dunant and Gustave Moynier in 19th century Africa as the scramble to define colonial strongholds was underway.“They were big 'colonisers',” he said.

While Switzerland, unlike many of its neighbours, did not have its own colonies, Dunant worked at the Geneva Trading Company of the Swiss Colonies of Sétif, a private company founded as a result of a French imperial concession in Algeria to create an agricultural settlers' colony that operated until 1956. Dunant later established his own business in Algeria where he subsequently settled.

Contemporary illustration of the founders of the International Committee of the Red Cross of 1863. KEYSTONE

Moynier, meanwhile, played a more critical role in the colonisation of the continent, as Rossinelli, a researcher for the exhibition, explained. As a member of the Geographical Society of Geneva, involved in the exploratory and colonial movement through missionary work, Moynier founded“L'Afrique explorée et civilisée”, (Africa explored and civilised), the only publication dedicated to the colonial universe available in French at the time and that ran from 1879 until 1894. It was distributed globally, including as far away as to missionaries in what is now Mozambique.

The review adopted a discourse developed in Europe at the time, aiming to promote Western civilisation and Christianity. Theories of racial superiority – validated by the technological advances and modernity that accompanied the Industrial Revolution – legitimised colonial violence.

A statue of King Leopold II in Brussels after it was smeared in June 2020. At least two petitions were launched to remove all statues in honour of the colonial-era monarch due to historical atrocities committed in his name in the former colony of Congo. KEYSTONE-EPA/Olivier Hoslet

Meanwhile, a European anti-slavery movement, developed after colonies in the Americas abolished the practice – the last country was Brazil, in 1888 – and expounded in Moynier's publication, promoted efforts to“liberate” and“civilise” people in Africa, where the“traite arabeExternal link” or Arab people-trafficking, was alleged to have prevailed.

“One could wonder why Geneva had adopted the anti-slavery, civilising, colonial discourse. Was it due to naivety or idealism? Probably in part,” Rossinelli said.“But there were political and economic issues at stake.”

After being snubbed by banks in Paris and London – rival colonial capitals to Belgium – King Leopold II of Belgium found Geneva's bankers willing to finance his expeditions into Congo. The king had declared the region his own personal possession, declaring it the Congo Free State in 1885. Lucky for Moynier, a respected jurist in Geneva, he had the support of both when he started his periodical.“It was thanks to the agreement with Leopold II that Moynier was able to launch the publication.”

And as Belgium drove further into the Congo Free State under the absolute rule of Leopold II, loans from Geneva enabled his exploitative labour policies to extract and export rubber from the Congo basin. Atrocities were committed, including mutilations of workers and assassinations of forcibly recruited locals pressed to achieve maximum output.

“All of Geneva's elites and Geneva's ruling circles who were part of the Geography Society supported Leopold's cause for the colonisation of Congo and financed him,” Rossinelli said.

As Leopold's ties to Switzerland strengthened, he later relied on those relations to request Bern's arbitration in international disputes with France and Portugal.

Between 1890 and 1904, Moynier acted as Leopold's consul general in Switzerland. The consulate and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) shared the same premises.

With the best intentions on display: participants of the 9th International Congress of Geography photographed in Geneva, July 1908. Paula Dupraz-Dobias/SWI Historical backdrop

A year before Leopold II set in place a colonial section at the 1897 International Exposition in Belgium presenting Congolese to the public as if in a zoo, the Swiss National Exhibition organised its own“Black village”, a live human display at an amusement park a few hundred metres from where the MEG now stands.

The“human zoo” fed into the imperialist narrative and racist stereotypes promoted by Moynier and Dunant.

Pascal Hufschmid, director of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum, congratulated the MEG for its work reconsidering the role of the Red Cross movement's founders.

“The problem with an icon [such as the Red Cross founding figures] is that it shines out the more difficult aspects of its personality or actions,” he told SWI swissinfo, noting that the role of museums was to ask simple questions about the individuals, which may lead to uncomfortable truths.

One such question, he said, is why was Dunant in Solferino, at the site of a brutal 1859 battle between French allied forces and Austria, and which became, through his writing, the inspiration for the Geneva Conventions.

“He was there for business interests related to the colonial system and that must not be hidden,” Hufschmid said. Instead,“it must be fully embraced, and it is a way of acknowledging that these founding figures of the movement were ambivalent. They were imperfect and had biases”.

Decorative calabash (Suriname, late 19th century), one of the objects showcased in the Geneva exhibition. Donated in 1905 by Pauline and Marie Micheli, widows respectively of Jean-Louis and his son Marc Micheli, both of whom were close to Geneva's Protestant elite and the Moravian missions; context of creation undocumented. ©MEG

ICRC historian Daniel Palmieri agreed, noting that the two founders had to be taken within the historical context.“They were men of their times”, he told SWI swissinfo, adding that in 19th-century Europe,“'civilisation' was not seen in a pejorative manner. For Dunant and Moynier, colonialism was a way to civilise the world”.

According to Palmieri, Moynier, who had never visited Africa, may have later become disappointed with what those“civilising” colonial ventures into Congo represented after newspaper reports on abuses committed began to appear in Europe.

“The question is why didn't he resign from his post as consul?” Palmieri wonders. He assumes it may have been an ego issue, as Moynier proudly received multiple awards for helping define international boundaries on the continent.

What next?

Recently, at the Red Cross Museum, a display of the Geneva Conventions was altered to include a question to visitors asking who belonged to humanity in 1864 when it was drafted.“If you don't acknowledge these huge pink elephants in the room, you are irrelevant,” Hufschmid said. “We have to be critical of the way we tell the story and make sure we give space to a multiplicity of voices in a very polyphonic way.”

At the MEG, director Carine Ayélé Durand said the goal of its latest exhibition is to prompt visitors to question Geneva's past“to respond to today's challenges and move into the future”.

Rossinelli, its historian, pointed out that part of the reflection considers the role that the private sector in Geneva and in Switzerland plays globally.“There has been a clear continuity since the 19th century as the new forms of the same power relations are now exercised by multinationals and banks.”

But Ayélé Durand stressed that the MEG show was there to provide a forum for the“descendants of the people who collected and the descendants of the people who were collected. It's not to get revenge, nor is it wokeism. It is not cancelling anything. It's just having the chance to talk about it.”

Edited by Virginie Mangin and Eduardo Simantob

Poster of the 1896 Swiss National Exposition advertising the 'Black village'. Paula Dupraz-Dobias/SWI

This story was updated on May 23 to correct the name of the Geneva Trading Company of the Swiss Colonies of Sétif.

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