Gesellschaft von Näher & Grob, undatiert. Sammlung Heimatschutzzentrum Zürich.

The Sumatra-Swiss

Switzerland is one of the world’s most innovative, globalised and cosmopolitan countries. The image of an island in the middle of Europe or the European Union is untrue today or yesterday. However, it is a monetary, democratic and social oasis in various ways.

For centuries, Switzerland and its entrepreneurs have provided services, exporting, importing and producing between the world and European metropolises with raw materials, knowledge, services, capital and labour.


It is no coincidence that the Dutch multinational DSM (De Staats Mijnen) continues to operate with the much smaller Swiss company Firmenich as the Swiss company DSM- Firmenich. In 1907, the Dutch petroleum company B.P.M. (Bataafse Petroleum Maatschappij), the later Shell multinational, employed many Swiss geologists, surveyors, engineers, and chemists.

Switzerland was involved in trade relations and business during colonialism even without colonies (except in Algeria (Swiss Spectator 19 October 2021, The only and first Swiss colony). Not only in Asia but also in Africa and South America (in Surinam, for example, the DuPeyrou family from Neuchâtel is worth mentioning).

Since the 17th century, the Swiss have travelled overseas as mercenaries in colonial armies, employed in international (trading) companies, or worked as merchants, missionaries, or consultants.

The Dutch East-Indies

When the Netherlands opened up territory in Sumatra to foreign investors (the former Dutch East-ndies, Indonesia since December 1949) in 1870, the Swiss were the first to take advantage of the opportunity.

In the next seventy years, until the Second World War, between 500-700 Swiss and their families worked on the plantations in Sumatra as estate owners, plantation managers or assistants. The plantation owners cultivated tobacco, coffee, tea and palm oil.

Thousands of contract workers worked under precarious conditions on the plantations, clearing the forest and constructing roads or as security guards. The region’s sultans were absolute rulers in the small sultanates and ruled over the population, often more cruelly than the plantation owners.

Patumbah lies in Sumatra

The exhibition “Patumbah lies in Sumatra” at the Swiss Heritage Centre (Heimatschutzzentrum) in Zurich is devoted to this history, using the (life) stories of several families.

Carl F. Grob and Hermann Näher first worked on Albert Breker’s Helvetia plantation in 1869, one of the first plantations in the region of the Sultanate of Deli in East Sumatra. In 1871, they leased the Sultan of Serdang land and opened a plantation.

They expanded and eventually managed six plantations in the following years, including the Patumbah plantation. With its four thousand employees (or coolies), the firm of Näher & Grob was one of the most important in Sumatra. Grob returned to Zurich in 1879 and built the Villa Patumbah in 1885.

Karl Krüsi from Appenzell travelled to Sumatra in 1873 and opened his plantation in 1881. In 1893 he returned to Switzerland and bought a Villa Sumatra villa in Zurich. Zurich has a Sumatra street named after this villa.

Zurich, Villa Patumbah. Photo TES

These “ex-pats” were also skilled and talented entrepreneurs, not just (called anachronistically) exploiters. Krüsi later wrote in his biography: “from early morning to late at night, I worked as a pack mule, but I also saw that the harvest developed more splendidly from day to day”.

Ferdinand Tritschler, a native of Zurich, lived in Sumatra from 1881 to 1892. He married Lina Beck in 1889. Their letters give a good insight into the life of Europeans and women in particular, of whom there were only a few in Sumatra until 1900.

The brothers Fritz and Carl Alphons Meyer are two other Sumatran-Swiss. They were among the tobacco pioneers in Sumatra. After their return, they bought and lived in a villa in Zurich.


In 1886, the Swiss in East-Sumatra founded the “Schweizer Verein Deli-Sumatra“. The association existed for 50 years and peaked in 1920 with 150 members.
The letters, photo albums, diaries, archives and this association are essential testimonies of the colonial past of Swiss citizens.

The exhibition illustrates this history without moralising. But Swiss people have also shaped colonialism and profited from it. This awareness is part of the current post-colonial discourse in Switzerland.

Source and further information:; Heimatschutzzentrum, Patumbah liegt auf Sumatra, Zürich,2022).