From its inception in 1816 to around 1900 the Dutch Colonial Army (from 1830 onwards known as KNIL) recruited up to 50% of its European soldiers from outside the Netherlands. Non-Dutch troops came mostly from Germany, Belgium and Switzerland. These men kept ties to their countries of origin in many ways. They thus not only served as ‚Tools of Empire’ for the Dutch in Southeast Asia. They also sent back or brought back experiences, ideas, money, (ethnographical) objects or, sometimes, children from the Dutch colonies to the European hinterland. A research project at ETH Zürich examines Swiss mercenaries in the KNIL as agents of historical entanglements and asks how their (violent) encounters and experiences in Holländisch Ostindien affected and shaped European societies and cultures beyond the Netherlands. The project is still in its very early stages. The seminar will therefore provide an overview of the research design and offer some empirical examples. It might also raise the question how recent historiographical trends of ‚Globalizing’ and ‚Transnationalizing’ the histories of Empires, relates to current political debates about national responsibilities for violent colonial histories. If Empires were always transnational, should we understand their legacies not as national, but rather shared European responsibilities in the present?
Bernhard C. Schär is a lecturer and researcher at the Chair for Global History at ETH Zürich, as well as an associated member of the ‘Centre for the History of Knowledge’ at ETH and University of Zürich.