Small Swiss Colony: Migrated 150 Years Ago: How a Blacksmith from Grisons found his fortune in New Zealand

Small Swiss colony

He Immigrated 150 Years Ago: How The Blacksmith Grisons Find His Fortune in New Zealand


Dozens of Swiss moved to the other side of the world in the century before last. They answered the call of a mountain man from Graubünden who had already found happiness.

You swing comfortably across the landscape on a street in the Forbidden City on the other side of the world, see more cows than humans and suddenly discover a well-known Swiss name on a banner: ‘Calin’. The letter “ä” is lost, but it is still clear: here, in the west of the North Island of New Zealand, lives someone whose roots must be in Einsiedeln.

Not really surprising. The Swiss have inhabited the area around the Taranaki volcano, whose idyllic shape dominates the vast and green landscape, for nearly 150 years.

Often settled here are those who immigrated from Switzerland to New Zealand in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The fact that there is an impressive mountain that reminds immigrants of their homeland is perhaps only superficial.

He was the first Swiss to travel with James Cook

However, the story of the Swiss in New Zealand began earlier. In 1777 the painter John Webber accompanied the famous British explorer James Cook on his third voyage to the southern seas. The Swiss in London, the son of Berne immigrant, was assigned to take pictures of the expedition to the distant world and was the first Swiss to set foot on New Zealand. His works can still be admired today in various galleries, for example in London and Wellington.

John Weber is a British-Swiss painter

John Webber
British Swiss painter

It would take 80 years before more Swiss reached the other end of the world. The majority were Ticino and some were Graubünden. Joan Waldfogel, herself a Swiss daughter, follows this in her book “Swiss Settlers In New Zealand” (Peter Lang Verlagsgruppe). Their search for economic happiness – that is, gold – mostly led young men to Australia. When gold became more scarce there, they moved to New Zealand.

In search of gold

From the 1870s onwards, many farmers from Graubünden, and later also from central Switzerland, the cantons of Bern, Zurich, St. Gallen and Aargau, wanted to start a new life in New Zealand. Felix Hunger, a blacksmith from Safien Platz GR, played a crucial role, as Joan Waldfogel explains in an interview with this newspaper. “He rolled the ball to other Swiss farmers.”

Hunger, born in 1837, left Switzerland at the age of nineteen, partly due to the climate, for Australia. He later moved to New Zealand’s South Island, possibly in search of gold. At the beginning of the 1870s, he finally moved to the Taranaki area on the northern coast. It is an area where “serious workers can make ends meet,” he said in a letter.

In 1874, he returned home to find a wife and take her to New Zealand. But he had another goal: to convince as many enterprising Swiss as possible to travel with him to New Zealand. “We want guys who are knowledgeable about agriculture – and as many young women and girls as possible who can milk cows and make butter and cheese.” This is what a friend from New Zealand wrote to him. Because the New Zealand government supported and even encouraged the entry of Europeans into the young and underdeveloped country at the time.

Felix Hunger reports in his Graubunden neighborhood about the opportunities that could arise for New Zealand farmers. Many of them did not hesitate for long, plagued by economic misery, overpopulation and the slim chance that one day they would be able to take over a farm in their home. At least twenty people persuaded the hunger to leave old life behind, venture on a 100-day cruise and start over in New Zealand. “It was her dream one day to have her own farm with the land,” explains Joan Waldfogel.

Allies are not sworn by the Queen

Most of them were his relatives and settled near him. Taranaki became its new home. When several hundred other Swiss immigrated to New Zealand for similar reasons in the years and decades that followed, many were also drawn to the region, as “there was already a well-established Swiss community there that morally and actively supported the newcomers,” the author explains.

For many Swiss abroad, the dream of owning their own farm and a better life has become a reality; They were considered capable and reliable. In the late nineteenth century in New Zealand, they invented agriculture to clear the way. Felix Hunger helped set up the region’s first milk production facility.

Although most of them managed to build a good life in New Zealand, they did not just let the Swiss language drive them out. For example, Waldfogel records a scene in the book in which a Swiss wanted to naturalize, but ultimately failed to do so due to the required oath of loyalty to the British Queen.

He discovered this at the naturalization ceremony, and he explained, with other Swiss people, to the officials, who were confused about them, “We confederates do not want any relationship with any aristocracy. We have always fought it and we do not go back to those times.”

Matthias Simbach swing here

The area around Taranaki volcano is still a “Swiss nest” today. This is proven by the Wrestling Festival, which the Swiss club organizes once a year – in February – and is the cultural event for Swiss abroad in New Zealand. That way, the Swiss ambassador never misses the opportunity and personally tracks what is happening on the site. Along with Matthias Sempach, one of the top wrestlers took part in the event in 2013 – and later that same year he became the king of wrestling in Burgdorf.

Major Felix Hanger also ensured that the Swiss descendants preserve the traditions. He and Margaret, whom he met and married in Switzerland, had six children in their new home. Thanks to him and other immigrants, Swiss traditions as well as surnames are still present on the other side of the world, for example Gredig or Kuriger – and on a street in the no-man’s-land, Calen too, without a sign.

The Drivers of Migration Today: Less Love and Stress

In 1874, there were 183 Swiss living in New Zealand. In 1916, there were already 670 of them, and today more than 7,000 Swiss are overseas in the country by the Federal Statistical Office. These days they are no longer mainly drawn to the Taranaki region. Most of the Swiss now live in and around New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland, in the north of the North Island.

Unlike 150 years ago, economic difficulties are no longer the main reason why the Swiss want to emigrate. According to Joanne Waldfogel, who has written a book on the topic, the main causes nowadays are love and longing for a more free and comfortable life. (mst)

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