Adventure, Concubinage and Extreme Violence: How ‹Natural› Orders Shaped the Lives of Swiss Colonial Mercenaries

Between 1848 and 1914, around 5,800 Swiss mercenaries served in the Dutch colonial army in the Dutch East Indies. This paper contends that the notion of a gendered ‹natural› social and racial hierarchy shaped their trajectories in manifold ways. First, many young men considered colonial service as an opportunity to satisfy their thirst for adventure and to prove themselves as brave men capable of fighting in colonial wars. Second, social, gendered and racial hierarchies enabled individual mercenaries to live with Indo-European or Asian concubines, mimicking a bourgeois model of marriage. Thanks to these cross-cultural relationships, numerous mercenaries were able to stage themselves as patriarchal heads of families for the first time ever. Finally, the understanding of a ‹natural› order shaped the mercenaries’ exercise of colonial violence. Colonial resistance always challenged Dutch colonial power. To break it, the colonial army repeatedly resorted to forms of extreme violence, legitimising its actions by pointing out that ‹civilised› warfare was not applicable against ‹uncivilised› and ‹savage› opponents.