Story: Swiss

Page 1. Swiss settlement

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First immigrants

The first Swiss known to have set foot in New Zealand was the artist John Webber, who accompanied James Cook on his third voyage in 1777. Webber was born in London raised and educated in his father’s home town, Berne.

A few more Swiss people had reached New Zealand by the 1850s, when several of them made land claims. Many of these early immigrants spoke French and Italian, but later arrivals were predominantly German-speaking. In the 1860s a number arrived in search of gold.

One gold seeker, Jakob Lauper, made New Zealand mountaineering history when he accompanied John H. Whitcombe on the first crossing of Whitcombe Pass in 1863. Lauper went back to Switzerland, but returned to New Zealand as a settler in the 1880s.

From the diary of Jakob Lauper

‘I walked fast, my thoughts recurring back to my native land. These mountains and glaciers reminded me of my young days, when oftentimes, light-hearted and free from care, I had wandered about in just such places.’ 1

Gold mining to dairy farming

Another Swiss who came looking for gold in the 1860s was Felix Hunger, who later worked as a blacksmith in Westport. Soon after being naturalised in 1870 he moved to Taranaki and acquired a farm near Normanby, becoming the first of many Swiss to settle in the province. In 1874 he went back to his birthplace in Switzerland and returned to New Zealand with 23 compatriots. In the 1880s Hunger persuaded two more groups of Swiss to emigrate to New Zealand.

The Swiss became an important group of dairy farmers in Taranaki. In 1916 nearly half of the 670 Swiss-born in New Zealand lived in that province. Later, the Auckland region became the most important centre of settlement. By the end of the 20th century there were far fewer Swiss in Taranaki than in Auckland.

Besides farmers and farm labourers, 19th-century Swiss settlers included innkeepers and tradesmen. A hairdresser, Jakob Meier, who arrived in Wellington in the 1880s, later counted the governor-general and prime minister among his clients. By 1886 there were 393 Swiss living in New Zealand. In the first half of the 20th century the number increased a little, but it remained low until after the Second World War.

Paul Emile Calamé, who followed his Swiss-born father into the family trade of watchmaking, arrived in New Zealand from Australia with his sister Edith, who was later a nurse, around 1910. Paul Emile served throughout the First World War and was awarded a Military Medal for gallantry on the Somme. After the war he ran a watchmaking and jewellers’ supplies business on Auckland’s Queen St for several decades.

High achievers

Swiss mountain guide Ulrich Kaufmann and hotelier Emil Boss were members of the party that made the first serious attempt to climb Aoraki Mt Cook, in 1882. The first solo ascent of the peak was made in 1895 by another Swiss guide, Mathias Zurbriggen. The ridge up which he climbed was named in his honour. In the 20th century a number of Swiss worked in New Zealand as alpine guides or ski instructors. Some stayed and settled.

Swiss identity in New Zealand

While most Swiss New Zealanders spoke English at home, some retained their Swiss German or French language. Those who settled after the Second World War integrated readily into their new homeland, although a few found their foreign accents a disadvantage. In 2013 just over 50% of Swiss New Zealanders spoke German.

For many Swiss in New Zealand, food became a focus of national identity, expressed through ownership of bakeries and delicatessens.

Many New Zealand Swiss belong to cultural clubs in Auckland, Hamilton, Taranaki, Wellington and Christchurch. Activities include playing alphorns and yodelling – the Swiss Kiwi Yodelling Group has performed in the Southern Alps and won prizes in Swiss competitions. Other activities include carnival bands, cowbell competitions, children's traditional dance, Swiss shooting and the celebration of Swiss National Day on 1 August.

  1. Jakob Lauper. Crossing the Whitcombe Pass. Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1960, p. 94. › Back
How to cite this page:

Helen Baumer, 'Swiss - Swiss settlement', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 July 2024)

Story by Helen Baumer, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Sep 2023 with assistance from Jordan Lahmar-Martins