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Swiss

by  Helen Baumer

A Swiss man took part in the first crossing of Whitcombe Pass from Canterbury to Westland. Another energetic immigrant founded a dairy farming settlement in Taranaki. A third pioneered deer farming. This mix of individualism and love of the land characterised many Swiss settlers. Today’s Swiss community continues to honour the customs of its alpine homeland.


Swiss settlement

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.

Footnotes
    • Jakob Lauper. Crossing the Whitcombe Pass. Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1960, p. 94. › Back

Contributions to New Zealand life

Farming

Following the early Swiss influence on dairy farming in Taranaki, a later arrival helped establish deer farming. Hans Fitzi came to New Zealand in 1952 and set up a successful architectural and building firm. He was also a keen hunter and in 1970 started one of the country’s first deer farms at South Head, Kaipara Harbour. He helped to form the Deer Farmers’ Association and to persuade the government that deer farming could earn overseas income. Subsequently he exported deer products to Germany, Switzerland, the United States, Japan and Australia.

Cuisine

In the culinary field Swiss established bakeries, restaurants and delicatessens. In 1978 Daniel Pasche opened Chez Daniel in Mt Eden, one of several restaurants that helped New Zealanders become familiar with a range of dishes and foodstuffs such as capsicums and courgettes, which were little known in the country before then. Roman Priore’s Swiss Deli began making the Swiss sausages cervelat, wienerli and bratwurst in Auckland in 1982.

Other walks of life

Specialised industries set up by Swiss immigrants include a dental laboratory, Prosthetic Processes, established in 1979. It was one of the first laboratories in New Zealand to offer crowns and bridges as an alternative to dentures.

Swiss settlers have also included academics, musicians and writers. Henry Suter produced a definitive work on New Zealand molluscs in 1913. Peter Oettli arrived as a teenager in 1956 and rose to the position of professor of German literature at the University of Waikato. The writer Iris Galey, who lived in New Zealand for 18 years, confronted the taboo subject of incest in her 1983 international bestseller, I couldn’t cry when daddy died.


Facts and figures

Country of birth

The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in Switzerland.

  • 1874 census: 183
  • 1901 census: 333
  • 1951 census: 678
  • 1976 census: 1,803 (including Liechtenstein)
  • 2001 census: 2,763
  • 2006 census: 3,012
  • 2013 census: 3,066
  • 2018 census: 3,291

Ethnic identity

In the 2006, 2013 and 2018 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who named more than one group.

  • Swiss: 2,316 (2006); 2,388 (2013); 2,649 (2018)

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources


How to cite this page: Helen Baumer, 'Swiss', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/swiss/print (accessed 22 July 2024)

Story by Helen Baumer, published 8 February 2005, updated 1 September 2023