Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Helvetic Expedition and the Swiss in Colombia

Otto Fuhrmann and Eugene Mayor on expedition. 
In 1910, two Swiss scientists set off into what must to them have seemed one of the wildest and remote corners of the globe: the hinterland of Colombia.

From the expedition, sketches of a
Colombian fungus. 
The expedition lasted only five months, and the organisms the men studied - primarily fungus and other parasites - weren't particularly glamorous. But the expedition helped map out Colombia's tremendous biological diversity and created links between two very distand and different nations.

The Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango (BLAA) has an exhibition about the expedition as well as the Swiss presence in Colombia until the end of January.

'Voyage of Scientific Exploration in Colombia' by Fuhrmann and Mayor, published in 1914. Their trip also produced more than 30 scientific papers.
The two scientists, Otto Fuhrmann and Eugene Mayor, who hailed from the same university in the city of Neuchâtel, might have aborted their expedition before
they started when they discovered the ship they had boarded from Europe also carried 900 boxes of dynamite for Colombian gold mines. Fortunately, it was too late to abandon the ship, and the pair continued on to Colombia, where they landed at Barranquilla and proceeded up the Magdalen River and then proceeded on horse and mule back and by foot. Their work identified 1,279 species of plants and 647 animal species, more than 300 of which were new to science.
Scientist and expeditionist Eugene Mayor at work. 

Other prominent Swiss-Colombians include Ernst Röthlisberger, a history and philosophy professor who worked for the National University from 1881 to 1885 and would later write letters of recommendation for the expeditioners. If I understand correctly, Röthlisberger was the first person to climb one of the peaks of the Cocuy range.

But the first recorded Swiss citizen in what's now Colombia was the priest Jean Magnia, who came here in the 1720s on an evangelical mission.

The Colegio Helvetia, designed by
Swiss-Colombian architect
Viktor Schmid.
Probably the most famous Swiss-born person to play a role in Colombian history was the Swiss born architect Le Corbusier, altho he is more associated with France, where he lived and worked most of his life. Le Corbusier visited Bogotá in 1947 and drew up grand plans which would have meant flattening much of central Bogotá and replacing it with districts for residences, industry, recreation and others, but which fortunately were never carried out. Le Corbusier's ideas were incorporated into Ave. Caracas, which he envisioned as a shady, tree-lined avenue for families to stroll along. It hasn't turned out that way, altho the trees are still there. Rogelio Salmona, who emigrated from France to Colombia, where he became Colombia's most famous architect, studied with Le Corbusier after World War II.
Ernst Röthlisberger in old age. 

Another Swiss-Colombian architect was Viktor Schmid, who emigrated to Colombia in 1939 and settled in Bogotá, where he designed more than 100 buildings, including the Colegio Helvetia. Schmid is apparently the same Victor Smith, described in this El Tiempo article, who studied in Germany and fled the Nazis. Today, his son Urs is trying to preserve his father's works, many of which are falling into ruin.

Today, the 'Swiss community' in Colombia consists of more than 2,400 people, most of whom live in Bogotá. The Colegio Helvetia, which teaches in Spanish, French and German, is the world's largest Swiss high school outside of Switzerland, according to the BLAA's exhibition.

The La Candelaria building on Calle 11 in the
neighborhood of the same name, designed by Viktor Schmid.
"How small and montonous our own forests appear in relation to these immense, virgin jungles which cover the whole Magdalena Valley and which die at the river's edge!" Mayor and Fuhrman.

The Expedition might be almost forgotten today, but for the work of Alberto Gómez Gutiérrez, a graduate of the Colegio Helvetia, and Michel Schlup, a one-time teacher there, who located the Swiss expeditionaries' Memoires in a library in Neuchâtel and translated and published the work.

Inauguration of the clock in the Parque Nacional
donated by Bogotá's Swiss community in 1938.
The Swiss-donated clock in the Parque Nacional today.
Despite a restoration and repair in 1908, it doesn't work. 

In 1922, the Swiss helped Colombia and Venezuela resolve a border dispute. 
Ave. Caracas's design was inspired by Le Corbusier. But is isn't the pedestrian way which the Swiss-French architect envisioned.

The Swiss-Colombia Friendship Treaty, signed in 1908. In 2011, the two nations signed a free trade agreement. 
'The Golden On.' On the right, a long-ago view of the Plaza del Chorro de Quevedo.
Preserved fern leaves. 
A Swiss engineer designed both the funicular and
the cable car to Monserrate. 
A cable car climbs up toward Monserrate church.
Joseph Eberhard (which one is he?), who visited Colombia's indigenous people and collected plant samples and indigenous remedies for study back home. 
The route of Otto Fuhrmann and Eugene Mayor thru Colombia. 
On the road between Medellin and Igaguí.

In Antioquia. 
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


WINDSURF Colombia said...

Excellent and informative post. Thanks for the history lesson.

Miguel said...

Thanks windsurf. I learned quite a few things reading and writing about the Swiss in Colombia.

BTW, I added a few details today.