Hawaii Guide

Swiss in Early Hawaii

By Niklaus R. Schweizer

The Swiss presence in Hawai'i turns out to be quite noteworthy, for the first Swiss arrived with Captain James Cook. When the great explorer sighted 0'ahu and Kaua'i on January 18, 1778, and landed at Waimea, Kaua'i, on January 20, he had with him Johann Waber (John Weber) of Beme. Waber was not just an ordinary sailor, but rather served as the official draftsman and painter of the expedition, a position o the utmost importance in those days before photography. It was he who introduced the Hawaiian islands pictorially to the world, and his many drawings and paintings are still admired today. Since Weber was a most meticulous artist and given to detail, modem scientists and scholars can still learn a good deal from his representations of pre-contact Hawai'i.

The next Swiss to appear in Hawai'i was Johann Kaspar Homer of Zurich, astronomer for Adam Ivan von Krusenstem, who led the first Russian circumnavigafion of the globe in the years 1803-1806 and arrived in Honolulu in 1804. Then came Isaac Iselin, the first Swiss businessman and one of the early traders in Hawaiian history.

The next visitor was undoubtedly the most colorful Swiss ever to set foot upon these shores. Johann August Sutter arrived in December 1838. In Hawai'i he passed himself off as former captain of the Swiss guard, the elite unit of the restored Bourbon kings. Actually he had never seen military service anywhere, but his commanding physique and martial bearing were impressive enough. According to Sutter at least, King Kamehameha III offered him the command of his armed forces which he did not accept.

He obtained the Hawaiian government's permission to take eight Hawaiians to California, a land which, with a few hundred Spaniards and several thousand Indians, was wide open for speculative endeavors. Sutter's small party reached San Francisco Bay and rowed up the Sacramento River unfit an inviting location was found to establish a settlement. There his Polynesians set to work and erected two huts with thatched roofs Hawaiian-style. Thus began proud Fort Sutter, which in turn developed into Sacramento, capital of the state of California. Sutter called his vast domains "New Helvetia". The Swiss coat of arms can still be seen engraved on a rock in the courtyard of the fort.

In the middle of the 19th century another artist arrived from Switzeriand, Paul Emmert. He distinguished himself by drawing a panorama of Honolulu which today is invaluable, since it provides us with an insight into the ways of things at that time. Panoramas, mostly of the Alps, were in vogue in Switzerland as the result of the beginnings of tourism and Emmert evidently thought that Honolulu merited a panorama as well. The careful observer detects in Emmert's panorama manifestations of the many forces which shaped the history of Hawai'i.

In addition to the panorama, Emmert contributed also the first large reproduction of the Hawaiian coat of arms in color. The crest had been designed with care in 1842 by the Heralds' College in London upon the request of High Chief Timothy Ha'alilio and William Richards, who had been tent by Kamehameha III to Europe for this purpose and to obtain a guarantee of Hawai'i's sovereignty from England and France.

The coat of arms was drawn up on the basis of artifacts brought to England by the Cook expedition. Emmert painted the coat of arms on wood in splendid colors and thus added to the dignity of this small but unique Central Pacific kingdom.

Decades later a refined Swiss lady contributed to the physical and spiritual comforts of a deposed queen. Miss Blau, whose family like the family of Johann Weber belonged to the patriciate of Beme, served Queen Lili'uokalani as companion and lady-in-waiting at Washington Place. Weber and Miss Blau, as it were, stand in the beginning and at the end of what with some propriety may be called "Old Hawai'i", an epoch marked by the arrival of Cook on one hand and the passing of the monarchy on the other.

Today the Swiss look with aloha at those who preceded them in these beautiful islands and they are confident that in the future they will be able to contribute in their own way to the well-being of this fair land.

Reprinted from Paradise News

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