The first Swiss known to have set foot in New Zealand was the artist John Webber, who accompanied Captain Cook on his third voyage in 1777. Webber was born in London, but was raised and educated in his father’s home town of Berne.
A few more Swiss people had reached New Zealand by the 1850s. The names of several are recorded as land claimants in that decade. Many 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. Though Lauper went back to Switzerland, he 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 who came looking for gold in the 1860s was Felix Hunger. He later worked as a blacksmith in Westport. Soon after becoming naturalised in 1870 he moved to Taranaki and acquired a farm, becoming the first of many Swiss to settle there. In 1874 he returned to Switzerland and came back to New Zealand with more than 20 compatriots. Again in the 1880s he persuaded more Swiss to come.
The Swiss became an important dairy farming group in Taranaki. In 1916 nearly half of the 670 Swiss-born living in New Zealand were 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, the earlier heartland of their settlement, than in Auckland.
Besides farmers and farm labourers, 19th-century settlers were innkeepers, tradesmen and watchmakers. A hairdresser, Jakob Meier, who arrived in Wellington in the 1880s, 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 of settlers increased a little, but remained low until after the Second World War.
Swiss guide Ulrich Kaufmann and hotelier Emil Boss were members of the party that made the first serious attempt to climb Mt Cook, in 1882. The first solo ascent of Mt Cook was made in 1895 by a Swiss mountain guide, Mathias Zurbriggen. The ridge 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.