Discover a forgotten Swiss colonial history. A photo-documentary project about Helvécia, a former Swiss and German colony founded in 1818 in Brazil.

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Erfolgreich abgeschlossen am 13.8.2022

HELVÉCIA : A Swiss Colonial History in Brazil

During a road trip in Brazil with the Brazilian journalist, Milena Machado Neves, I came across a sign on the side of the road written «Helvecia». Perplexed, I asked Milena what she knows about this place. She explained that it is a quilombo, a village that once served as a refuge for escaped or recently freed slaves. I learn from Milena that the Latin name Helvetia refers to a female allegorical figure who personifies the Swiss Confederation.

After six years of travel and research in Brazil and Switzerland, this historical case study illustrated with photography investigates the little-known history of Helvécia - a village founded in the early 19th century by a handful of Swiss and German settlers. With a concession ceded in 1818 by the Royal Government of Brazil, the settlers developed a colony that would quickly prosper with the work of a large enslaved labor force of African descent and the support of the Swiss Government. The colony became one of Brazil’s largest coffee exporters until slavery was abolished in 1888.

The book in development by Lars Müller Publishers will present the historical case study and associated photographs. This investigates how this colony operated and the way in which the descendants from enslaved people have since coped and developed resilience in a territory far from their motherland. It seems important to us that this subject is covered, both for the Swiss people and for the inhabitants of Helvécia, who for the most part have limited knowledge of their own history. Moreover, the fragile traces of the past are on the verge of disappearing. In the village, little is done to preserve history, both materially and educationally. In Switzerland, a few rare documents are kept in the Federal Archives, often falling to dust and in too poor condition to be digitized. We were lucky enough to photograph some of them which will be reproduced in the book. 

The goal is to publish the book on October 20, 2022 for the launch of an important monographic exhibition entirely dedicated to this subject in a major museum in Geneva.


  • Hardcover
  • 21.6 x 29.2 cm
  • About 208 pages
  • About 100 color photographs
  • About 15 reproductions of historical documents
  • About 10 testimonies of inhabitants
  • An edition in French
  • An English edition Text & Research by Christian Doninelli and Milena Machado Neves
  • Scientific essays by Shalini Randeria, Rohit Jain, Izabel Barros and Flávio dos Santos Gomes

The essays that will be included in the book, including one by the renowned social anthropologist Shalini Randeria, will encourage further reflection on slavery and colonial ties. Currently, information is regularly made public, even in Switzerland, a supposedly uninvolved country with no maritime outlet, that shows how ancient fortunes have a part of their origin in the organization of the slavery of African populations and form a basis for our current prosperity. We see critical reflection on our history as a prerequisite for a more just future.


We self-financed the production of the subject through 7 trips to Helvécia from December 2015 to January 2022, the essay of a renowned Brazilian historian and the first part graphic design work.

Together with the publisher we have raised 75% of the costs through public and private investments, as well as from the publishing house, our bigger sponsor. The book is ready, but we need your financial support to complete it.

In the last three years, we have approached many foundations and cultural services for this project, but with little positive feedback. It seems that in Switzerland this poorly documented subject still burns fingers! Therefore, as a last resort, we are asking for your support, from you, our audience, for whom this book is intended.

Here are our current sponsors :

  • Lars Müller Publishers
  • Ernst Göhner Foundation
  • Volkart Foundation
  • City of Lausanne
  • Canton of Vaud
  • Erna and Curt Burgauer
  • Maya Behn-Eschenburg Foundation
  • Blaser Trading AG

We need financial support to pay for the translation, proofreading, photolithography and printing, as well as the 10% cut of the wemakeit website. Without this final contribution, the publication of the book is compromised.

With your support, we will succeed in producing a quality book that will be able to stand the test of time with enriching visual and thematic content.

If the campaign exceeds the minimum financial goal to allow the book to be published, we will ultimately also be able to pay all the contributors for all the work that has been ongoing for over two years on a volunteer basis.