Interview with Joris De Zutter


Joris De Zutter, the author

Joris DE ZUTTER of the City of Ghent has written a concise survey of the history of the Treaty of Ghent in 64 pages. He originally started with the idea that it could be a companion for a specific tour through the city where all the buildings would be visited which have played a role in this historical event. This bias could not be retained as these buildings were rather far apart and would ask a serious walking effort of the visitor. At the same time, the original leaflet format evolved to a small book, with articles that are not too long and pleasantly written and do include the tour map with which it originally started.For sale at the tourist city store and any bookstore (12€).

ISBN: 978 94 9161 408 8


I’d always be happy to sit in Maurice Maeterlinck’s desk-chair to do an interview – and then opposite Joris De Zutter, sitting in the Nobel prize winner’s scarlet armchair. That De Zutter can receive me in such splendid surroundings is a consequence of his work. He has his office in the Arnold Vanderhagen Museum in the Veldstraat, where the City of Ghent houses a number of its cultural officers.

The reason for the interview is, of course, his book – ‘The Treaty of Ghent 1814-2014’. De Sutter trained as a classicist; his education also included history, which he later made his career. His book  – of 64-pages – was originally intended to be a text to accompany a walking tour; such walks had become popular with the 1913 World Exhibition, and the Maeterlinck year.

De Zutter: “When I started, I realised just how widely spread out the historical locations are. So the idea grew of making a high-quality book, well illustrated, suitable for the general public. The result was that I needed to write even more. The production coordinator, too, was looking for a book rather than a pamphlet. And so it happened. But we didn’t forget the idea of a walk. At the back of the book, you find all the buildings that played a part”.

Have you seen the room where the signing took place, in the Sint Jan de Deo Institute near the Fratersplein? It’s looking very run-down.

De Zutter: “I saw it at the previous celebration 25 years ago. I can imagine that the owners don’t see it as a historical monument, but rather as a place of work – with the historical aspect coming in at second or third place”.

Have you also read the book by Gontran Van Severen?

De Zutter: “It’s dated, both for style and methodology. E.g. he goes into great detail about the friendly relationship between the American delegation and the Meulemeester family – the menu for every dinner is described in depth. It’s also very pro-American, to the extent that it loses objectivity. The English are the bad guys, the Americans the good ones! Of course, there are less English sources than American. This is mainly because the American delegation leader, Quincy Adams, had kept a detailed daily diary of everything that happened to him since the age of 15 years. I believe that there are 64 parts in existence”.

It’s a successful outcome that in 200 years there have hardly been any skirmishes at all on the very long border. Compare that with what’s happening now on a small island in Asia.

De Zutter: ‘Yes, that’s a success. However, it’s gone less well for the Native Americans, who had their own hopes but came away with empty hands. People made use of them, but when it was time for payback nobody wanted to know them”.

There were also blacks who transferred to the British side? Because of article 10, about the abolition of the slave trade?

De Zutter: “Article 10 is a declaration of intent. The slave trade had already been abolished, but not slavery itself. In fact, this was only accomplished at the end of the US civil war. The British had spread a rumour that blacks who fled to Canada would be freed immediately, but only three thousand did so. Later these Americans wanted to come back, and the Russian Tsar had to come in as an intermediary. The final result was that the British bought the black refugees for a lump sum”.

Were the Americans very impressed by Ghent as a city of luxury?

De Zutter: “The English had a wealth of very rich locations of course, but the Americans were impressed by Ghent’s many stately mansions – for example, the Hotel van Lovendeghem (now subdivided; part C&A, part Body Shop, previously Caron) and the Hotel d’Hane Steenhuyze. Even the White House couldn’t match the refinement, and the materials used”.