In the nineteenth century, Flemish nationalists scoured the history books in search of a national hero. For some reason they settled on Jacob van Artevelde (1290-1345), a wealthy textile merchant and politician who was more of less the dictator of Ghent for the last decades of his life.
He was quite popular at first because he managed to preserve the neutrality of Ghent and other Flemish cities and keep them out of the wars that were going on between France and England. Later he negotiated a treaty with England which supposedly saved the Flemish textile industry by allowing English wool to be imported to Ghent, where it was woven into cloth.
Later he fell out of favor with the local populace, who murdered him during a riot in 1345.
Jacob van Artevelde was more or less forgotten until 1841, when a patriotic author named Hippoliet Van Peene (1811-1864) made him the hero of a historical drama that was later turned into an opera with music by Jules Bovery.
This opera was evidently sung in French (something no Flemish nationalist would put up with today), because it was advertised as “Jacques van Artevelde: Grand-opéra national en cinq actes et six tableaux”, when it was performed in Bruxelles (Brussels) and Gand (Ghent) in 1846.
Both the play and the opera have long since been forgotten, but in 1849 the Flemish author Hendrik Conscience wrote a popular novel about Jacob van Artevelde.
In 1863 Pieter De Vigne’s heroic statue of him was installed in the middle of the Friday Market in Ghent, where it still stands today. In the statue he is pointing towards England, the country that made him popular at least temporarily.
I don’t know if I should admit this in public (especially since the American authorities might read it and not let me back into the country), but the most moving and emotional sight for me in Ghent was this Art-Deco building from the year 1899 called “Our House” (Ons Huis), which is clearly identified in golden letters as the home of the Socialist Trade Unions.
It turns out that this building was designed by the architect Ferdinand Dierckens, who later designed other Socialist buildings in Ghent and in New York. Today this building on the Friday Market is still used as the headquarters of the Socialist Party, the Socialist Health Insurance (Bond Moyson) and the Socialist Trade Unions.
They have even proudly retained, also in golden letters, the famous historic slogan from the Communist Manifesto of 1848: “Werklieden aller Landen verenigt U!” = “Workers of all countries, unite!”
This recalls the period in the nineteenth century when Ghent was a factory town with masses of exploited factory workers. In those days, Ghent was an important location for Socialist meetings where the various factions argued their positions and tried to agree on a united program.
Times have changed since then, and so has the Socialist Party, but it still exists and in some ways is stronger than ever. One of their members, Daniel Termont, was the mayor of Ghent from 2007 to 2018. Before going into politics, he was the secretary-treasurer of Bond Moyson, the Socialist Health Insurance, so he might have worked right here in this building.
My photos in this post are from 2012. I revised the text in 2019.
See more posts on Ghent, Belgium.