Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Treaty Watch: 1713-2013?

Anyone interested in marking the 300th anniversary, this week, of the Treaty of Utrecht?  So far, the lone voice in the desert has been Gregory Kennedy's.  Over at Active History, the Université de Moncton professor, who specializes in the history of colonial Acadia and the French Atlantic, makes an interesting case for the treaty getting its commemorative due.

Allegorie op de Vrede van Utrecht - Rastatt_Matteis
Allegory on the Peace of Utrecht-Rastatt, After Paolo de Matteis (1662-1728)
Oil on canvas.  Private collection, Hamburg
After eighteen months of negotiation, on 11 April 1713, diplomats from all over Europe concluded in the Dutch city of Utrecht a peace treaty which brought an end to the decade-long War of Spanish Succession.  This treaty had enormous consequences for the states involved, as well as for their overseas possessions.  To compensate for its war losses in the Old World, France was forced to make major concessions in the New.  The edges of New France were clipped, to the benefit of Great Britain. 

Hudson Bay's fur-rich drainage basin and lucrative trading posts, a theatre of war where the French had actually proved victorious, were relinquished.  France similarly abandoned its colonial claims to Newfoundland, though its fishermen would long retain certain access rights along the northern and western shores.  As usual, Acadia had shown  itself vulnerable, with its capital, Port Royal, falling in 1710 to a fleet launched from Boston.  By the terms agreed upon at Utrecht, Acadia was officially ceded to Britain.  Disputes relating to the boundaries of that territory allowed France to maintain a presence on its continental half (today's New Brunswick and northern Maine), but the Acadians, a majority of whom lived on its peninsular half (today's Nova Scotia), thereby became British subjects.  The Treaty of Utrecht was thus a prelude to the Acadian's expulsion, four decades later.  The loss of Acadia and Newfoundland was also crucial insofar as it ushered another momentous geopolitical development: the establishment of an outpost at Louisbourg, on Île Royale (Cape Breton Island), which would soon evolve into an imposing fortress and North America's fourth busiest port (after Boston, New York, and Philadelphia).

So who will be commemorating the Treaty of Utrecht?  Those of you who have guessed "not very many people" have guessed right!  On this side of the Atlantic, at least.  For back in the Old World, they are making quite a fuss about it.  The city of Utrecht, fourth largest in the Netherlands, is "celebrating" (their word) the treaty with a spectacular cultural programme.  To get a sense of the spirit in which Utrechters are commemorating the Vrede van Utrecht, have a look at this immensely amusing promotional video on Youtube.

In Utrecht a few cultural events have been leading up to the anniversary over the last few years, but the festivities will really begin on April 11th with concerts, theatre, and a grand fireworks display: a modern take on the celebrations which followed the signing of the treaty in 1713.  Among the offerings, the University of Utrecht will hold a series of three conferences, the second of which deals with "Colonial Legacy".  Legacies, that is, related to the Dutch colonial empire and the question of slavery: in 1713 the Dutch West Indies Company lost its asiento right, the right to export slaves into the Spanish colonies; 1863, another anniversary year, marked the abolition of slavery by the Dutch.  New France, understandably so but unfortunately for us New Francophiles, does not loom large in Utrechter minds.  Readers curious about the city's full commemorative offering can find its programme online.  Oh, to be young and in Utrecht in 2013!

Photo: Royal Dutch Mint.
To mark the occasion, the Netherlands' Royal Dutch Mint have launched three new coins, one gold, one silver and the other silver-plated.  The aim here is to pay tribute to not only the Treaty of Utrecht, but "to all peace which shapes the world".  Why not?  These coins have additional significance as they will be the last to bear the effigy of Queen Beatrix, who will abdicate later this month in favor of her eldest son.   I'm not a huge fan of the design, though, as it loses much of its clarity and eloquence in the scaling-down to coin size.

The Treaty of Utrecht will also be commemorated by a few communities on the Franco-Belgian border (Franco-Austrian until 1815, then Franco-Dutch until 1830), which in certain places has stood since 1713.  Chief among them is the town of Comines, which found itslef bisected between the two states but which over the centuries nevertheless managed to maintain a cordial cohesion in spite of the divide.  The Belgian paper L'Avenir has the story here, and the French La Voix du Nord here.

Not everyone's in such a celebratory mood about the boundaries established in by the Treaty of Utrecht, however.  Since it was on that occasion that Great Britain acquired Gibraltar, some are predicting that the 300th anniversary will result in a new round in the ongoing sovereignty dispute and a rise in tensions between Spain and the UK.  For more on that, see here and here.

I've yet to find a single word uttered in the Canadian or American media about the imminent anniversary...


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