The Colonies of Benevolence
A bold idea to provide for the poor
Johannes van den Bosch founded the Society of Benevolence in 1818 to offer the poor a better way of life in the Kingdom of the Netherlands (which at the time included Belgium). King Willem I supported his initiative, and seven colonies were built: Frederiksoord, Wilhelminaoord and Veenhuizen in the province of Drenthe, Ommerschans and Willemsoord in the province of Overijssel, and Wortel and Merksplas in Belgium. At their highest occupancy, more than 11,000 people lived in these colonies in the Netherlands in the mid-19th century.
The utopian idea of wiping out national poverty was in line with the thinking of the Enlightenment – still popular in Europe at the time. On the surface, it was a win-win for all. Struggling communities would enjoy a better life and unused land would be transformed into profitable agricultural areas. Housing, employment, and education would be provided by the state in return for labor.
The unfree colonies and economic decline
In theory, living in the colonies was voluntary and workers could return to the cities should they choose to. However, ‘unfree colonies’ were established when the return on investment was slower than anticipated. Crops failed on unfertile farmland and residents encountered difficulties returning to their former homes due to social stigma. To generate additional income, the Society of Benevolence signed contacts with the state to take in orphans and then beggars and vagrants – which were considered criminals at the time. The unfree colonies in Veenhuizen, Ommerschans and Merksplas were large-scale asylums, crowded with up to 2,000 people. The residents were forcibly employed to work the land under strict supervision.
Following demonstrations, Belgium’s independence from the Netherlands in 1830, and many state interventions, the Dutch unfree colonies became royal institutions in 1859. The free colonies expanded into forestry work and developed horticultural and agricultural education.
Visiting the colonies today
The colonies remain an important part of Dutch history and visiting them is a thought-provoking experience. In Frederiksoord, the first colony established in 1818, you can visit the immersive Museum De Proefkolonie, which is dedicated to life in the area. You can also take the Kolonie Express to explore the streets, schools and gardens while riding in electric vehicles.
In Wilhelminaoord, the original farms eventually gave way to large modern farms and the first elderly care homes were established. In fact, the colony of Willemsoord rapidly resembled a typical Dutch village after being sold in 1923. However, the virtual reality experience and Johannes van den Bosch audio tour offered by Eetcafe de Steen bring its history to life. There’s also a Jewish cemetery and many cycling and walking routes.
Learn about life on an unfree colony at Veenhuizen, where 124 national monuments are preserved. The National Prison Museum Veenhuizen offers insightful perspectives on crime and justice, while Brouwerij Maallust Veenhuizen is one of the colony’s former mills, now converted into a brewery. Spot the old staff houses decorated with motivational inscriptions, Arbeid is Zegen (Work is Blessing), Werken is Leven (Work is Life) and Werk en Bid (Work and Pray). Step back in time via the ‘Het Pauper Paradise’ audio tour, and look out for a performance of ‘Het Pauper Paradise’ the musical, returning in 2022.
Deepen the experience at Ommerschans, the first of the unfree colonies in which the original asylum was demolished. Take the ‘Old footprints in Ommerschans’ walking tour, where the open landscape contrasts with the fenced-off farm area, and visit the cemetery of anonymously buried former inhabitants.
Due to their remote locations, the colonies are typically bordered by tranquil nature reserves and National Parks, so don’t miss the opportunity to explore these lush landscapes.
Hedendaags belang van de koloniën
De ontwikkeling van de koloniën had veel invloed op het moderne sociale welzijnsbeleid in Nederland, waaronder verplichte scholing, verzorgingshuizen voor ouderen en zelfs ziektekostenverzekeringen. Er valt veel te leren van de Koloniën van Weldadigheid en hun streven naar meer gelijkheid in de maatschappij. Veel Nederlanders zijn nauw verbonden met de koloniën, want naar schatting heeft 1 op de 16 staatsburgers een of meerdere voorouders die in de koloniën woonden en werkten.