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The Colonies of Benevolence: a brief introduction

1815. Napoleon defeated. William I becomes king of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, the present-day Netherlands and Belgium. High unemployment and poverty are a major problem in the new country. In the cities and rural areas, there is widespread begging: in 1818, nearly one third of the population lives from charity. The treasury is empty, social order seems threatened.

1817. The creation of the Society of Benevolence is prepared. The driving force is Johannes van den Bosch, a general with a lot of experience in the Dutch East Indies. He wants to eradicate poverty in the Netherlands. Other promoters are high officials and the noble elite. Thousands of people across the country and in all the larger municipalities contribute, as does the Kingdom itself. The central idea is: we will pay for land and housing; the poor will work to provide for their own maintenance. In this way they cost the state nothing more. Better yet: eventually the poor would be able to repay their debt to the state, thanks to (agricultural) surpluses.

The Society will become a national experiment, with Prince Frederik as its patron. Previously, poverty was a matter of concern for local churches and governments.

'The purpose of the Society is mainly to improve the condition of the poor and lower classes by providing these people with work, maintenance and education, and to lift them from their state of corruption and educate them for a higher civilisation, enlightenment and industry.'

1818-1825. The Society of Benevolence founds seven agricultural colonies: five in the Netherlands and two in Belgium, where the Society has been active since 1822. It buys a total of approximately 80 square kilometres of land. The Colonies are located on the edge of the country, on cheap, uncultivated heathland. The intention is to develop the land and stimulate agriculture. This is to be accomplished by employing the impoverished urban proletariat and using new techniques. The first Colony is called Frederiksoord, after the patron of the Society.

There only seem to be pros: more domestic food supply, innovative farming techniques, less nuisance in the cities, poor people who instilled with discipline. They learn a trade and thanks to their own 'business' are responsible for their own maintenance.

Elevating people fits the Enlightenment idea of the makeability of man (and nature). The Dutch example receives a great deal of international attention. At that moment there are similar experiments elsewhere in Europe.

1819-1820. Each colony is different, but in all Colonies a new and similar landscape is soon created: with straight avenues, waterways and facilities (schools, churches, spinning mills ...), and with farmhouses in the free Colonies or asylums in the unfree Colonies.

The difference between free and unfree is quickly a major change of course. In the four free Colonies live families, in many cases with two children. In principle they choose to live there of their own accord and may also decide to return to 'normal' society. In the three unfree Colonies people are admitted under coercion. Penal colonists, beggars and vagrants must work the land collectively, under the direction of successful colonists. According to the law, beggars and vagrants are criminals. The first critical voices make themselves heard: Isn't this illegal? Don't so many problematic people amount to a financial risk? Orphans also reside in the 'healthy outdoor air' of the Colonies.

1830. On August 25, a liberal demonstration outside the Brussels Mint leads to a rebellion of the impoverished masses and the Brussels bourgeoisie against Dutch authority. The bourgeoisie from the southern Netherlands use the turmoil to put pressure on King William I. After his hesitant response, an administrative division between the northern and southern Netherlands is sought. On 4 October 1830, the Provisional Government declares the independence of Belgium. The Dutch monarch will only recognise it officially in 1839.

The free Colony Wortel and the unfree Colony Merksplas are still administered by the Society of Benevolence for the Southern Colonies for several years. The Belgian government has no interest in the colonies, which remain the property of the Dutch royal family.

Up to 1859. Soon, and certainly in the 1840s, it appears that the production and earnings model does not work well: the costs are higher than the proceeds. The supposed discipline leaves a lot to be desired and people have too little knowledge of agriculture. The new fertilizer does not work properly, the soil is soon exhausted and crop failure follows. The price of grain also collapses. Financial and social problems arise.

The experiment is instructive, but is certainly not an economic success. It has shaped tens of thousands of lives, for better or worse, and the landscape is dramatically and permanently altered. In 1859, the Dutch unfree Colonies become royal institutions.

The 1870s and after. The Belgian branch of the Society of Benevolence already went bankrupt in 1842. In 1870, the Belgian state purchases the Colony landholdings. They become agricultural Colonies of Benevolence found for individuals without resources: in Wortel, the elderly poor, the disabled, the unemployed ... and in Merksplas the so-called 'professional beggars'. The Colonies acquire a new guise. In the former Netherlands, the unfree Colonies Veenhuizen and Ommerschans become penal institutions for beggars. This is accompanied by extensive renovations by government architects: Metzelaar father and son in the Netherlands, and Victor Besme in Merksplas.

Second half of the 19th century until the 1920s. In the three former free colonies in Netherlands, the Society of Benevolence invests in new, larger-scale farms, and forestry has long been part of the programme. Schools for agriculture and horticulture are added, along with complexes for the care of the elderly.

In the 1920s, the Society begins with the sale of land and buildings to private individuals. It exists today, but has only a limited social function. It is primarily concerned with heritage.

The 1920s and after in Belgium. The Colonies first became a national charitable foundation, in particular for psychiatric patients, but after the Second World War vagrants and beggars were again admitted. From 1955 onwards, Wortel is an independent institution for them. Merksplas evolves into a penitentiary, with extensive adaptation and renovation works. The abolition of the law against vagrancy in 1993 spells the end of the two Colonies.  There are still penitentiaries in Wortel and Merkskplas, but the areas consist primarily of recreational landscape and agricultural land.

From the 1980s onwards. After a period of vacancy and decay, but also of new construction (prisons, social institutions, health care), a new era begins. Interest in the cultural landscape with its heritage value and the stories associated with it begins to grow. There are programmes to reclaim the landscapes and the buildings are restored.

2018. Exactly two hundred years after the creation of the first Colony, the seven Dutch and Belgian Colonies with their typical cultural landscape may become Unesco World Heritage sites.