Society of Humanitarianism

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Sources:, website of the UNESCO nominated colonies of benevolence, website of the Maatschappij van Weldadigheid (Benevolence Society)

Colonists in Willemsoord.

The Society of Humanitarianism (Maatschappij van Weldadigheid) was a Dutch private organization set up in 1818 by general Johannes van den Bosch to help poor families, mostly from the big cities, improve their lot in the aftermath of the Napoleonic French occupation by granting them farming land. He petitioned William I of the Netherlands for its formation and bought uncultivated land in Drenthe for the poor to exploit. The Estate 'Westerbeeksloot' in what is now Frederiksoord was the society's administrative center.

Free Colonies[edit]

The Society then built permanent colonies consisting of small colony houses with a little ground. Those houses were regularly spaced along straight roads. The colonies I and II were later transformed into the village Frederiksoord, the other colonies to the villages Wilhelminaoord and Boschoord (in Southwest Drenthe) and Willemsoord (in Northwest Overijssel). Here were about 1400 families collected in the period 1818-1911. To educate the population and safeguarding of bad influences, the Society founded its own schools and they implemented “'colony money”. That money did not exist long, but the schools did. In addition to elementary schools, the Society also founded vocational training schools which operated from 1829 to 1859 as the 'Institute for Agriculture' in Wateren and the “Gerard Adriaan van Swieten” horticultural and forestry school in Frederiksoord and the ”Gerard Adriaan van Swieten” Agricultural School in 1884 in Willemsoord.The foundation of these schools was made possible by a donation from the former major of cavalry, F.H. L.van Swieten. [3]. The horticultural school moved to Meppel in November 2005.

Trial Colony[edit]

Johannes van den Bosch went energetically to work. On August 25, 1818 - one week after the purchase of the property by the Estate Westerbeeksloot - he laid the foundation stone for the first settlers home. On October 29, 1818, the first families arrived in the colony, which was still a “trial colony”. A total of 52 families from all parts of the country "chosen" to participate in the experiment of Johannes van den Bosch. After four and a half years, there were still 42 families under the care of the Society of Humanitarianism. A large part of them lived there until their death Their adventures are described by Wil Schackmann in "De Proefkolonie"[2].

Renegade Colonies[edit]

Some, especially younger - ousted from the colony settled in the vicinity in hastily built sod huts and formed the so-called renegade-like colonies in near Nijensleek and Vledderveen (which originates from the renegate colonies), North or South Wolde-Marijenkampen (at Steenwijk) and Noordwolde. [5]

Poverty reduction in the 19th century[edit]

The Netherlands was severely depleted in the early nineteenth century, after the French domination. Many families lived in the cities and in the countryside in sorrowful situations. It has been the merit of Johannes van den Bosch, he recognized this problem and that he actually took steps to try to eradicate poverty. Eventually his project suffered depletion, because he always had to borrow to keep the Colonies in state money because of the disappointing yields. For the settlers, being placed in the so-called "free colonies" meant a great intervention in their lives. Many were from the big city 'transplanted' in an unfamiliar environment to them as the Drenthe countryside. Some managed to save well but others went back to the place of origin.The settler Peter Arends found that life in the colony was mirrored as being better than it really was. When he complained about this in a letter to his sister the director in charge of the colony (Benjamin van den Bosch, brother of John) got to hear about this and gave him in a big scolding from called him "a big stupid sloth. Eventually Arends was still able to become a free farmer in Ommerschans. [6]

Criticism of the colonies[edit]

The initiative of Johannesvan den Bosch received the strongest criticism from conservative Christian angle. In particular, the Reveil movement felt that man was not allowed to intervene God’s designated plan.[citation needed] Dirk van Hogendorp, pupil of Willem Bilderdijk, who visited the colonies with his friend Jacob van Lennep, felt that the Society of Humanitarianism, because it was not a religious organization, would not last long. Also Isaac da Costa and Ottho Gerhard Heldringstraat were fierce fighters of the ideas of Van den Bosch. In their view, the poor and needy were a natural part of society so that the rich and wealthy could show their mercy as a token of Christian charity.

Penal colonies[edit]

Veenhuizen (second institution), now a museum in Veenhuizen and Ommerschans penal colonies were established. Vagrants and beggars were locked up here and put to work. But settlers could also settle here. The punishment was for alcohol abuse, sexual abuse, waste, brutality or desertion. In 1859 the colonies were taken over by the Dutch state. In 1890 Ommerschans was closed.. Veenhuizen is now an ordinary prison.

From 1896 to 1901 the description sheet was introduced in Veenhuizen. The creator of this system was the Frenchman Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1917). He was of the opinion that on basis of accurate measurements, the identity of the individual could be recorded. On this simple theoretical principle Bertillon built a complicated identification method, in which body measurements were central. Because human individuals cannot be described in numbers only, additional descriptions on the description sheet were necessary.

Southern Netherlands[edit]

Following the Drenthe colonies there were also colonies developed with similar initiatives in the Southern Netherlands . In Wortel a free colony in 1822 and in Merplas an unfree colony was founded by Johannes van den Bosch. The colony in Wortel was completely demolished after the Belgian Revolution. This location was a tramp institution established in 1881, which still has limited service as such today. The colony of Merksplas is now a prison and a center for rejected asylum seekers.

Present Day[edit]

In the 20th century residential schools for "unsocials" were established in the major cities. The Society for Humanitarians was transformed into a foundation, which is responsible for the management of 1400 acres of cultured and forestry land, including a part of the National Park Drents-Friese Wold. In the museum “De Koloniehof” in Frederiksoord the Society shows what life in the colonies was like. There is a database with the names of persons who lived as settlers or as officers in the colonies or who worked there. In Veenhuizen the National Prison Museum is located in a former work institution at Oude Gracht 1.