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Society of Benevolence
At the start of the 19th century, the Netherlands is in a sorry state. After years of French rule, the country now suffers terrible poverty. A third of households can barely make ends meet. Vagrants and beggars roam the streets. Hoping to eliminate poverty once and for all, general Johannes van den Bosch, together with a number of prominent Dutch politicians and scientists and under the patronage of Prince Frederik, decides to found the Society of Benevolence in 1818. His plan is to start Colonies where he hopes to offer the poor a better life and wants to 'reform' them into self-reliant citizens.
With the support of King William I, the Society of Benevolence purchases several plots of uncultivated lands in North-East Netherlands and what is today Kempen in Belgium. A total of seven Colonies are created, the largest of which in terms of area are in Drenthe. The Society selects impoverished families and beggars from all over the Netherlands to be housed in one of the free Colonies. For the housing of large groups of beggars and orphans, unfree Colonies are built in Veenhuizen, among other places. The target group beggars required more discipline to learn to work in agriculture and return to regular society.
Building a New Life
After arriving in the free Colony, the poor are assigned a cabin with a piece of land on which they can grow their own food. They are also provided with work clothing and given education. During the day they work the land. This is how the Society of Benevolence wanted to transform these poor into decent citizens who could provide for themselves, and turn a profit for the Soceity. The goal was that the colonists, after spending several years in the Colony, would return to their former hometowns to get a new start. Interest from both at home and abroad was high for this experimental 'reform' methodology.
In practice, the Society of Benevolence fails to achieve all its ideals. It has all the characteristics of an experiment. For instance, not until well into the 19th century is it legally established on what grounds someone may be sent to the Colonies. Because of disappointing returns, the Society of Benevolence is eventually forced to make changes to the project. From 1859, the Society limits itself to Frederiksoord, Wilhelminaoord, and Willemsoord in order to stave off bankruptcy. Veenhuizen and Ommerschans are from then on managed by the state, by the Ministry of the Interior.
From Cause of Embarrassment to Source of Inspiration
It is estimated about 100,000 people were 'reformed' in one of the seven Colonies. Approximately one million Dutch can trace their ancestry back to the Colony residents. The original embarrassment caused by that heritage has slowly changed into pride and openness about this part of our past. The historic novel 'Het Pauperparadijs' and the popular musical adaptation that followed have played an important role in this emancipation.
Two hundred years after its founding, the Society of Benevolence still exists. Today it aims to preserve and develop the material and immaterial heritage of Johannes van den Bosch. This way it continues to be a source of inspiration in the areas of housing, employment, education, and care.