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Experimenting with New Societies
The history of Drenthe was partly written by people from outside the province. They saw the sparsely populated and remote Drenthe as a testing ground for their progressive ideas. On areas of untamed land, they pioneered with new ways to run a society and use land. Anyone who is exploring Drenthe, will certainly encounter these 'new worlds'. For example, Drenthe is home to the Colonies of Benevolence, a large-scale social experiment for the development of poor urban dwellers with agriculture. It also has Peat Colonies, where peat bosses and peat labourers extracted turf from the land. These two new types of society led to a new type of landscape.
Colonies of Benevolence
When Napoleon suffers his final defeat at Waterloo in 1815, the Netherlands are finally free from French rule. The country is in a poor state with many families, beggars, and orphans living in poverty. In order to provide a chance at a better life for the countless dirt-poor people, general Johannes van den Bosch and several others create the Society of Benevolence.
The society purchased large plots of undeveloped land to create the 'Colonies of Benevolence'. The idea is to use these domestic Colonies to eradicate all poverty in the land. In order to realise this lofty ambition, Colonies with an area of over 80 km2 are created in the period 1818-1825. These landscapes often have a regular orthogonal pattern of green avenues, waterways, farm plots, large and smaller Colony Farms, and central facilities for religion, education, and healthcare. The seven Colonies of Benevolence are: Frederiksoord (1818), Wilhelminaoord (1821), Willemsoord (1820), Ommerschans (1819), Wortel (1822), Veenhuizen (1823), and Merksplas (1825).
A New Life on Untamed Land
From all over the Netherlands and Belgium, poor families, beggars, and orphans are sent to the Colonies of Benevolence in Drenthe, Overijssel, and Kempen in Belgium (then still part of the Kingdom of the United Netherlands) to start a new life there. When it comes to both the landscape and to these people's daily rhythms, there is a strong focus on order and regularity.
Three relatively free Colonies are founded in Drenthe and Overijssel, Frederiksoord, Wilhelminaoord, and Willemsoord. The colonists clear areas of previously uncultivated land (heath and bogs) and convert it to agricultural land that they then work as farm labourers. The money made from agriculture is used to maintain the colonies.
In order to accommodate large groups of beggars and orphaned children, a so-called unfree Colony is created in Veenhuizen. The Colonies of Benevolence were a large-scale social and agricultural experiment that received a lot of national and international attention at the time. The idea was that the residents who stayed there temporarily, would return to regular society after a few years with new-found education and discipline. In reality, life in the Colonies severely curtailed the autonomy and self-determination of the colonists.
New Villages and Residents
After 1850, peat extraction in Drenthe is happening at a large scale. New villages (link to peat colonies) form along newly constructed roads and canals. The villages are home to the labourers working in the turf industry in Drenthe, as well as farmers and turf boatmen. They form new communities where life is hard and there are major differences in social standing. The new villages are very different from the old angerdörfen (esdorpen and brinkdorpen in Dutch) in other areas of Drenthe. There people lived by ancient tradition of solidarity within the own community.