Colonies of Benevolence
The Colonies of Benevolence is a relict cultural landscape of isolated peat and heath wastelands that were colonized in the 19th century in a model for pauper relief.
The included components in the Netherlands are Frederiksoord-Wilhelminaoord and Veenhuizen. The first was a free colony (founded by The Society of Humanitarianism to help poor citizens), the latter an unfree colony (where people were sent by the State and had to live under a more strict regime). In Belgium, the Colonies of Benevolence comprises the 19th century agricultural pauper colony of Wortel.
Map of Colonies of BenevolenceLoad map
I was in Frederiksoord just two weeks ago. It's certainly not very spectacular to see, but I found the story behind it very interesting. I may be a bit biased because it's part of my own country's history. I do hope that being a WHC will create a broader awareness for this part of our history.
A new visitor centre opened here in 2019. It had to close just a few months later and just reopened now. It tells the story in a modern, audiovisual way. After that, while taking a walk, or better the tramride, through Frederiksoord/ Wilhelminaoord you really get a good feeling for the story. A volunteer on the tram, born here in the final days of the colony, talked about growing up here and told stories about her grant parents etc.
The visitor centre explains all in English, as do many signs in front of a number of buildings. On the tram, the story was told in Dutch, but there were no international visitors (mainly due to the covid situation, I guess). Perhaps, if visitor numbers and tramrides increase, this can/will be done in English as well.
The former Colonies of Benevolence will be on the agenda of the WHC 2020 meeting. This Dutch-Flemish serial transnational proposal had been referred in 2018 due to doubts about the selection of sites included. Subsequential discussions with ICOMOS and the World Heritage Centre, advising to “take a little more time” than usually after a Referral, has led to a reduction of the proposed locations from 7 to 3. On the Dutch side, Ommerschans and Willemsoord are omitted and Frederiksoord and Wilhelminaoord are combined. In Flanders Merksplas has been dropped, leaving only Wortel.
I had already visited the Dutch part (notably Veenhuizen) in 2011 and the Belgian part in 2016. With the full, amended nomination dossier now available I decided to have a closer look at the Frederiksoord-Wilhelminaoord component. It is also about the only (T)WHS related place which I have not reviewed before that I can reach at the moment – I am eagerly awaiting the lifting of the non-essential travel ban to Germany for example, for some more low hanging TWHS fruit.
I arrived early on a Sunday morning in Wilhelminaoord, where I parked my car to begin the 11km long “Monuments walk”. It nicely covers the Frederiksoord-Wilhelminaoord component and its main monuments. They are really prepared here for WH status and more international tourists: every building of some interest has an information panel in front of it. The panels give a comprehensive explanation of what you’re looking at, both in the Dutch and English language. Up until now, the area has only been popular with Dutch pensioners.
Frederiksoord-Wilhelminaoord was a so-called ‘free’ colony: poor city-dwellers were given a small farm and identical-sized plots of land. Communal buildings such as schools, churches and workshops were located centrally. Along the main road between the two towns, the Koningin Wilhelminalaan, many of the original small farm houses can still be seen. They often have been converted into cosy-looking family homes.
Wilhelminaoord has a well-preserved Colony Church. I was pleased to find it open – only 3 visitors were allowed in at the same time due to the Corona virus measures, but at this early hour there was noone anyway. The protestant church was built in 1851. Church attendance was mandatory in the Colonies, to promote moral standards among the poor. Furthermore, Wilhelminaoord has preserved a weaving mill, which offered alternative employment to colonists who could not do the hard agricultural labour anymore and also two homes for the elderly.
Frederiksoord was the town where the administrators of the Colonies lived. The lower-ranked among them lived in similar small houses in a row. The pretty mansion ‘Huis Westerbeek’ was used by the company director.
The Nomination Dossier frames the Colonies as a panoptic institution – the colonists were permanently observed and disciplined. Alcohol was forbidden for example, and to prevent them from going to the next town the colony had its own currency which wasn’t valid in the outside world. The ‘panoptic’ approach apparently is visible in the landscape as well: roads and supervisors’ buildings were strategically placed to keep an eye on everyone. What surprised me however how forested this area is. The walk goes via forest lanes for about a third of its route – which makes it a very pleasant walk but I don’t know how it fits into the story.
Read more from Els Slots here.
In March 2020 I visited the Belgian locations of this transnational tentative WHS nominated by Belgium and the Netherlands. From a visual point of view, what I experienced was a similar landscape of Beemster or the Par Force hunting landscape with a hint of the Belgian béguinages. The central focus of this tentative nomination is not religious though, it's agriculture.
Around 1818-1825, when Belgium and the Netherlands formed the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, Johannes van den Bosch put forward the idea of fighting poverty with agriculture which gave way to the construction of 7 agricultural colonies. There were so many paupers or vagrants at the beginning of the 19th century, that their size was that of sizeable hamlets or villages with their own chapel or church, pond, cemetery, housing and even their own mint.
The Merksplas colony, the last pauper colony built in 1825, was the only farm in the region to have more than 100 hectares of farm land. It also had a very large pigsty for as much as 95 pigs, which has recently been converted into a free informative visitor centre (top left photo). The various videos in Flemish with English subtitles were fundamental to help give context to the information I read in the nomination dossier. I parked my car for free at the parking lot near the huge church which has been converted in a prison museum. From Merksplas, I headed to my next destination, the Wortel colony built in 1822. On the way through tree lined avenues, I stopped by the Merksplas colony cemetery with several nameless white crosses.
After visiting the Merksplas cemetery, driving towards Wortel, keep your eyes peeled for a small brown sign pointing towards the Wortel colony which on my GPS seemed to be closer to Staakheuvel than modern Wortel. On the way to the colony, there are another four entrance signs (Ingang 1-4) and a white painted building with a green statue surrounded by a tall see-through black fence. I followed a car heading towards a small parking lot and followed an old chap inside what I thought was the Wortel colony visitor centre. When I was asked to hand over my personal belongings, to my surprise I found out that in fact I was visiting a fully functioning prisoners' facility! So I quickly headed back out, drove away from the parking lot and drove further on to another much bigger parking lot with a rusty metal sign of the Wortel colony like the one in Merksplas.
After a stroll around what is now the Casino Feast Hall (bottom right photo), I walked in the 'Klapekster' Nature point, which is a series of colony farmhouses, each with plots of farm land which once made up the free agricultural colony of Wortel. Poor families lived in these separate farmhouses which now house different farm animals. The most unique of these farm animals were the Konik or Polish primitive horses which I never saw before. Next I explored part of the mountain bike routes on foot. With the Natuurpunt behind me, I walked straight ahead and then turned on the left towards the Wortel colony cemetery (bottom left photo), which is similar to the one of the Merksplas colony. The only difference is that it has a brick gate and the white crosses have black wooden name tags on them.
The other 5 colonies in the Netherlands, are the ones in Fredriksoord and Willemsoord, the first ones founded in 1818-1820, Ommerschans (1819), Wilhelminaoord (1821-23) and Veenhuizen (1823). This tentative WHS which is up for inscription this year, is meant to celebrate 200 years of colony life, from when they were founded in the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815, to their use as colonies of benevolence in 1870 after the Belgian Independence in 1830 and after being sold in public auctions in 1846-1865, to the abolition of the law on vagrancy as late as in 1993, to the renovation projects after a protest in 2006 which have paved the way to the sites' nomination. Even though the OUV is not that tangible as very little remains inside the buildings, the layout and size of at least the Belgian agricultural pauper colonies is certainly impressive. That said, I'd be very surprised if this transnational nomination doesn't make it on the WH list.
Visited September 2017
If you’re looking for perfect photo opportunities, this is not the sites for you. It is just a countryside. But the value of this nomination lays in its history. I have visited 3 (Frederiksoord, Wilhelminaoord, Willemsoord) of 7 components, all not very far from Steenwijk, the town that can be reached from Amsterdam by train. I think the best way is to start in Frederiksoord (take the bus 19 from the Steenwijk train station) where a small museum is open. The museum itself is a bit disappointing, ‘cos they have only one small building with some expositions, mostly with pictures, but at least you can hear and watch an audio-visual presentation about Johannes van den Bosch and the beginning of the colonies. Another bad thing is that they do sell only Dutch publications and nothing in English. After visiting the museum I made a tour of the first colony – Frederiksoord; it is where everything started. Among others you can see here Westerbeek house, the headquarters of the Society of Benevolence from 1818 till now. (The building itself is older the Society, it was constructed in XVII century for Jean François van Westerbeek, the commander of the fortress in Steenwijk, and then it passed to the van Royen family (silk traders) before being sold to van Bosch.) The other interesting buildings are two schools: forestry and horticultural, Frederiksoord hotel (which was built before the Society’s guests started coming to visit the area) and de Bakkerij (now B&B); hotel and B&B are the only building you can enter, although nothing from the beginning of the colony remains. But in Frederiksoor the are still some oldest farmhouses, housing for officials, a canal and the road system. The most important attributes of Wilhelminaoord are the school for children from the colony (picture), the church with a priest house, a cemetery and a house for the old people. This colony is located just north of Frederiksoord and the road linking both is also included into the core zone. The third colony I visited is Willemsoord, 7 km from Wilhelminaoord, so you can hike or ride a bike. This one is the smallest of the three and the remains to see are less interesting: just some ditches, a farm and a Jewish cemetery.
All three colonies were so called free ones and it means that I have to come back to see at list one of the unfree in the future.
The nomination file can be downloaded from https://www.kolonienvanweldadigheid.eu/sites/default/files/CofB_I_NominationFile.pdf
Between 1815 and 1830, the current states of the Netherlands and Belgium were united for a short period in the ‘United Kingdom of the Netherlands’. They are now working on a joint nomination for 2018 to highlight a specific experiment of that era: the efforts of the so-called ‘Society of Benevolence’ to “improve the inhumane conditions suffered by many of the poor”. The Society established domestic colonies to reeducate paupers (tramps, orphans, down-at-heel families) by means of land reclamation and agricultural innovation.
The Dutch part of this nomination covers 6 separate locations in 3 clusters, all in the northeast of the country known at the time as the ‘Dutch Siberia’. I visited most of these already in 2011, when I did a whirlwind summer tour along the sites on the Dutch Tentative List. The best known of the colonies is Veenhuizen, a name tied to its large prison that can hold 1,000 inmates (nowadays filled for 25% with prisoners 'on loan' from Norway by the way). An impressive square former prison building holds the disappointing Prison Museum. Walking around town, the most remarkable sights are the edifying nameplates on the houses of the former guards. They hold slogans like "Order & Discipline" or "Work & Pray".
Last weekend I decided to visit the Belgian part of this nomination. It consists of two locations, Merksplas and Wortel, two villages just south of the Dutch-Belgian border. They’re not as remote as the Dutch sites, but driving along the cobblestoned access avenues does give you a feel that you’ll arrive somewhere special. Like Veenhuizen, Merksplas and Wortel still are known for their large and active prisons.
Beforehand I had downloaded a 11km long hiking route, aptly named "Escape Path", through Merksplas Colony. The trail starts at the former Vagrants Chapel, a recently renovated example of eclectic architecture. Roman-Catholicism was the only supported faith in this colony, in contrast to the north where there was 'freedom of religion'. I continued southwards, passing farm fields and following a soggy path through the adjoining forest. It was a very pleasant walk, the landscape reminding me of the area where I grew up in the east of the Netherlands. References to both World Wars are made along the way via a remembrance field of poppies and a memorial dedicated to a fallen British corporal.
After some nice small-talk with a passing shepherd, I ended up near where I had parked my car. I decided not to walk the northern loop of the trail, but to drive directly to the intriguing ‘vagabonds cemetery’. This consists of two open spaces in the forest, where 6,000 former residents were buried from the Colony Merksplas. They only received a simple cross with their number on their grave. Most of them are overgrown now.
The second Belgian location, Wortel, lies just 6 kilometers from Merksplas. The landscape is very similar: neat straight roads and farm fields, still in use. Only the buildings are painted white in Wortel. I found that there is less to see than in Merksplas.
This nomination has been in the making for years. The Belgians are still finishing the restoration of the large farm structures in Merksplas: they plan to be ready in Spring 2017, when the buildings will be transformed into a visitor & conference center.
So what will be the chance of success for the nomination? In 2015, the Dutch (who will lead the nomination) organized an ‘evaluation of experts’ to give their opinion on the draft dossier:
- They worried about the lack of evidence given of the material impact this colonization has had on nature, how to support the claim that this is a cultural landscape.
- Also, a more critical approach of this social experiment would be welcome in the dossier: in the end it was mostly a failure. And how would representatives of poorer countries react to this patronizing approach to eradicate poverty?
To elaborate on the second issue (and they did not foresee this in their evaluation): the former Dutch colony Indonesia will be one of the WHC members to judge. The man behind the Society of Benevolence, Johannes van den Bosch, later became Dutch Minister of Colonies where "he demanded increasingly high financial results from the colonies, often to the detriment of the interest of individual farmers and slaves." (wiki)
Life in the Dutch Pauper Colonies has been immortalized fairly recently in the popular family history Het pauperparadijs, a sad story about coercion, infectious diseases, taking children away from their parents and crop failures.
Read more from Els Slots here.
Revised proposal after Referral in 2018. From 5 to 3 locations in NL, dropping Ommerschans and Willemsoord. From 2 to 1 locations in Belgium, dropping Merksplas.
2018 Advisory Body overruled
ICOMOS advised Deferral, overturned by Brazil amendment
Transboundary with Belgium, after being on the Dutch T List since 2011
The site has 4 locations
The site has 6 connections
World Heritage Process
42 Community Members have visited.