The colonies are an important part of Drenthe history. The Netherlands was in a difficult situation after various wars. Many impoverished people were left to fend for themselves in the cities. This poverty was a thorn in the side of Johannes van den Bosch, who founded the Society of Humanitarianism in 1818. Poverty-stricken families, beggars and tramps could go and work in one of the Colonies of Benevolence. They were given their own homes and a section of land to cultivate. In exchange, they developed infertile land for agricultural use. A tough existence, with the colonists taught discipline through labour and education, so that they could eventually provide for themselves.
Experimental colonies and penal colonies
The Society of Humanitarianism established seven colonies in total. Two were for impoverished people who opted for life in a colony voluntarily. Beggars and vagrants were forcibly detained in the other five. The penal colonies were large, densely-populated institutions where residents were guarded day and night; they were effectively held captive.
Anyone who goes to Veenhuizen can tell immediately that something unique took place here. It looks different from anywhere else in Drenthe or the Netherlands. You see stately lanes, beautiful cottages and even a building reminiscent of Soestdijk (the royal residence situated in Baarn in the province of Utrecht). Many old staff quarters bear inscriptions such as Arbeid is Zegen (Work is a Blessing), Werken is Leven (Working is Living) and Werk en Bid (Work and Pray), texts aimed at getting vagrants and beggars on the right track. Veenhuizen has no fewer than 124 national monuments. This unique place is a must-see if you’re in Drenthe!
Frederiksoord laid the groundwork for the current Dutch welfare system. This is where the first colony cottages were built. Johannes van den Bosch’s social experiment was not as successful as he had hoped. The colonists never lost the stigma of having stayed in the colonies. Nevertheless, the Colonies of Benevolence served as the foundation for various laws and institutions that have greatly improved the lives of the poor.
Learn all about the rich and unique history of the Drenthe colonies in museum 'De Proefkolonie.