Colonies of Benevolence: an 18th century social reform experiment

Hello again, folks. Last week, I talked about all the World Heritage sites in northern Netherlands that celebrate the country’s long history of reclaiming land. Well, it’s more to these parts than water. There’s also colonies of benevolence. And a planetarium! (We’ll get back to that in a later post.)

Colonies of Benevolence: Frederiksoord

The first one is about a social reform experiment from the Age of Enlightenment.

Using some pretty cool multimedia effects, the museum in Frederiksoord tells the story of a benevolent military fellow from the heydey of Dutch power.

Let’s time travel

Back in the Golden Age (1588 – 1662), the Dutch Republic is an economic and military world power. But along comes the 18th century. Long wars take their toll on the economy, and decline sets in. Unemployment and inequality is on the rise. Naturally, the people revolt. I would, too. Even in times of scarcity, things need to be fair.

We’ve now reached the late 1700s, and you know what happens then. Revolution! Dissatisfied Dutch folks recruit French revolutionaries to overthrow the Dutch government. Those Frenchies have recent experience, after all. And hey presto – in 1810, the Netherlands becomes a part of France, now an empire. The emperor, one Napoleon Bonaparte, installs his brother Louis as King of Holland. Not for long, though. Good ole’ Nappy’s days are numbered, and when he is defeated in 1813, the Netherlands once again becomes independent, with its very own king, Willem I.

But hard times prevail. Work is hard to come by.

Unless you’re at the top notch of society, life in 19th century Netherlands is bleak.

A national crisis

In the museum, we see a film about the Netherlands in crisis. Years of French domination and war has eroded the economy. Everyone is affected by the lack of work, but none more so that the poor in the cities. Are you healthy and lucky enough to find work? Well, then your family can eat. Otherwise…

Houses are rotting and the canals have become open sewers. With that comes fatal epidemics. If you somehow manage to survive childhood, you’ll have to work as soon as you can walk. Education? Care for the elderly? Healthcare? Any kind of social safety net? Forget about it. 30% of the population depend on charity just to survive.

The country is in a terrible state!

Then along comes Johannes van den Bosch, a military man and plantation owner in the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia). He has been away from the Netherlands for 15 years, and now he cannot believe his eyes.

In the street, I am approached by countless unemployed, looking for a job or alms. They have no future, no prospect of a better life.

A chain reaction of misery

Just as we thought poverty, hunger and hopelessness was at its lowest point, Mother Nature deals another blow. In 1815, Tambora, a volcano in the Dutch East Indies, erupts. And with that, as we all know by now, comes ash clouds. And that isn’t something to be taken lightly. The ash clouds cause climate change. Years of extreme wet and cold weather ensue, which means the harvest fails again and again, causing food shortages, which again leads to astronomical prices for even the most basic of human sustenance.

‘Enough,’ says Johannes. ‘Something needs to be done. Now!’

Colonists in their own country

Now, Johannes doesn’t believe in giving without asking something in return. Just receiving, makes people lazy. People need to feel useful, he thinks. They need to earn their own keep, and not depend on charity. So he devises a plan. One that will give people the opportunity to take care of themselves.

In January 1818, he buys large plots of cheap land, consisting mostly of peat and heath, and establishes an agricultural colony here at Frederiksoord, where he settles impoverished families. They are guaranteed work, education and healthcare. And so the Society of Benevolence is born. Innovative thinking for its day.

All investments we make in clothing and homes, will be earned back in the fruits of land and labour. Through hard work, they will produce enough to provide for their own livelihood. So colonists will produce at least as much as they cost. In this way, hunger will belong to the past, and these families will develop into fully-fledged members of society.

A well-functioning landscape is created from what has been mostly wastelands, and the impoverished settlers becomes ‘morally reformed ideal citizens, adding to the nation’s wealth.’

‘Fully-fledged useful members of society.’ ‘Morally reformed ideal citizens’.

Does it make you uncomfortable, or angry even, just reading those words? It should! What a way to talk about people! Fortunately, we have evolved as a species (in some ways, at least). Today, we have the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, and other documents, making it abundantly clear that everyone – EVERYONE – are fully-fledged members of society.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

From Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

How did the settlers live?

Nearly 100,000 people lived in these colonies. After the introduction here in the museum, it’s time to see how they lived. For that, we need to take a little walk, crossing this pretty roundabout here:

Two buildings are open to the public: a typical colony house and a colony school. To enter, you buy an extra ticket for the outdoor museum (3 EUR in May 2024). You receive a 4-digit code to open the doors.

The colony house

There were 430 colony houses in this area; about 50 of them are preserved. This one is typical of the period. It consisted of a simple living area and a rear area used for threshing and to keep animals.

The colony school

In the opposite direction from the museum, is the old school here in Frederiksoord, the first one in the Colonies of Benevolence.

Spot the little sign in the photo on the right? Strafhok means penalty nook.

It reminds me of my pre-school days, when I had to spend just about every lunch in the penalty nook, because I refused to eat the food. (I was very picky). I quite enjoyed it, though, as I was allowed to read comic books in that nook. The Jetsons won over meatballs or vegetable soup any day.

Education in the Colonies of Benevolence was compulsory from the age of 6. The 6 – 13s had lessons in the morning; the older children had theirs in the afternoon (girls) and evening (boys).

I love this little classroom –

– and most of all, this 19th century world map.

Along the road, I walk past several other buildings: these stone cottages for civil servants, and this fabulous Art Nouveau house, the doctor’s residence.

A health insurance fund was set up for the colonists; each had to contribute one cent/week to the fund.

Colonies of Benevolence: Wilhelminaoord

Just 3 km from Frederiksoord is another of the colonies – Wilhelminaoord – where you’ll find a well-preserved protestant church from those colonial times. Attending church was compulsory for the colonists, in order to ‘raise their moral standards.’ Right up there with another law of the colonies: no alcohol!

I couldn’t go inside the church, as there was a funeral taking place.

In Wilhelminaoord, there is also a preserved weaving mill, for those that weren’t fit to work outdoors, as well as a few houses for elderly settlers.

World Heritage status

Seven Colonies of Benevolence were founded around the United Kingdom of the Netherlands – which at the time comprised both the Netherlands and Belgium. Four of the seven – three here in the Netherlands and one in Belgium –  have been found worthy of the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage listing.

Opening hours, entrance fees, and other practical information about Frederiksoord, can be found at the official site.


Colonies of Benevolence is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world.

Colonies of Benevolence: an 18th century social reform experiment is a post from Sophie’s World