Treasures of the North 2
Colonies of Hell
‘Our foundations will not tolerate lack’, a passionate Johannes van den Bosch says in the promotional video that can be found on the Museum de Proefkolonie. ‘No one here is lacking food and other necessities.’
The next scene shows a poor-looking family on a wooden cart, slowly traversing the empty countryside. ‘Are we there yet?’ whines a child. ‘Almost, darling!’ says a smiling mother.
The Colonies of Benevolence
There were seven Colonies of Benevolence. Five in Drenthe: Frederiksoord, Veenhuizen, Wilhelminaoord, Willemsoord, and Ommerschans. The other two were abroad, in Belgium: Wortel and Merksplas.
‘Paupers’ were sent to these colonies for re-education. They were supposedly given housing and taught how to till the land so they’d ultimately learn to take care of themselves. In Frederiksoord and Wilhelminaoord, people were in fact given their own plot of land. But in Veenhuizen, orphans, beggars, and vagrants were put into large barracks.The villages still look like small open-air museums: the small farmhouses, the administrative and supervisor buildings. Frederiksoord is home to Museum De Proefkolonie. There are also walking and cycling routes in the area. In Veenhuizen, the Gevangenismuseum is housed in one of the mental institutions. You can take tours that last several days, or stay in one of the buildings that the doctors or supervisors used to live in.
It’s clear that this family is on its way to a better life. Away from the devastating poverty plaguing large parts of the Netherlands at the start of the nineteenth century. It was all thanks to the visionary project dreamed up by Johannes van den Bosch, later governor-general of the Dutch East Indies and Minister of Colonies, in order to make the work a better place: ‘free’ colonies where these paupers would receive food and shelter, where they could till the land and ultimately make their own living.
However, for many people, life in these colonies turned out to be hell on earth. Not only did the project cost millions in government and private funds, but thousands of orphans died while it was up and running. UG historian Richard Paping says there’s no way that Van den Bosch didn’t know about this. ‘Yet he’s still considered a hero.’
Economic and social historians Richard Paping and Vincent Tassenaar extensively studied the Colonies, which were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2021 Tassenaar focused his studies on how tall the ‘colonists’ were, since this serves as an indication of their welfare. Paping is focused more on demographic aspects such as life expectancy. Both their studies have led to interesting insights.
Van den Bosch wanted strong people, but in reality they were men who couldn’t work
The Colonies were founded at the start of the nineteenth century, when the French occupation had dealt a harsh blow to the once prosperous Netherlands. Trade had collapsed and the country shifted its economical focus to agriculture. ‘What’s emblematic of the Netherlands these days? Flowers, wooden shoes, and windmills! We went from a rich Amsterdam to a kind of small-town, agrarian society’, says Paping.
At the same time, poverty in the cities became increasingly prevalent. Everything became more expensive and people had to start begging for money. Then, in 1818, Van den Bosch had an idea: couldn’t these paupers be put to work in the uncultivated fields of Drenthe? This would not only lead to more farmland, but they’d also learn to take care of themselves. ‘Upwards social mobility’, says Paping. ‘That was the project’s goal.’
Vagrants and orphans
Van den Bosch, who would later force the Indonesian people to use 20 percent of their farmland for export products such as coffee, tea, and indigo, and his plan were hailed as visionary. He raised funds with wealthy people, was supported by king Willem I, and received a large grant from the government.
Just a few months after first presenting his idea, he laid the first brick in Frederiksoord, where they were building fifty-two little farmhouses. Veenhuizen followed in 1823: a colony consisting not of farmhouses, but of three giant barracks for the single poor: vagrants and orphans.
Things went particularly wrong here, says Paping. Most poor people didn’t even want to move to Drenthe. When the poor councils decided to force them, most of the ‘chosen ones’ turned out to be highly unsuitable for the hard work. ‘In his plans, Van den Bosch was thinking of strong people, but in reality, he got families of which the father couldn’t work, or widows who couldn’t make ends meet because women were so underpaid.’
Once in Drenthe, these people immediately got into debts, because they needed to borrow money to buy clothes or tools. However, they rarely made enough money to pay back their debts. ‘They didn’t learn anything, either; they were just doing stupid farm work in Drenthe. Outside of the Colony, this was a completely useless skill, so there was none of that upward mobility he’d dreamed of.’
High death rate
Even though the children were sent to school, education was limited and not much better than what they would have got in the cities. And it wasn’t like they would have starved otherwise. ‘Even in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Netherlands took pretty good care of its poor.’
They didn’t learn anything, either; they were just doing stupid farm work in Drenthe
Nevertheless, entire orphanages were plundered in an effort to fill the barracks in Veenhuizen, usually with terrible results. ‘The chances of a child dying if it was sent to Veenhuizen was five to ten times higher than any other place in the Netherlands.’
Under ‘normal’ circumstances at the time, babies and small children were mainly at risk of dying. If you made it through early childhood, Paping says, you’d usually be fine. Between the ages of five and nineteen, people only had a 0.5 to 1 percent chance of dying. But some years, the death rate in Veenhuizen was up to 10 percent.
The first few weeks after a child had arrived were the most dangerous. ‘One of the reasons for that was chronic malnutrition’, says Paping. ‘Normally, bread is made from grains, except they’re pretty expensive. But you can also make bread out of potatoes, which are much cheaper. Unfortunately, potato bread only has something like half the calories of proper bread.’
Another danger was the dramatic lack of supervision of the children. ‘They had dormitories with 160 children and just two supervisors’, says Paping. ‘New kids who didn’t know how everything worked yet often had their food stolen by the older and more experienced kids.’
It says right here how many people died, in black and white
The malnutrition meant kids were more susceptible to disease. ‘People rarely die from lack of food’, Paping explains. ‘It’s really difficult to die only from hunger.’
Van den Bosch must have known about all this going on. After all, some of Paping’s numbers are based on the Colonies’ annual reports. ‘It says right there how many people died, in black and white. The doctors who wrote the death certificates even said something about it occasionally.’
Even when the mayor of Norg came to see what was going on since he was suddenly signing hundreds of death certificates a year instead of a few dozen, nothing changed. ‘No one cared to listen.’
The ‘better’ colonies, such as Frederiksoord or Wilhelminaoord, didn’t do much for the poor there, either. They were practically imprisoned, says Paping, in a kind of ‘state within a state’; the Colonies had their own police and their own laws. While that was in fact illegal, no one did anything about it.
The Colonies weren’t financially successful, either. The staff, which consisted mainly of veterans, was extremely expensive, and the farms weren’t producing as expected. Every year, the state had to make up the deficits. The first year that Frederiksoord, the only colony that did relatively well, made more money than it cost was in 1868, forty years after it had been founded. ‘They were a money pit. It wasn’t working, but they refused to shut it down.’
Ultimately, says Paping, the Colonies are a typical example of tunnel vision. ‘These rich people had very set ideas about what caused poverty: workers drink too much, workers marry too young, and workers are lazy. But no one wanted to believe that they simply weren’t getting paid enough and couldn’t afford the essentials.’