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Koloniën van Weldadigheid (agricultural pauper colonies) (Belgium)

Date of Submission: 27/09/2013
Criteria: (v)(vi)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of the Kingdom of Belgium to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Flemish Region, province of Antwerp
Ref.: 5841
Other States Parties participating
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Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party


In 1815, when the new independent United Kingdom of the Netherlands was created, the Low Countries suffered extreme poverty after many centuries of prosperity. There was crippling national debt, and the trade and shipping industry the region once was famous for had virtually disappeared. The population underwent rapid growth, but agricultural production did not maintain the same pace. Large sections of the population soon became impoverished.

In 1818, the Society of Benevolence was founded to tackle the degrading circumstances and a large-scale programme of domestic colonisation was launched. Between 1818 and 1825, a series of seven colonies were built in which families, the disabled, orphans, "fallen women", retired military personnel, beggars and vagrants were housed. There were two basic types; there was the "free" colony, which poor people entered of their own accord, while paupers were obliged to reside in the "unfree" colony, which bore the characteristics of a compulsory colony.

Creators of the initiative - enlightened high officials with General Johannes van den Bosch at the helm - developed a visionary solution that combined education, employment and land clearing, an approach in which relief for the poor and the prevention of crime more or less overlapped. Large areas of uncultivated heathland were systematically cleared to make way for the construction of agricultural colonies. By providing work for people, educating and guiding them, and if necessary by punishing them, they could escape from the often structural poverty. The additional agricultural production could relieve food shortages and the pressure on public finances could also be alleviated. It was a comprehensive system of benevolence and correction, improvement and control on a national scale - that could count on considerable international interest.

Each colony was conceived as a self-sufficient entity that offered progressive social services for its day; which in addition to land-use planning also translated into a characteristic building heritage.

From a spatial perspective, the colonies represent a direct and still readable impact of views on an educational, correctional and thus hierarchically ordered community. Their similarities lie in their systematic working method: invariably, a large area was divided according to a design of orthogonal lines, planted areas and largely consistent buildings. Over the years, these landscapes were further developed and adapted according to progressive views on agriculture, relief for the poor, psychiatry and penance.

Name(s) of the component part(s)

1. Merksplas Kolonie N 51.355529 - E 4.825765
2. Wortel Kolonie N 51.402817 - E 4.824315

Description of the component part(s)

Two of the colonies were located in the Southern Netherlands, modern-day Belgium. The Wortel and Merksplas colonies are adjacent, compartmental landscapes occupying 552 and 480 ha respectively, with a historical pattern of tree alleys and rectangular plot division with woodland, meadows and farmland. The Wortel Colony (1822) was initially a free colony that was later transformed into a compulsory colony; Merksplas Colony (1825) was a compulsory colony from its very beginning.

Following Belgium's independence in 1830, both colonies were given a boost with the introduction of the "law to control begging and vagrancy" in 1866. An extensive infrastructure programme began that was consistent with the original design of the compulsory colonies and which further reinforced their internal structure and cohesion.

In the Wortel colony, the ensemble consisted of a main building (former refuge), staff housing, a large farm, a community hall and a cemetery. In the Merksplas Colony, the building programme was more extensive and, in addition to buildings that served a similar purpose to those in Wortel, a chapel, a school, industrial buildings and a second farm were also constructed.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

One of the most remarkable social experiments, based on 19th century, Western, Utopian thinking on the social order, can still be identified today in the large-scale clearing of land for poverty reduction in the north of Belgium and the north-eastern Netherlands.

They were public-private initiatives by a bourgeois elite that combined Utopian ideas with a new form of finance based on contributions from private individuals and municipalities, and which also ensured their actual material development. Their impact can still be read in the landscape.

The colonies are unique due to their scale and comprehensive nature; every aspect of daily life had been considered. Against the backdrop of land clearing, a project emerged that involved elevating the lower classes based on employment creation, education, healthcare and reward and punishment. The exceptional quality of the buildings and (land) design confirm that it was a prestige project, actively supported by central government.

It is precisely this combination of education, healthcare and (forced) labour in a self-sufficient entity that makes the colonies so innovative. They are consistent with views from the time about poverty and begging, by physically removing those persons concerned from their normal environment (exile). Through focusing on healthcare, education and social discipline, they can also be regarded as an experimental precursor to the 20th century concept of the modern, social welfare state.

Criterion (v): The agricultural pauper colonies have continued to be an easily recognisable example of large-scale land clearing with a progressive social objective focused on solving all forms of the poverty issue.
The agricultural pauper colonies reflect the interplay between Enlightened ideas and the specific landscape in which they were shaped. The spatial logic of the current landscape is directly linked to the organisational model of the respective colony (free or compulsory colony) and the fundamental principles that the Society applied (self-sufficiency, order and discipline).

To boost agricultural production, the ideas of enlightened agricultural theorists were adopted, which until then had been met with little or no response. In the systematic and innovative approach to agriculture, the agricultural pauper colonies must be regarded as a frontrunner of major initiatives that nation states would later take in terms of agricultural policy from the second half of the 19th century (with model farms, agricultural schools and international agricultural exhibitions). The Society of Benevolence was omnipresent in the public and private lives of the colonists, with a farsighted level of services that were only developed elsewhere for ordinary citizens in the second half of the 19th century.

The design of the Society of Benevolence's areas incorporates Utopian, social and political ideas on education, supervision and agriculture with the application of ideas on architecture, urban development and landscape design. The orthogonal, hierarchic order of land clearing with the intelligent integration of buildings, urban development axes (alleys) and landscape design reflect the development towards an entirely achievable landscape, redesigned with economic and social objectives in mind.

Criterion (vi): The agricultural pauper colonies were an extraordinary social experiment focused on innovative relief for the poor and social emancipation, inspired by ideas from the Enlightenment. They represent a fascinating early example of the quest for an achievable society ("social engineering"). They endure as a testing ground for a new state model (the welfare state), which later took shape in large parts of the world.
The sites harken back to a unique social initiative by the social elite that had an incredible impact on our modern society. A system of social services was developed in the colonies that was also widely applied in the decades following the foundation of the Society of Benevolence.

The social services went hand in hand with social discipline. In the closed and self-sufficient communities created by the Society of Benevolence, the colonists were educated so they could become "better citizens". This education was facilitated by three major pillars in the Society's policy: employment, education and religion. The agricultural pauper colonies are also, in this respect, an actualised example of a panoptic Utopia.

The large-scale construction of the agricultural pauper colonies was achieved through an ingenious organisational design, with broad ramifications for the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, both geographically and in terms of the various social classes. The Society of Benevolence sowed the seeds for later civil society organisations (trade unions, healthcare insurers, socio-cultural associations) as well as the social support organisations that were regulated nationally but organised locally.

The views and ideas that the Society for Benevolence incorporated were typical of those held by international thinkers and activists of the high bourgeois elite at the beginning of the 19th century, to which the founders also belonged. The Society was in contact with people and institutions all over the world and made a considerable contribution to the development and practical application of the intellectual legacy.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The borders of the agricultural pauper colonies were based on the original assets of the Society of Benevolence that were effectively developed. In other words, the areas encompass the original landscape design, the structure of the buildings and exemplary constructions that illustrate the history and development of the colonies. These elements include ditches, roads, planting patterns, building structures, cemeteries, building typologies, functions and archaeological sites, etc.

In their mutual cohesion and as a whole, the nominated areas denote the spatial and associative values of the remarkable nature of the agricultural pauper colonies. Integrity is guaranteed by their current use, which is largely in line with the objectives of the Society of Benevolence. The attributes of the nominated components are in good condition.

The archaeological sites, the landscape structure and the buildings tell the story of the agricultural pauper colonies in a credible manner, from their creation to this very day. The structures cited remain identifiable and their essence has been preserved.

The use of the colonies for agriculture and the objectives formulated by the Society of Benevolence two centuries ago are still largely continued and supplemented with new functions that denote the agricultural pauper colonies' contemporary social significance.

Justification of the selection of the component part(s) in relation to the future nomination as a whole

The Merksplas and Wortel colonies represent two of the seven original and still preserved agricultural pauper colonies founded by the Society of Benevolence. Both colonies fulfil the conditions in terms of authenticity and integrity and are protected as a landscape. The most distinctive buildings are also protected as monuments.

Comparison with other similar properties

The World Heritage List includes a total of 981 items (1/8/2013). The tentative lists include another 1,575 items. A comparative analysis was performed using several themed points of comparison. The World Heritage List was fully screened; a country selection was examined based on historic source material to screen the tentative list.

What distinguishes the Colonies of Benevolence is the link between land clearing and agricultural activities with a dual system that combines healthcare and forced labour stemming from the goal of poverty reduction. The social embedding and role of the authorities are also highly distinctive.

For that reason, sites were examined that
• are embedded in a similar social context & ideas (e.g. Utopian intellectual legacy - early socialism)
• display a similar combination of functions: land clearing & agriculture - forced labour - healthcare - self-sufficient system

The comparison revealed that the World Heritage List does not include any sites that combine both of these aspects yet.

There are, however, sites that are similar to one of the two aspects. Many industrial sites or mining sites are similar in terms of their underlying intellectual legacy, but not in terms of the "comprehensive social apparatus" that was developed.
Examples of this include:
- New Lanark and Saltaire - UK
- Crespi d'Adda - Italy
- Royal Saltworks at Arc-et-Senans - France
- Le Grand Hornu, as part of the Major Mining Sites of Wallonia - Belgium
- Rjukan/Notodden & Tyssedal Industrial Heritage Sites - Norway
- La Constancia Mexicana - Mexico

Sites that are similar to a greater or lesser extent due to the systematic land clearing of (agricultural) areas, with their related infrastructure, are:
- Coffee Cultural Landscape of Columbia
- Colonial City of Santo Domingo - Dominican Republic
- Jesuit Missions of Chiquitos - Bolivia
- Historic Quarter of the City of Colonia del Sacramento - Uruguay
- Cultural Landscape of the Stud Farm at Kladruby nad Labem - Czech Republic
- San Antonio Franciscan Missions - USA

The punishment aspect and exile to remote locations are represented by:
- Australian Convict Sites - Australia

A typology that is midway between healthcare institutions (hospitals) and prisons is:
- Hospicio Cabañas, Guadalajara - Mexico

The Merksplas and Wortel colonies represent two of the seven original and still preserved agricultural pauper colonies founded by the Society of Benevolence. Both colonies fulfil the conditions in terms of authenticity and integrity and are protected as a landscape. The most distinctive buildings are also protected as monuments.