About the Burghers

[Adapted from “Sugar and Spice” by Ms Deloraine Brohier, with her kind permission]

Who are these people known as the Burghers and where did they come from? This is a question that must be running in the minds of many Sri Lankans and others when they ponder the origins of this unique community that still continue to live among them. Despite having been inhabitants of Sri Lanka for several generations, the Burghers are certainly not Asian in their physical features and cultural traits. Rather they are distinctly European, fairer of skin, taller and with distinctive facial features. Some even have blue or grey eyes and others lighter hair approaching brown. Their physical type is basically northern European modified by intermarriage with local women or women of Portuguese ancestry as shown by Asiff Hussein in his ethnological study “Zeylanica. A study of the peoples and languages of Sri Lanka 2009”.

Culturally too, the Burghers are very much European. They have their own forms of attire and lifestyle. Many, especially those of the upper classes, speak English as their mother tongue. Although now a small majority in Sri Lanka they stand out in contrast to the majority of the island’s population. Their European origin is seen in all aspects of their lives.

Let us now see how the term ‘Burgher’ came to be. The term literally means ‘citizen’ and derives from the Dutch ‘burg’ meaning city, hence ‘burgher’ ‘resident of a city’. The term Burgher came to be used in Europe in the late 16th century and is of Germanic origin. The Eighty Years War in the Low Countries of Western Europe having ended, there emerged a new middle class with commercial pursuits in contrast to the upper classes and the lower class of serfs.

The appellation ‘Burgher’ came to be used in Sri Lanka for those of European origin when the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost Indische Compagnie) (VOC) established itself in Ceylon or Zailan as it was known in the 17th and 18th Century. There were basically two classes of people of European origin serving with the VOC – an official class called ‘Company Servants’ who came from Europe under contract with the company and worked in the Dutch language, and another class who came to Ceylon who were mainly merchants and traders. Both the company servants and those others were not necessarily Dutch but drawn from many countries that comprised Northern Europe. Both of these classes were known collectively as ‘Hollandische Natie’ (Natives of Holland) during the Dutch occupation of maritime Ceylon from 1658 to 1796.

These people and their descendants came to be designated as ‘Burghers’ and so it survives to this day as a name denoting a particular group of people.

Strictly speaking, however, the name was not originally an ethnonym or ethnic appellation. Rather it was social in in origin and designated a particular class of people of European origin. As my father R.L.Brohier has noted in his well-known work “Changing Face of Colombo” 1984, “Burgher is not an ethnographic name and has nothing to do with race. The term is of historic origin and refers to a political community which has a distinctive character.” Brohier further elucidates that the community known as Burghers came to be designated on a generic basis, the term signifying a conferment of citizenship on a group of people.

James Cordiner,  a British historian, in his ‘Description of Ceylon (1807)’ also gives us an insight into the early Burgher community when he observes that the greater part of the Burghers were admitted by the Dutch to all the privileges of citizenship under that denomination. The Company on occasion accepted that this class, the Burghers, included services in the town council (Staadraad) Orphans chamber (Weeskamer) and Court of Matrimonial Causes. The Burgherij performed these duties as ordinary townspeople.

For 140 years the two classes lived together in Ceylon alongside other groups and communities-indigenous and floating. In 1796 the island was ceded to the British and by the terms of the treaty a majority of the Company Servants and the other Burghers left Ceylon.

Only about 900 families chose to remain behind and become citizens of British Ceylon after the country became a Crown Colony in 1802. This element now came to be officially classified as ‘The Dutch and Burgher inhabitants of Ceylon’. Eventually with time this long long title resolved itself into a simpler form: ‘Burghers’, as used by government as well as the larger population. These and their descendants are those to whom the appellation ‘Burghers’ is applied today. In Sinhala, the language of the majority population Sinhalese, the Burgher was referred to as ‘Lansi’, derived from ‘Hollandsche’ meaning Hollander or from the Sinhala ‘Olanda-Desi’ meaning ‘Inhabitant of Holland’.

However it should be understood that all Burghers are not necessarily of Dutch origin. The VOC recruited persons not only from Holland but also from other countries of Northern Europe, particularly those who followed a Protestant church, especially those inspired by the French theologian Jean Calvin upon whose teachings the Dutch Reformed Church was founded. Among the Burgher families of Dutch origin may be included Caspersz, Claasz, Claessen, Christoffelsz, De Jong, De Vos, De Kretser, Dirckze, Fransz, Jansz, Jansen, Juriansz, Kelaart, Kriekenbeek, Leembruggen, Loos, Ockersz, Pietersz, Scharenguivel, Schokman, Van Cuylenberg, Van der Wall, Van Dort, and Werkmeister. Those of German origin include Altendorff, Andree, Ernst, Grenier, Godlieb, Koch, Hoffman and Muller. Those of French origin include Brohier, Daviot, Poulier, La Brooy and De Valliere. The Toussaints had their origins in Belgium, the Buultjens in Flanders and the Thomes in Switzerland.

The genealogical records maintained by Burghers over the centuries, some recorded in the Journals of The Dutch Burgher Union based in Colombo (most of which is now available on the Union’s website), have preserved information on the original forebears of the various families.

Many of the early settlers in the country appear to have married Eurasian women of Portuguese descent, that is to say, the daughters of Portuguese ‘casados’ or settlers who had espoused local women during the period of Portuguese domination of the lowlands of the country from 1505 to 1656. With these women of Portuguese descent the Dutch and other European nationalities would have felt some affinity, particularly as only a few Dutch women travelled to the East. Percival (1805) noted shortly after the termination of Dutch rule that it was very common to see a respectable and wealthy Dutchman married to a local Portuguese woman. Such frequent intermarriage could also explain why the Portuguese Creole language, which had established itself in the island well before Dutch conquest, had such a profound impact on Dutch Burgher society not to mention the impact of Portuguese cuisine on Burgher families in the years to come. Though it would appear that the Dutch language was the language with which the Burghers conversed with each other in times gone by, this seems to have been largely confined to male Burgher society and that too only among those of Dutch extraction who nevertheless formed a significant proportion of that group. It would seem that in later times, shortly before Ceylon fell to the British, the Dutch language had largely ceased to be spoken in Burgher homes, its place taken by Portuguese or Creole. There are a number of reasons why the Dutch language eventually died out among the Burghers, among these the fact that it was mainly a male language spoken in official circles within the VOC and not usually spoken by the women they espoused, who largely spoke Portuguese and passed it on to their offspring. To this must be added the act that not all VOC officers spoke Dutch as their native language, for there existed others who spoke French, German and English. Besides its ease in acquiring and mastering, Portuguese was also valued for its euphony. Percival (1805) observes that the Burgher women “seldom or ever speak before an Englishman in any other dialect but look upon Dutch as rather calculated for men and too harsh for the mouth of a lady.” It would even appear that the English language, which in later times became widely spoken in Burgher homes, was initially confined to male Burgher society and it was in much later times that it entered female Burgher society. The transition was no doubt facilitated by the lofty position English had acquired by that time, not only as the official language but also the language of education, for the main medium of instruction in schools and universities until as late as 1956, well after Ceylon had gained independence from the British, was English.

It was the English language adopted by the Burghers that, during the British colonial period, facilitated their emergence as an elite who were virtually deemed indispensable by the colonial government. The Burghers, it seems, had weathered the changes introduced by the British in the matter of language when Dutch was replaced by English as the official language. The British, we know, had not taken to the Dutch language too kindly and by a proclamation dated August 1801 abolished the Dutch language in the Courts of Law, which necessitated all those employed in these departments acquainting themselves with English. English eventually became the official language of Ceylon and the Burghers were not slow to shift from Dutch to English to secure for themselves high positions in the colonial regime. The use of the Dutch language seems to have disappeared by 1850, having been replaced by English in polite society and Portuguese Creole in familiar conversation. Dutch Burghers encouraged their children to learn English from childhood and in the course of time English became the mother tongue of many Burgher families even replacing the Portuguese Creole of an earlier generation.

The Burghers eventually went on to form an influential middle class in the capital of Colombo as well as in the other chief towns such as Galle and, to a lesser extent, Jaffna. The British government looked to the Burghers to fill their administrative posts and by the second half of the 19th Century the Burgher community had reached an unprecedented level of standing in official positions and social circles so much so that the period to the first half of the 20th century has been described as the golden age of the Burgher community. Many Burghers held professional positions as doctors and lawyers, played a prominent role in the top echelons of the public sector including departments such as the railways, survey, irrigation and defence. Burghers were found on the bench, the bar, in the banks, mercantile establishments and distinguished themselves in the plantation industries. So much so that P. Arunachalam in his census report of 1901 could observe: “The Dutch descendants are among the most educated and useful members of the island’s population”.

In 1948 the island of Sri Lanka became independent though it continued to be a dominion under the British crown. A few year before that the 1940s census revealed that Burghers numbered 42,000 or 0.6% of the total population of 8 Million. However this was not to be for long. Political, social and economic changes since independence had a profound effect on the Burghers. Particularly far reaching in its implications was the language issue, when the government under SWRD Bandaranaike replaced English with Sinhala as the sole official language of the country in 1956. As a result the 1950s and 1960s saw many Burgher families migrating to Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom where they settled to start life anew. Those who stayed behind had to adjust to these changing events, though they held on to the things they knew best and loved from the old days, true to the traditions in which they were reared. A census in 1981 found the Burghers formed a mere 0.2% or 34,000 persons in a total population of 18 million. Today, (2012) the Burghers have become a rather miniscule minority, indeed an insignificant community both politically and socially, numbering about 15,000 to 30,000 persons. Despite this, they survive as a separate ethnic group. Burghers prominent in Sri Lanka today include poet Jean Arasanayagam, campaigner against child abuse Maureen Seneviratne, and author and historian Deloraine Brohier. The Dutch Burgher Union still functions in Colombo as a centre for social and community activities.

The Burgher Diaspora
The majority of Burghers now live outside Sri Lanka, having migrated to western countries, particularly Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Canada. Burghers who have emigrated to largely Western countries include Professor David de Kretser, former Governor of Victoria, Australia; the late Fred van Buren, long-serving member of the Victorian Legislative Council; Craig Ondarchie  elected in 2010 as a Liberal member for the Northern Metropolitan Region, philanthropist Sir Christopher Ondaatje and his author-brother Michael Ondaatje, member of ‘The Seekers’ singing group Keith Potger, test cricketer and coach Dav Whatmore, Roger Herft, Archbishop of Perth, W.A. and volunteer social worker Lorna Wright O.A.M.

The Burghers and their descendants have largely integrated as citizens of their new homes, an integration greatly facilitated by a common language, Western values and culture and love of sport. This successful migration has resulted in the second and third generation of Burghers being largely indistinguishable from other citizens. Nevertheless aspects of the culture of their Burgher ancestors, such as their very special hybrid cuisine, remain. There is also, among this newer generations, an abiding interest and admiration for a very small group of people who maintained their unique minority culture and way of life in Sri Lanka for over two centuries.


1 Response to About the Burghers

  1. Great write-up Sherrille Hermon

Comments are closed.