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Reclaiming the Burgher heritage

Blowing a breath of fresh air into a melancholic and despondent society and getting the facts right in the inimitable Burgher way.

The small but not insignificant Burgher Community of Sri Lanka numbering about 45,000 men, women and children has contributed to the development and modernization of Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) quite out of proportion to their numbers at any time since the 16th century when the first people of European origin arrived on these shores.

The Portuguese came here with two core objectives: Trade and the conversion of the local populace to Catholicism. They wrested the profitable trade in Oriental spices from the Arab and Moor merchants both on the Island and on the Coromandel coast of South India.

This was also impelled by their visceral hatred of the Muslims because people of that faith had occupied almost the entire Iberian Peninsula from about 711 CE for almost 800 years until the Catholics drove them out of the Peninsula.

The bitter memories of their subjugation for almost seven and a half centuries were hard to live down and the mind-set of the period was one of bitter loathing and extreme fanaticism. It should also be remembered that the infamous Inquisition led by the Spanish monk, Tom S de Torquemada was still fresh in their minds. Jews, Muslims and suspect Christian 'heretics' were the targets of the Inquisition.

Actual Portuguese rule of what has been designated as the 'Maritime Provinces' actually commenced in 1597, 92 years after the first arrival! The first Portuguese Captain-General to be appointed was Pedro Lopes de Sousa in 1594 during the reign of king Dom Joao Dharmapala, the Island's first and only Catholic monarch.

And that brings us to another fabrication, that the Portuguese 'invaded' the Island. Because of disunity and internecine conflict among the Sinhalese the Portuguese stepped into fill a political vacuum. Merchants hate vacuums.

When they arrived on these shores they discovered a polity in disintegration-a process that had been going on since the demise of Parakrama Bahu the Great in 1186 CE and is still going on if we correctly understand the ground realities that now obtain.

This country has had kings ruling it from Polonnaruwa, Dambadeniya, Yapahuwa, Gampola, Dadigama, Kotte, Sitavaka, Jaffna and Kandy. It is also a fact that the Portuguese arrival in the Indian Ocean effectively prevented the Islamization of Sri Lanka - similar to the Islamization and subjugation of some Hindu principalities in South India and the Hindu kingdoms of the Indonesian Archipelago.

These intrepid Portuguese and their Iberian and other European crews that included Sephardic Jews and Arab and Berber Muslims who converted to Catholicism, were the first ancestors of the Burghers. The Dutch who followed them into these waters arrived off Batticaloa in 1602 under the leadership of Admiral Joris van Spilbergen and his assorted crew of diverse European ethnicity.

The United East India Company (VOC) was then hired by the Sinhalese king ensconced in Senkadagala Maha Nuvara (called 'Kandy' by the British as an abbreviation for 'Kande Uda Rata'), to dislodge the Portuguese who had become a thorn in his side.

For the entirety of the period that the Dutch were here they acted for and on behalf of the Sinhalese King as his agents and servants and they stayed so long because the king went back on his promise to pay them their fee for services rendered!

The much less religiously motivated Dutch did not prosecute conversion to the extent that the Portuguese had done. More business-minded, the Dutch facilitated missions to Burma and Siam (Myanmar and Thailand today) to bring hither Buddhist monks to breathe life into Buddhism-then not under threat from either Catholic or Christian missionaries.

The Dutch also assisted the Sinhalese to send an embassy to South India to the Maharajah of Tanjavur (Tanjore) to obtain a suitable person of royal blood and the Kshatriya or warrior caste to occupy the Lion Throne. Thus came the Nayakkar dynasty in 1739 to occupy the Lion Throne until dethroned by the Sinhalese and handed over to the British in 1815 CE.

The Dutch contributed substantially to the making of the Burgher Community that was made of 'Compagnie-dienaars and Vrijburgers,' that is Company-servants and free Burghers. During the official period of Dutch rule (1656-1796) several Portuguese families who had remained on the Island were admitted to the ranks and accorded the rights of Burghers.

When the Dutch handed-over to the British in 1796 there were 12 Portuguese families of unmixed descent in Colombo plus a total of 900 families throughout the country that elected to remain on the Island.

It was no one else but the British that designated these people of European origin (and mixed descent as well) as 'Burghers.' This was a 'political community' and did not describe an ethnic group.

They were a 'political community' similar to the Chetties, the Bharathas, the Malays, the Moors, and any other minority group that did not belong to either the Sinhalese or Tamils.

This is the background and perspective in which the Burghers should be viewed and because of their almost 300-year stay on the Island, the British East India Company hired their services to administer the country. Ceylon became a Crown Colony in 1803 CE and the entire Island was unified under one administration after 1815 CE.

The Burghers services were greatly in demand and they filled many posts with integrity and distinction-so much so that Sir Henry Ward (1855-60) was constrained to state that the Burghers: " ...were the brazen wheels which, hidden from sight, keep the golden hands of government in motion." In his 1901 Census Report [later Sir] Ponnambalam Arunachalam, wrote: "The Dutch descendants are among the most educated and useful members of the Island's population and form the upper stratum of the Burgher Community in Ceylon, with the lower stratum consisting of Portuguese descent and Eurasians."

It cannot be gainsaid that the Burgher heritage consists of many desirable components: Loyalty to the governing authority; deep respect for Law and Order; integrity; probity; devotion to duty; impartiality; good neighbourliness; graciousness, and noblesse. The genetic pot pourri endowed members of the community with a high degree of intelligence that produced some of Sri Lanka's best and most brilliant citizens:

Dr. Andreas Nell; Justice Sir Richard Morgan; Sir Samuel Grenier; Justice Sir Francis Soertsz; Sir Hector van Cuylenberg; Dr. R.L. Spittle; C.A. Lorenz; J.H. Hillebrand; J.B. Giffening; N. J. Maartensz; Prof. E.O.E. Pereira; Dr. A.W.R. Joachim; Prof. E.F.C. Ludowyke; Prof. J.B. Pass,; Dr. Elsley L. Koch; Dr. E.K. Kelaart; Dr. P.D. Anthonisz; Prof. John Blaz,; Dr. Alice de Boer; Dr. R.L. Brohier; Dr. Wester Modder; Christine Wilson; Hilda Deutrom; Dr. Vivian R. Schokman; Kenneth Joachim; Dame Deloraine Brohier; Dame Lorna R. Wright; Dr. W.J.A. LaBrooy; Dr. C.W. Nicholas; L.E. Blaz,; Pearl Ondaatje; Donovan Moldrich; Paul Caspersz; Elmer de Haan; Jean Arasanayagam n,e Solomons; Dr. L. Noel Bartholomeusz; Lorraine Forbes; Cyril Jansz; Gladys Loos; Merle Swan; Mil Sansoni; Justice E.F.N. Gratiaen; Maureen Seneviratne n,e Milhuisen; Justice J.P. de Wet; Lylie Godridge; Clem Croner; Constance Blackler; Hilaire Jansz; Maj. Gen. B.R. Heyn; George Keyt; Jan Modder; Irene van der Wall; Jean White; Aubrey Collette; Peter van Reyk; Mark Gerreyn; George Beven; Lionel Wendt; Carl M?ller; W.J.G. Beling; Maureen Hingert; Arthur van Langenberg-and the list is as long as it is distinguished.

The Burgher Community has developed its own unique culture (which defines it best) made up of the spotlessly clean and neat Burgher home; its delectable and distinctive cuisine; its furniture; its Judeo-Christian legacy of faith; its dedication to sports; its pursuit of education and academic excellence; Its unbending commitment to free expression and thought; its love of music, singing, dance and the theatre-in essence the fine art or refined living or refinement.

Today, more than ever, this distinctive heritage has to be restated and rejuvenated by the Burghers themselves, now emerging from a 40-year life in the dark world of the lost and the forgotten.

In his or her heart every Burgher knows that this Island is their beloved HOME - the Motherland that nurtured the community for 500 years.

Burghers have lived in Sri Lanka at peace and in harmony with every other community. They have been a law-abiding people singularly dedicated to minding their own business yet able to respond to a neighbour's cry for help without consideration of caste, class, colour or creed.

That's why it is necessary today, more than ever, to retrieve (and reaffirm) the inimitable Burgher legacy with all it implies for the health and future of Sri Lanka as a wholesome polity.

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