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
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
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
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
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.