Burgher Community in Sri Lanka
Posted on December 9th, 2017

By Dr. Tilak S. Fernando  Courtesy Ceylon Today

The term ‘Dutch Burgher’ is used to identify the ethnic group involving the descendants of Dutch Origin, who settled down in Ceylon after the British took over the Southern and Western coastal areas. In the early 17th century, Portuguese and Ceylonese Kingdoms ruled the country constantly, by battling with each other. Although the Portuguese were never able to hold full autonomy in the administration of Ceylon, their ruling was somewhat oppressive. The Dutch remained continuously engaged in a protracted war of independence from the Spanish rule.

Finally the King of Kandy invited the Dutch to help defeat the Portuguese. They eventually established a governorate, under the management of the VOC [Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie], the United East Indian Company, commonly referred to as the Dutch East India Company. In turn, the British overthrew them in 1796, and ruled the country till 1948, when Ceylon finally gained independence from foreign dominance.

Dutch Burghers

The Dutch Burghers were a distinct, but small ethnic group within the larger Eurasian community, otherwise called just plain ‘Burghers’, which was considered to be of more mixed lineage, mainly of British origin. They made their own distinctive contribution to the political, economic, and social fabric of the country and figured, with distinction, in its Executive, Legislative, and Judicial spheres. They provided leadership in the Private Sector and adorned all the esteemed professions with outstanding personalities. Their reputation was an acknowledged one of impartiality and fair-mindedness, winning the confidence and admiration of all other sections of the country’s multi-racial, multi-religious and essentially trilingual society.

“Dutch Burghers of Sri Lanka were dependents of the nine hundred families, who were fine, felicitous and a vintage mix. They were an effervescent cocktail of which, there is no other like it, in the whole world! Dutch Burghers, essentially the middle class in all the towns of Ceylon, had risen to eminence at the Bar and occupied the highest positions on the Bench. They largely enjoyed in mercantile pursuits, as writers and clerks, filling the places of trust in every administrative establishment, from the department of the Colonial Secretary to the humblest police court. Those who have settled, maintained the great traditions of their fathers and forefathers and, lent their rich savours to build the nation they were proud to call Sri Lanka.”

R.G. Anthonisz was instrumental in founding the Dutch Burgher Union of Ceylon in 1908, the first President of which was Hon.F.C. Loos (1908-1911), followed by such eminent personalities as R.G. Anthonisz (1916-1930), Dr. R.L. Spittel (1936-1938), Dr. R.L. Brohier (1953-1955); R.S.V. Poulier (1955-1957), Hon. Justice P. Colin-Thomé (1978-1988), et al.

The Dutch Burgher Union remains the only forum for the Dutch Burgher community to express its sense of identity, whilst not compromising the fundamental obligation it discharges to its Motherland, Sri Lanka. The members of the DBU celebrated the birthday of St. Nikolaas’, with a fete held annually on the fifth of December, the eve of the Feast of Sinterklaas (as he was known to the Dutch). For the small Dutch Burgher community in Ceylon, the Christmas season was heralded, as it was in Holland, with this event. The fetes held during the decades prior to the mass migration of the members of this community were conducted in an authentic traditional manner.

90th anniversary

The Dutch Burgher Union celebrated its 90th Anniversary in 1998, with a series of events, the climax of which was a Grand Dinner-Dance held at the 5-Star Oberoi Hotel. This was the first time a social event of this magnitude, attended by 450 guests;

and was organized by the DBU, outside their own premises at the Union building. Tickets were sold out in days, purely through publicity by word-of-mouth, leaving many disappointed. Mr. Peter Kuperus, Charge d’ Affaires of The Royal Netherlands Embassy in Sri Lanka and Mrs. Kuperus, as Chief Guests, graced the occasion. A special souvenir designed as a ‘valuable keepsake’, was produced with contributions from reputed Dutch Burghers and eminent scholars, amongst whom were Dr. K.D. Paranavitana, Mrs. Christine Wilson [daughter of Dr. R.L. Spittell, Ms. Deloraine Brohier, Mrs. Maureen Seneviratne (nee Milhuisen), Mr. Wilhelm Woutersz, a retired career Diplomat, Mrs. Christobelle Oorloff and Mrs. Anthea Muller. Some selected extracts from a book titled, “Rare Recipes of a Huis-vrouw of 1770”, found in the extensive library of Mr. R.S.V. Poulier were also reproduced in the souvenir.

Banana leaf and Lamprais

Of the recipes selected, “lamprais”, introduced to Ceylon by the Dutch from Indonesia, was, perhaps, the most widely appreciated. With polythene still to be invented in the 1600s and 1700s, and paper unsuitable for wrapping curries and ‘sambols’, which tended to seep through, on account of its high porosity, the banana leaf was found to be ideal for the purpose, in that it was hygienic and its waxy nature minimized permeability, preventing seepage and preserving the food wrapped in it for longer periods. Banana leaf imparts a desirable flavour and fragrance to the rice wrapped in it, which is very distinctive in lamprais. The banana leaf has now been found to contain a high percentage of polyphenols, like Green Tea, which means there are other health benefits as well. With Sri Lanka’s latest ban on polythene use, banana leaves could be introduced as the ideal alternative to wrap not only ‘lamprais’, but the common ‘bath packets’ too!

The Burgher community in Sri Lanka diminished drastically over the years, due to a significant scale migrating to Australia, and with inter-community and inter-racial marriages amongst Sri Lankans, both within the country and beyond its shores, all such defining lines are becoming increasingly blurred and will soon cease to be of any relevance.

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2 Responses to “Burgher Community in Sri Lanka”

  1. Nihal Perera Says:

    Kudos to the Sri Lankan Burgher community for their valuable contributions and, enriching the Sri Lankan culture for centuries. It’s shame that SL has failed to recognize and appreciate communities that have truly enhance the social and cultural values of our society.

    Some of my best friends when I attended school (St’ Anthony’s College) in the 60’s were Burghers, who like many of us left the country – not because they disliked the country, but due to economic and political reasons. Even to this day, I find some of those Burgher friends of mine are still very patriotic to SL than many Sinhalese expats.

    It is time we, Sri Lankans appreciate communities that have contributed to enhance the social fabric of SL over the years.

  2. Nimal Says:

    I too had many friends of that community and I still have some left in the island where I have given jobs and support and they will have Christmas bash in my ‘joint’ in Kandy, sad I can’t be there. My last collage was St Anthony’s Kandy, never stayed in a collage more than 2 years, me a very rebellious rascal.

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