The Dutch Burghers and English; Voices of Survivors

The Dutch Burghers and English; Voices of Survivors

Continued from last week


From the beginning of British colonial rule, primary and secondary education in the Sinhalese and Tamil medium was free from the kindergarten to the Senior School Certificate level (equivalent to today’s GCE ‘O’ in Grade 11) . But the English medium schools constituting about 10 -15 percent of the schools in Sri Lanka charged fees. The best the children educated in the native languages, namely Sinhalese or Tamil, could reach was the teaching profession or becoming notaries, village headmen or ayurvedic physicians. The better jobs and access to tertiary education and the learned professions of law and western medicine, judicial positions, executive appointments in the public service as well as the better private sector jobs were only to those who attended the fee levying English medium schools. The official language of the government was English till 1956.

In 1928,the British government appointed a Royal Commission headed by Lord Donoughmore to inquire into further reforms to the constitutions to meet Sri Lankan aspirations. The Donoughmore Commission which consisted of progressive British politicians of the day, was fully convinced that the grant of universal adult franchise should be introduced in order to enable the ordinary people to elect representatives of their choice in order to speak on their behalf in the legislature. The Donoughmore Commission’s recommendations were incorporated to a new constitution, promulgated in 1931. By this constitution, whilst Sri Lanka was still under the British, universal adult franchise was granted to Lankans to elect their own representatives to the legislature which became known as the State Council. In the newly elected legislature, a Board of Ministers were elected. The State Council appointed a Special Committee on Education headed by C.W.W .Kannangara which introduced the free education from the kindergarten to university level in 1942, also by a majority recommended that the medium of instruction in all schools should be the mother tongue in the primary classes.

Having had the privilege of primary, secondary and tertiary education in English, he was one of the most persuasive advocates of native language education known as ‘ Swabhasha’ education. Sir Ivor Jennings records in his autobiography that the politicians’ views prevailed on this policy over the educationists’ opinions. Kannangara proposed that a child should receive education in his or her mother tongue and this triggered a debate in the Special Committee on what ought to be considered the mother tongue of a child. There were some Sinhalese and Tamil children whose mother tongue was English as that language was what was spoken in their homes. According to Sir Ivor, the politicians including Kannangara proposed a legal formula called ‘racial or ethnic mother tongue’. According to this formula, if the language of the progenitors of the ethnic group of the child’s father is Sinhalese, it should be irrefutably presumed that the Sinhalese language was the child’s mother tongue which should then be his or her medium of instruction in primary school even if his mother tongue was in fact English at home. This legal formula was proposed in respect of Tamil children too.

When it came to Muslims, Burghers and Malays, the Special Committee could not recommend applying this principle. If the legal formula of racial mother tongue was applied to these ethnic groups, the mother tongues of Muslim, Burgher and Malay children would respectively be Arabic, Portuguese/ Dutch/English and Malay. In order to overcome this difficulty, Muslims, Burghers and Malays were permitted to receive education in the English medium till the 1970s. Thereafter, the English medium education completely disappeared from the schools and the Dutch Burghers, Muslims and Malays were compelled to study either in Sinhala medium or Tamil medium in the national school system. The Kannangara Committees’ recommendations were adopted after Independence. Sinhalese and Tamil children in the English medium schools were required to study in the Sinhalese and Tamil mediums. The English medium schools were allowed to teach only the Muslim, Burgher and Malay children in English. Kannangara was in fact the father of abolition of English medium education although S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who was responsible for the enactment of Sinhala Only Act of 1956 is often wrongly blamed for Swabasha education. It was in the Bandaranaike’s tenure and his widow’s terms in power that the English medium was abolished in the secondary school level and in the tertiary level in universities except in Science, Engineering and Medicine courses.

Within two years of the Free Education Ordinance passed in 1942, as many as 44 Central Colleges were established throughout the country, mainly in the rural areas, with well equipped buildings, laboratories and hostels. These schools initially taught rural children in the English medium and some rural children entered the University of Ceylon from them in the early fifties. It certainly was a great revolution. However, the subsequent language policies adopted by successive governments deprived these rural children and others from established English medium schools the benefit of English medium education.

When Singapore gained independence in 1965, only 10 percent of the schools in that country used English as the medium of instruction whilst 80 per cent taught in Chinese and the rest in either Tamil or Malay. Lee Kuan Yew did not abolish English medium education but converted all non- English medium schools to English within a decade giving all Singaporean children, regardless of ethnicity, an equal opportunity to be taught in the English medium. He retained English as the working language of the country making English, Chinese, Tamil and Malay as official languages. Lee did this in a country where 80 percent of the population is ethnic Chinese. If Sri Lanka’s post Independence leaders had adopted this policy, we would not have had ethnic conflicts, tension, communal riots and a 30-year civil war immensely benefiting our development with an ethnically all inclusive public sector, private sector and governance in a unitary state. The Dutch Burghers and Tamils and educated Sinhalese would not have left these shores for more secure and greener pastures in the western countries.

Dutch Burghers of today speak out

In an evening, after the sun set, I paid a visit to Frederick van Buuren, 88,a Dutch Burgher who lives with four Dachshund pet dogs in a small house at Mattegoda, a Colombo suburb. On my arrival, his four dogs started barking at me. Welcoming me Mr. van Buuren said, “They won’t bite” telling the dogs kindly, “Don’t bark. He is a friend.” After their barking subsided, I started my conversation. He said: “My first paternal Dutch ancestor was Willem Regenereus van Buuren. He married Anna Catherina Verwyk. The first European paternal ancestor of my mother’s family, who arrived in Sri Lanka in 1772 was Daniel Meerwald. His hometown was Neusol in Hungary. I was an automobile technician . I studied at Wesley College, Colombo. There were only two Dutch Burghers in my class, myself and another child with the Dutch family name Van Twest. I was born in Trincomalee on September 23, 1932 when my father worked at the Public Works Department as an engineer there.

My Dutch Burgher identity and consciousness within the family I grew up in was very significant in terms of conversations, traditions, customs, perceptions, moral, social, religious and political ideas etc.. My father was very conservative, and he insisted that we should maintain our identity. On the Christmas table we always had Dutch delicacies like Breudher and Poffertjes (Dutch Mini Pancakes) etc. We are a closed community. We moved only with the educated Sinhalese and Tamils. I was a Methodist. My wife, Angela Jansz, was a Catholic. A few months after my marriage I became Catholic by conviction. The Dutch Burghers have always been conservative and right wing politically. Only exception was Pieter Keuneman, a Cambridge educated son of a Dutch Burgher Supreme Court Judge. He was the leader of country’s communist party.”

Asked what the major cause for migration of thousands of Dutch Burghers to Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom,he opined: ” The exodus of Dutch Burghers to these western countries was due to Sinhalese Only policy introduced by Prime Minister Bandaranaike in 1956 and the communal tensions that erupted in its aftermath.” He had migrated to Canada in 1966 with his Dutch Burgher wife and three daughters. His wife passed away in 2006. “I obtained my duel citizenship in 2008. Since 2008, I have lived in Sri Lanka because I feel lonely in Canada and love the climate and warmth of people here. I don’t suffer any discrimination on the basis of my Dutch Burgher identity. My Sinhalese neighbours treat me well.”

Frederick van Buuren

Mrs. Anne-Marie Scharenguivel, 65

, when asked what she thought, had been the major grievance of the Dutch Burgher community in post-independence Sri Lanka, said: “Our major grievance has always been our inability to be educated in our mother tongue, English, as the medium of instruction in the schools and the fact that all Govt departments function in Sinhala. I was forced to educate my sons in International Schools at great cost due to this. Sinhala is a language, not spoken anywhere else in the world! Thankfully the English stream is being reintroduced in schools but there are no proper teachers now competent to teach in English.”

I asked her: “When thousands of Dutch Burghers have migrated to Australia, Canada and the UK, why did your parents and you opt to live in Sri Lanka? She replied: “My father was well established here as Deputy Chief Waterworks Engineer in the Colombo Municipal Council. He later became the Head of the Waterworks Dept (which was absorbed by the Water Board later) and also Acting Municipal Commissioner. I never wanted to leave either, and neither do my sons! But now the future seems to be bleak for the Dutch Burgher community in particular and for the other ethnic minorities in Sri Lanka. This is the first time in our lives that my sons and I have felt like immigrating “

Mrs.Scharenguivel, a born Catholic, schooled at St.Bridget’s Convent and lives in Dehiwela, a suburb of Colombo.

Anne-Marie Scharenguivel

Mrs.Doreen van der Hoeven, 64

, is a mother of two sons. She is a Dutch Burgher who lives in Kalutara, a coastal town 40 km south of Colombo. “My father was a guard in the Ceylon Government Railway. In those days, A lot of Dutch Burghers worked in the Ceylon Government Railway as engine drivers and train guards,” she said adding “My mother who is 94-years old is a Scharenguivel. My parents were Dutch Burghers. I was educated at Methodist College, Colombo. We are Methodists by religion. I am the only child in my family. I became aware of my Dutch Burgher identity when I was a child. I used to ask my parents why we were different from others in language, family name and complexion. Then my parents would tell me about my Dutch Burgher ancestry. I am a nurse by profession. I still remember having Dutch Breudher on our family Christmas table in my childhood. Most of my Dutch Burgher cousins, relatives and friends have migrated to Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. Our community was affected by the Sinhala Only language policy which did away with English as a medium of instruction in the schools and as an official language. That was the reason for Dutch Burgher migration.”

Doreen van der Hoeven

Voices of the Young

Miss Andriana Melder, 23, is a young Dutch Burgher lady with a Bachelor of Laws degree from the University of London. She is now studying for the Bar examinations A Catholic and old pupil of Holy Family Convent, Colombo 4, she lives in Nugegoda, in the suburbs of Colombo.

Andriana Melder

“My first paternal Dutch ancestor was Reverend Willem Melder who had come from Holland to serve as a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church of Sri Lanka (founded by the Dutch in 1642 and now known as Christian Reformed Church of Sri Lanka). He had married Madalena Petronella Perera at the Wolvendaal Church in Colombo. The initial ancestors of the Melder clan in Sri Lanka worked as Dutch Civil servants and the later as planters and spice traders. At one point in my paternal family tree, my ancestors had become Catholic leaving their Protestant faith for some reasons, she said.

Speaking of the significance of her Dutch Burgher identity ,culture, religious and moral values , Andriana opined: “My Dutch Burgher identity played a pivotal role in my upbringing. My father was very proud of this identity and his heritage. He would often point out old buildings and vast portions of land In Melder Place and Pietersz Place in Nugegoda now mostly sold off or occupied by other communities due to the migration of our relatives to Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK. Claiming that these lands once belonged to our ancestors, he had fond memories of playing cricket in the vast fields, fishing and even hunting with my late grandfather with a double barrel gun slung over his shoulder.

“We were brought up to value our culture, the elders set the example by maintaining records and journals for the younger generations to refer. Many articles too have been preserved to generate knowledge of the yesteryears of the Melder clan. My late paternal grandmother and my grand aunts and uncles on my father’s side, used to relate stories from the good old days in the times of Ceylon, about the great big dances and parties they used to throw on various occasions. The carefree, happy- go-lucky attitude passed down through the generations is visible even in the youth in my family today. There is no pressure as to marriage, sense of fashion or lifestyle. The freedom to make up one’s own choices have been ingrained even in our young minds. Learning to play a musical instrument, singing and dancing is an essential aspect of our life. This has resulted in many Burgher youth becoming fond of the arts. My extended family is very religiously and not racially inclusive as many of my relatives have inter married into various faiths and races. Education takes centre stage in our family as most of my ancestors are well educated and rounded individuals who have achieved much in their respective professions. The general perception among the other ethnic communities that most Dutch Burgher youth lack morals and religious affiliation is profoundly untrue. Many of us are staunch practicing Christians (Catholic and Protestant) whose morals have been intertwined with religion. The Dutch Burgher families are a closely knit community and they value familial aspects in their relationships.

Asked what in her opinion, have been the legitimate grievances of the Dutch Burgher community since Independence, Andriana said, “It is the lack of recognition even as a minority. The language and cultural barriers are pertinent to date and the lack of an inclusive system for all races is still present. The Dutch Burgher community has contributed much in terms of construction, law and the judicial system, religion, hybrid culture and cuisines. They are a unique community.

“The post 1956 migration of many Burgher families from the island was a result of their not

seeing a future for their children in the new Ceylon. Most migrated to Australia because

Australians had a life style close to theirs. Others moved to Canada, the UK and New Zealand.

Many Burgher migrants held very senior positions in the Mercantile, Banking, Medical, Academic

and Public sectors abroad. Most of them still consider the island known to them as

Ceylon, as their beloved home that nurtured them as a community for about four centuries.

We decided to remain in SL as my father was well established in his profession and because

of my grandparents from both sides of the family. I would like to leave SL once I complete my studies as many of my friends and relatives are already abroad and seeing how their lifestyle seem much better and their future more promising, I too would like to migrate one day.”

Speaking of the future of the Dutch Burgher Community, Andriana said: “The Dutch Burgher community is dwindling at present with the vast increase in migration and inter marriages taking place. Further, with racist ideologies rising once more, the future for the minorities seem bleak.”

My last interview for this article was with a young Dutch Burgher Fabian Schokman, 24. A graduate in Theology he now reading for a Bachelor of Laws degree of the University of London. A Catholic by faith, Fabian is very outspoken. “My first paternal Dutch ancestor was Jan Arentsz Schokman who had come to Sri Lanka from Amsterdam in 1697 who was a ship’s carpenter’, said Fabian. When asked how significant was his Dutch Burgher identity and consciousness within the family he grew up in the conversations, traditions, customs, perceptions, moral, social, religious and political ideas , Fabian said: “It had a strong bearing on my upbringing, especially in terms of perceptions and to a greater level, openness to liberal ideologies. Tradition has always being a closely guarded and cherished part of my upbringing, especially by the elder generation. It varies starkly across a spectrum. Identity is a matter of self perception and this self perception would vary widely among a single family, multiple families that comprise of a unit and most certainly in the community in general.

“As I mentioned, there is and has always being the ultra-conservative and ultra-liberal ends of the community and every shade in-between. As with the other questions, this must be analyzed from within the spectrum. Of course the more traditional Dutch Burgher families are undeniably facing the extinction of cultural identity as assimilation means more and more of the individualistic aspects of the community are fading off to give way to a more conforming cultural identity. The days of a monolinguistic, starkly distinct community are fast fading, yet in a more general perspective, the community in my opinion, because of its minute size faces a number of issues stemming from lack of political representation. I believe that one’s identity is and should be a part of everyday life. As a lesser minority, even in the context of school and community in general, I have found the Dutch Burgher community to be rather close-knit, not least on account of the vast inter-connection between each other. That being said, this identity is in no way antithetical to centrist Sri Lankan values.

Fabian Schokman

Fabian seems to think that the future for the Dutch Burgher community in Sri Lanka seems less bleak than what other members of his community believe. He opined: “The Dutch Burgher community has always had a spirit of endurance and survival imbued deep within itself and as a result the community will survive, perhaps more intact than other lesser non-monogamous minorities. At present the community has found prominence in the private sector and I particularly don’t see a return to the age of civil service dominance. There is also a deep sense of pride and cultural revival in the younger generation and this does make the future seem less bleak. However in comparison to the larger minorities with considerable communal and political representation, a stable lineal prediction is difficult to project.”

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