Where have all the Burghers gone? – By Pelham Juriansz
The word “Burgher” is a very strange word indeed. In fact some might wonder at my name wondering if I am some sort of “Sudda(white man), having a strange foreign name. The name Jansz is a more familiar name but not Juriansz. Then people are familiar with the names of Brohier, Muller, Ludowyke, etc, because of R.L. Brohier, Carl Muller and Professor E.F.C. Ludowyke, all of whom are distinguished writers.
As the Dictionary mentions, the word “burgher” means citizen-derived from the word “Burgh” of “Borough”. But, few people are aware that it has a racial connotation- that it refers to descendants of European settlers in Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon. In the European Middle Ages, a burgher was any freeman of a burgh or borough; or any inhabitant of a borough, a person who lives in town. (Even in modern German the word for citizen is Bürger.) Also a member of the middle class such as in bourgeois, not, for example, of the upper (manor lord) or lower (serf farmer) class. In pre-modern Sweden and Finland, burghers were an independent Estate, with a monopoly in trade.
The Burghers, generally call themselves “Dutch” hence the more popular Dutch Burgher Union (DBU). But the name is generally defined a mix of Portuguese (who came to the country in 1505), Dutch (who arrived 150 years later) British and other Europeans who settled here over several centuries.
The Burghers, the majority of whom are Christians, also consider themselves the Eurasian descendants of Europeans and high-born Singhalese or, less often, Tamils. Once a wealthy and influential population, there are no more than a few thousand “Burghers” now and their numbers continue to dwindle. Burghers are not physically homogeneous. It is possible to have a blond, fair-skinned Burgher, as well as a Burgher with a very dark complexion and black hair.
Fair-skinned and dark-skinned children can even appear as brother and sister in the same family of the same parents. Burghers share a common culture rather than a common ethnicity. While the older generations of Burghers tried to dismiss the obvious Asian side of their ancestry, many younger Burghers today highly value this variety in their heritage.
In the census of 2001, the Burgher population of Sri Lanka was enumerated at 34,583 persons. The current percentage of Burghers in the Sri Lankan population is less than 1%. The highest concentration of Burghers is in Colombo (0.72%) and Gampaha (0.5%). There are also similar, significant communities in Trincomalee and Batticaloa, but due to conflict in those areas during the 2001 census, figures are not available. The world population (mostly in Sri Lanka, Australia, the USA and the UK) is probably no more than 100,000.
The Portuguese, came here 500 years ago by accident, gave us names like Fernando, de Silva, De Soyza or de Zoysa, Serpanchy, Almeida, Cruz etc. Burgher culture is a rich mixture of east and west, reflecting their ancestry. They are the most westernised of the ethnic groups in Sri Lanka. Most of them wear western clothing, although it is not uncommon for a man to be seen wearing a sarong, or for a woman to wear a sari.
A number of elements in Burgher culture have actually extended to become part of the cultures of other ethnic groups in Sri Lanka. For example, baila music, which has its origin in the music of 16th century Portugal, has found its way into mainstream popular Sinhalese music. Lacemaking, which began as a domestic pastime of Burgher women, is now a part of Sinhalese culture too. Even certain foods, such as Love Cake, Bol Fiado (layered cake), Ijzer Koekjes and Frikkadels (savoury meatballs), have become an integral part of Sri Lankan national cuisine.
Burghers have a very strong interest in their family histories. Many old Burgher families kept stamboeks (from the Dutch for ‘Clan Books’). These recorded not only dates of births, marriages and deaths, but also significant events in the history of a family, such as details of moving house, illnesses, school records, even major family disputes. An extensive, multi-volume stamboek of many family lineages is kept by the Dutch Burgher Union.
Individual families have traditions which reflect their specific family origins. Burghers of Dutch origin sometimes celebrate the Feast of St Nicholas in December, and those of Portuguese-Jewish origin observe customs such as the separation time of a woman after childbirth (see Leviticus 12:2-5), the redemption of the Firstborn (Pidyon ha-Ben), and the purification bath (taharah) after a daughter’s first period (see niddah). Most of the latter Burgher families, being unaware of the Jewish origins of these customs, have given them a Catholic slant.
Some would even say that a certain attitude has become part of Burgher culture, that of tolerance. While inter-communal strife has sadly become a feature of modern Sri Lankan life, Burghers have on the whole worked to maintain good relations with other ethnic groups. It is safe to say that racial and religious tolerance is an integral part of Burgher culture too.
“Burghers” is a Dutch word so common in Amsterdam. Families with family names like Brohier, Cramer, Drieberg, Joachim, Koelmeyer, Melder, Kelaart, Jansz(as mentioned above) and Juriansz of course to name a few.
During the Dutch regime they brought non-Dutch Europeans to work in the Dutch East India Company.
Burgher names from Germany and France
These were from Germany and thus we inherit names like Ebert, Koch, von Hagt, and from France Poulier, Toussaint, etc. Others came from Belgium and Italy as well.
The “Pommie” contribution
The British too brought families with names like Boustead, Peterson, Wright, Crozier, Roberts, Forbes etc.
So, the bottom line is that the term “Burgher, which generally seems to refer to the descendants of the Dutch Community is quite an “achcharu”( a pickle). Reminds me of a dog that one of my Uncles had who was called “pickle”. Don’t ask me why? I was too young to remember anyway.
With the passage of time and intermarriages, the British settlers too merged with the locals and were officially designated as “Burghers”, though some were called Euroasians- a mixture of European and Asian.
Burghers of repute who held high positions were the late major general B.R. Heyn, Dr V.R. Schokman (Mayor of Colombo), Dr R.L. Spittel (renowned author). But it is in the field of Sports that Burghers really left their mark on Ceylon (Sri Lankan) history.
Ivan de Kretser captained Sri Lanka in the World Cup Hockey Competition. Duncan White won an Olympic Silver in 440 yards hurdles.
Burgher contribution to Cricket
This is a difficult topic to discuss in a brief treatise like this. The reason being that the contribution has been immense!
The youngster under 30 of years of age might not even remember when a Burgher last played for Sri Lanka. Well, I must correct myself. There was Michael van Dort who has played two Test for Sri Lanka and is currently playing club and occasional “A” team cricket.
Then a little earlier there was Graeme La Brooy and Marlon von Hagt(cousin of the present skipper Marvan Atapattu.
A famous son of the soil is Davenell Frederick Whatmore, who was eight years in Ceylon before migrating to Australia. Whatmore is the first and only Sri Lankan born who played Tests for Australia and coached the World Cup winning 1996 Sri Lankan side. There was Malcolm Spittel of S. Joseph’s who played for Queensland but in an era when Sri Lankans or Ceylonese as they were then called, were not recognised, except perhaps for the Ceylon tea, he found it difficult to find a place in the Australian side.
Then there was Laddie Outschoorn, who played for Worcestershire, Dan Piachaud for Cambridge, not forgetting Clive Inman, who represented Leicestershire, and scored the fastest fifty in English cricket (50 off 8 balls).
Several Burgher families, including mine had family teams.
Grey of Boxing
Eddie Grey, who was domiciled in Melbourne at the time of his demise was a boxing prodigy but his talents extended to horsemanship as well. Eddie was an Inspector of Police attached to the Ceylon Police during the period 1937 to 1957. Most of his career had been spent as the Officer in Charge of the Police Stables. He was an excellent Horseman and a Polo player.
Whilst he was in charge of the Stables, he was able to befriend the Right Hon. D. S Senanayake, the first Prime Minister of Ceylon. Mr. Senanayake had a passion for horse riding and in the mornings he used to ride with Eddie on the Galle Face Green.
There were occasions the then Inspector General of Police, Sir Richard Aluwihare used to accompany them. In fact, on the occasion that Mr. D. S. Senanayake fell from his horse due to a stroke and passed away. Eddie was riding with him along with Sir Richard.
(Note: video added by eLanka)