Burghers: The Forgotten Community

22 Nov, 2000    ·   439

N. Manoharan explores the profile of Burghers of Sri Lanka

Burghers are a minuscule but important ethnic group in Sri Lanka . They are the descendents of children of Portuguese and Dutch marriages with Ceylonese. They were in fact Dutch tradesmen who came to Ceylon after the establishment of the Dutch East India Company. They were termed “Burghers” by the Dutch to differentiate them from the official classes. Though they enjoyed some rights and privileges, they were not treated on par with the colonisers. Some opine that the term was used by the Dutch to distinguish Portuguese from the Ceylonese. Hence, it was a stigma to be called as Burghers. 



However, Burghers developed into a distinct community with inter-marriages among themselves leading to a steady increase in their numbers. They are largely Christians, highly educated, urban centred, and have a reputation for energy, conscientiousness and workmanship. They adopted English as their mother tongue and European customs. The Burghers also took up teaching, medicine and law, considered the “back bone of the white bureaucracy under British rule”. The Britishers required them to man the colonial bureaucracy, as the Burghers were well versed not only in English, but also in western idiosyncrasies. Hence, William Digby called them the “Eurasians of Ceylon”. 



It will be misleading to say that Burghers form a homogenous community. Within their community, the Dutch Burghers (known as Hollandsche) saw themselves as superior to the Portuguese Burghers (also known as Tupass) and thus “true Burghers”. They referred to the “inferior” category as “Mikoes”, “lafai types” and “tea bushes” and also by derogatory names like “godaya” (rustic), “yako” (idiot), “karapoti lansi” (black Burghers) and “native”. The Hollandsche went to the extent of forming a Dutch Burgher Union in 1907-08 and imposed strict matrimonial restrictions to “prevent the race from degenerating.” 



During the colonial period, as the Burghers enjoyed certain special rights and privileges, they considered themselves next to their imperial masters. Consequently, they looked down upon the local people and considered it to be an insult to be treated on par with them. This made them keep aloof and avoid socialisation with the Ceylonese. 



After independence the Burghers gradually lost their clout. They, along with other minorities, started losing their jobs due to passage of the Sinhala Only Act, which made the Sinhala language a necessary qualification for employment in the government. As a result, their economic downfall and social degeneration set in, which can be traced to universal adult franchise in 1931 when they started losing their representation in municipal and legislative councils because of their small numbers. The Burghers were then faced with only two alternatives: 



i) either to Ceylonise themselves; or



ii) to emigrate to the West.



The majority of them adopted the second option and emigrated either to their respective parent country ( Holland or Portugal ) or to Australia . This process is still in progress. The remaining population, especially the younger generation, have adopted Sinhalese customs including the language. However, this community is non-controversial and has not been marginalised. 



It is true that some in the Burgher community have advocated the idea of lansieelam (lansi refers to Burghers) on the lines of the eelam demand by the LTTE. But, this is not taken seriously due to their miniscule numbers and scattered demography.