Descendants of European Colonies
The Burghers, proud descendants of the Dutch and Portuguese colonies of the 16th and 17th centuries, have been an integral part of Sri Lankan society for centuries. This Eurasian ethnic group traces its ancestry not only to the Portuguese and Dutch, but also to the British and other Europeans who settled on the island. Despite the passage of time, many Burghers still maintain their predominantly Western customs, traditions, language, and religion. Their unique blend of Eastern and Western influences has greatly enriched Sri Lankan culture.
A Diverse Community
Burghers are often seen as having fair complexions, light-colored eyes, and hair in comparison to other races in Sri Lanka. However, it is important to note that not all Burghers fit this stereotype. Due to intermarriage between different races, some Burghers have olive or even dark skin tones, and dark hair and eyes. The mixed ancestry of the Burghers has led to a diverse range of physical attributes within the community.
The Evolution of the Term ‘Burgher’
The term ‘Burgher’ originated from the Dutch word ‘Burger,’ which simply referred to a citizen of a town or borough. Originally, the word did not carry any racial or ethnic connotations; it was solely a marker of civil status. However, as the town-dwelling population grew and became more diverse during the Dutch rule in Sri Lanka, the term ‘Burgher’ came to be associated with the descendants of Portuguese and Dutch immigrants.
Dutch Burghers and Portuguese Burghers
Under British rule, the term ‘Burgher’ served as a convenient label for all non-indigenous subjects of Sri Lanka who were descendants of Portuguese and Dutch immigrants. Within this group, two distinct communities emerged: the Portuguese Burghers and the Dutch Burghers. These communities remained separate based on ethnicity, religion, language, and physical attributes. However, to outsiders, it became easier to categorize them as one group, even though divisions within each community persisted.
Recognition and Definition
The British administration did not officially recognize the division between Portuguese Burghers and Dutch Burghers. Instead, they broadly classified them all as Burghers for administrative purposes. It was only in 1833, during the British colonial era, that an official definition was established. The Supreme Court declared that the term ‘Burgher’ encompassed all descendants of Portuguese, Dutch, and other Europeans born in Sri Lanka. Over time, the term came to include Eurasians of various origins, such as children of British-Sinhalese unions.
The Portuguese Burghers
The current Portuguese Burghers primarily descend from the ‘Mestiços,’ a group of people of mixed Portuguese and Sinhalese or Tamil descent. The Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka in the 16th century and established colonies, often intermarrying with the local population. These early unions resulted in the creation of the ‘Mestiços,’ who are the ancestors of the present-day Portuguese Burgher community. However, the Portuguese Burghers faced social and economic challenges throughout history, and they continue to be considered a lower caste in Sri Lankan society.
The Dutch Burghers
The Dutch Burghers are predominantly descended from the Dutch colonizers, but they also have mixed Portuguese, Sinhalese, and Tamil ancestry. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Dutch intermarried with the Portuguese Burghers and other local communities. When the British took control of Sri Lanka, many Dutch settlers left, while others chose to remain under British rule. The Dutch Burghers played a significant role in various sectors, including education, bureaucracy, and infrastructure development. They bridged the cultural gap between the Sinhalese and the British, and their contributions greatly influenced Ceylonese society.
Famous Burgher Personalities in Sri Lanka
The Burgher community has produced many notable individuals who have made remarkable contributions to Sri Lankan society. Among them are:
Renowned writer, poet, and journalist Carl Muller captivated readers with his trilogy depicting the lives of a fictional Burgher family in 1930s Sri Lanka. His novels, including “The Jam Fruit Tree” and “Children of the Lion,” have received numerous accolades.
As the first Sri Lankan athlete to win an Olympic medal, Major Deshamanya Duncan White secured second place in the 400m hurdles at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London. His remarkable achievement also made him the first South Asian in over fifty years to win an Olympic medal in a track and field event.
Sir Christopher Ondaatje and Michael Ondaatje
The Ondaatje brothers, born into a Burgher family of Dutch and Indian origin, have left an indelible mark in the fields of literature and exploration. Michael Ondaatje, a celebrated novelist, is widely recognized for his award-winning novel “The English Patient” and its film adaptation. Christopher Ondaatje, his adventurous older brother, represented Canada in bobsledding and has authored books about his travels through India and Africa.
Angelo Mathews, the current captain of the Sri Lankan Cricket team, has played a crucial role in the team’s success, including leading them to victory in the 2014 World Twenty20 championship.
Hailing from a Dutch Burgher family, Jean Arasanayagam is an English language writer and poet known for her works such as “Kindura” and “The Cry of the Kite.”
Wendy Whatmore, an established poet, founded the Wendy Whatmore Academy of Speech and Drama, which has become Sri Lanka’s premier speech training institute.
The Lionel Wendt theatre, named after renowned pianist, photographer, and cinematographer Lionel Wendt, is a significant cultural hub in Colombo. Wendt and his contemporaries were pioneers in promoting Kandyan dance and other cultural forms in Sri Lanka.
Frederica Jansz, a journalist of Dutch descent, gained recognition as the former editor of “The Sunday Leader.” Her fearless reporting during the civil war earned her the Editor’s Guild of Sri Lanka Journalist of the Year Award in 2004.
Jacqueline Fernandez, winner of the 2006 Miss Sri Lanka Universe pageant, has achieved fame as an actress in Bollywood. Her performances have garnered critical acclaim, with a nomination for Best Supporting Actress at the IIFA Awards.
Throughout history, Burghers have played a significant role in shaping Sri Lanka’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. The Dutch Burghers, in particular, have been at the forefront of development, while the Portuguese Burghers have worked tirelessly to preserve their cultural heritage. Despite their relatively small population, both communities continue to make meaningful contributions to the fabric of Sri Lankan society.
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