About Sri Lankan Burghers

The Burghers are an Euro-Asian ethnic group, historically domiciled in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) comprising mainly male-line descendants of European settlers from the 16th to 19th centuries who intermarried into indigenous communities, mostly Sinhalese and Tamil. In the early 1980’s the Burgher population of Sri Lanka was estimated at 39,400. The estimated percentage of Burghers in the Sri Lankan population is less than 0.8%. The highest concentration of Burghers is in the Colombo and Gampaha districts and there are also smaller concentrations in the Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts on the East Coast. It has been estimated that the world population of Sri Lankan Burghers (mostly in Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand, the US, the UK, Canada and Switzerland) is probably no more than 100,000.

The term “Burgher” was defined by law in 1883, by the then Chief Justice of Ceylon, Sir Richard Ottley, before a Royal Commission which was appointed in connection with the establishment of a legislative Council in Ceylon. One was legally deemed to be Burgher if one's father was born in Ceylon, with at least one European ancestor on one's direct paternal side, regardless of the ethnic origin of one's mother, or what other ethnic groups may be found on the father's side. Because of this definition, Burghers always have European surnames.

The Portuguese arrived in Ceylon in 1505. Since there were no women who sailed with the Portuguese fleets, the Portuguese sailors married local women. This practice of intermarriage with local people was encouraged by the Portuguese government, not only in Ceylon, but also in other Portuguese colonies like Macau (China) and Malacca (Malaysia).

After the Dutch defeated the Portuguese in 1653, those who were not killed in battle were expelled. However “stateless” persons of Portuguese descent, and of mixed Portuguese-Sinhalese or Tamil ancestry were permitted to stay behind under the Dutch East India Company (VOC).

The word 'Burgher' is derived from the Dutch/German word VryBurger, meaning "free citizen" or "town's dweller". At the time when feudalism in Europe disintegrated and instead of there being just two classes, i.e. the nobles and the peasants, there emerged another class of people who were neither aristocrat nor serf. They were essentially traders and businessmen, who lived in towns and were considered free citizens and on whom were conferred the title “ burgher”, which had no racial connotation. The term burgher” (denoted with a simple “b”) referred to “free citizens“ living in European cities and towns. These burghers were encouraged to migrate to the colonies in order to expand trade and business. Thus in Dutch Colonial Ceylon there were two classes of people, who were born in Europe, namely, those who were on the payroll of the VOC and referred to as “Company Servants“ and those who had migrated to Ceylon from Europe on their own volition for commercial reasons. Those burghers who were divorcees and bachelors married into the indigenous population or to the widows and siblings of the Portuguese . Their offspring of the first, second and subsequent generations were also referred to as Burghers, (denoted with a Capital “B” because of the racial connotation) who were neither Dutch, European, Sinhalese or Tamil. Thus referred as Burghers they formed the Euro-Asian civilian population in Ceylon. So, when in 1796, the British defeated the Dutch many European burghers opted to leave rather than serve the Dutch. But almost all the Ceylonese Burghers who desired to make Ceylon their home were permitted to do so by the British Crown on condition of their signing an oath of allegiance to the King of England.

Burgher culture is a rich and unique blend of east and west, reflecting their ancestry. They are the most westernized of the ethnic groups in Sri Lanka. Most of them wear western clothing, although it is not uncommon for Burghers to be seen wearing a sarong or sari. A number of elements in Burgher culture have also become part of the cultures of other ethnic groups in Sri Lanka. For example, baila music, which had its origin in 16th century Portugal, found its way into mainstream popular Sinhalese music. Lacemaking, which began as a domestic pastime of burgher women in Europe,is now a part of the Sri Lankan cottage industry. Even certain foods, such as lamprais, bol fiado (layered cake) and frikkadels (savoury meatballs), have become a delicious part of Sri Lankan cuisine.

Burghers share a common culture rather than a common ethnicity and are not physically homogeneous. It is possible to have a blond, fair-skinned Burgher who speaks English, as well as a Burgher with a very dark complexion and black hair who may only have a smattering of the language. Fair-skinned and dark-skinned children can even appear as brother and sister in the same family of the same parents, not as a result of the promiscuity of the parents but because of a throwback in either parents’ ancestry. Burghers have a very strong interest in their family histories. Many of the older Burgher families kept stamboeks (from the Dutch for "Clan Books") which recorded not only dates of births, marriages and deaths, but also significant events in the history of the family.

While inter-communal strife has sadly become a feature of modern Sri Lankan life, Burgher culture has on the whole worked well to maintain good relations with other ethnic groups and has played a significant role in racial harmony and religious tolerance. (EHO).