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Dutch Burghers

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Many of the tombstones which cover the floor and fill the small churchyard of the Dutch Reformed Church bear Dutch names – Jansz, De Kretser, Van Langenberg and the like – dating from the colonial period right up to modern times. These commemorate the families of Sri Lanka’s smallest, and oddest, minority: the Dutch Burghers – Sri Lankans of Dutch or Portuguese descent.

At the time of Independence the Burgher community numbered around fifty thousand, based mainly in Colombo. Burghers had held major government posts under the British as well as running many of the island’s trading companies, although their numbers declined significantly in the 1950s, when as many as half the country’s Burgher families, disillusioned by Sinhalese nationalist laws based on language and religion, left for Australia, Canada or Britain.

Despite their Dutch (or Portuguese) ancestry, the Burghers have for centuries spoken English as their first language. Burgher culture preserves strong Dutch elements, however, and they would be horrified to be confused with the British, despite a certain amount of intermarriage over the years (not only with the British, but also with the Sinhalese and Tamils). Not that there is really such a thing as a single Burgher culture or community. Many of the wealthier Burghers arrived in Ceylon as employees of the Dutch East India Company, while working-class Burghers, more often from Portugal, came to help build the railways and settled largely on the coast between Colombo and Negombo. And to make things a little more confused, there are thousands of Sri Lankans with Dutch or Portuguese names, adopted during the years of occupation, yet who have no connection at all with Europe.

Over the past five decades, the Burghers have particularly made their mark in the arts, both in Sri Lanka and beyond. Geoffrey Bawa, arguably Asia’s greatest twentieth-century architect, belonged to the community (though his family, in typical Burgher style, also claimed Malay descent). George Keyt (1901–93), Sri Lanka’s foremost modern painter, was also a Burgher, as are two of Sri Lanka’s leading contemporary artists, Barbara Sansoni, founder of the Barefoot company in Colombo, and designer Ena de Silva. Overseas, the best-known Burgher is Canada-based novelist Michael Ondaatje, whose memoir of island life, Running in the Family, gives a wonderful picture of Burgher life in the years before Independence.

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