A People in-between East and West-by Prabhath de Silva

The Dutch Burghers in Sri Lanka:


“We are a vanishing tribe in Sri Lanka. The first paternal ancestor of my father’s family who arrived in Sri Lanka in 1774 was Pieter Scharenguivel. He was a Quarter Master in the service of the United Dutch East India Company which ruled the maritime provinces of Sri Lanka from the middle of the 17th century to 1796. The Dutch Burgher identity and consciousness within the family I grew up was extremely significant. It played a role in the conversations, traditions, customs, food, perceptions and social interactions. During the British colonial rule, our community produced eminent surgeons, doctors, legal luminaries, judges, engineers, sportsmen, musicians , historians and artists etc.” , said Anne-Marie Scharenguivel, 65, a management accountant and a member of Sri Lanka’s tiny Dutch Burgher community of less than 30,000 people. The people known as ‘Dutch Burghers are descendants of the Europeans who arrived in Sri Lanka as servants of the United East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie- VOC) which ruled Sri Lanka’s maritime provinces from 1656 to 1796 or merchants and married native women or women who were children of mixed marriages between European men and native women.

Sri Lanka’s largest ethnic group is the Sinhalese, constituting 74.9% of the population of 21 million. The Sri Lankan Tamils, who live predominantly in the north and east of the island, are the largest ethnic minority group at 11.1% of Sri Lanka’s population. The Muslims are the third largest ethnic group at 9.3% of the population. Indian Tamils comprise 4.1% of Sri Lanka’s population. Smaller minority groups include the Malays, Burghers, Chetties (an originally trading community whose ancestors arrived from the southern parts of India) and the Veddahs -Sri Lanka’s indigenous people. Malays are descendants of Malay settlers brought by the Dutch colonial rulers.

The Dutch Connection with Sri Lanka

The Portuguese were the first European colonial power to arrive in Sri Lanka in 1505 when Sri Lanka had been divided into three kingdoms, namely the Kingdom of Kotte, Kingdom of Jaffna and the interior Kingdom of Kandy. Their presence in Sri Lanka’s maritime provinces between 1505 and 1656 CE, which began as an interaction of trade and commerce, later developed into a colonial rule in the maritime provinces (sans eastern coast from Trincomalee) downwards from 1597. Admiral Joris van Spilbergen (1568-1629), the Dutch circumnavigator, who commanded the fleet of ships’ Ram’, ‘Schaap’, and ‘Lam’ belonging to the Dutch company named Balthazar de Moucheron (a trading company that had been in existence before the establishment of the United East India Company -VOC in March 1602 ), landed in Batticaloa in Sri Lanka’s eastern coast on May 31, 1602, after a 12 month voyage at sea. Van Spilbergen met King Vimaladharmasuriya I, the King of Kandy (interior native kingdom of Sri Lanka), and negotiated the possibilities of trade in cinnamon and pepper and of providing military assistance to the King of Kandy to expel the Portuguese from the coastal regions of the Island. Van Spilbergen’s visit was the first Dutch visit to the Island. Spilbergen was followed by the visits of the fleets of Dutch ships commanded by the Dutch navigator, Sebald de Weert in November 1602, Jacob Cornelisz in 1603 and Marcellus de Boschouwer in 1612.

On May 23, 1638, the Treaty of 1638 between the Kingdom of Kandy and the United East India Company was signed by King Rajasinghe II for the Kingdom of Kandy and Adam Westerwold and William Jacobsz Coster, a commander and vice commander of the Dutch Naval Forces representing the United East India Company (VOC) in Batticaloa. The treaty secured the terms under which the two nations would cooperate in defending the Kandyan Kingdom from the Portuguese. The writer vividly remembers visiting the Dutch State Archives in The Hague in 1985 accompanied by a Dutch Burgher lady friend (64 at that time) settled down in that city, to see one of the original copies of this treaty handwritten in medieval Dutch. This friend whose father was a Ceylonese Dutch Burgher named Kriekenbeek and whose mother was a native Dutch lady, having left Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1948 at the age of 24 and having lived in The Netherlands for almost 37 years, was able to translate the contents of the Treaty for me from Dutch to English. I can also remember the courtesy and kindness extended to me (then a 25 year old lawyer) by the Staff of the Dutch State Archives.

The key points of the 1638 Treaty were (a) the Dutch should provide the King of Kandy with military and naval assistance to drive the Portuguese from the Island; (b) the Kandyan King should fully settle the military and naval expenditure incurred by the Dutch for onslaughts against the Portuguese by way of providing the Dutch with commodities such as cinnamon and pepper etc (c) the King of Kandy should grant the Dutch the monopoly of collecting spices and other commodities except elephants from the territories that constituted the Kingdom of Kandy; and (d) the Dutch should vacate the fortresses that would be captured from the Portuguese if the King would desire to take them over. Between 1640 and 1658 the Dutch completely expelled the Portuguese from the maritime provinces of Sri Lanka and ruled until 1796 when the British in turn replaced the Dutch and eventually took the whole island, including its holdout interior Kingdom of Kandy.

The maritime provinces of Sri Lanka came under the rule of Dutch East India Company after its armies defeated the Portuguese in a series of battles between 1640 and 1658. When the Kandyan King, Rajasinghe II demanded the Dutch to vacate and hand over the captured Portuguese Fortresses and territories, the Dutch presented a bill of military and naval expenditure involved in the battles to oust the Portuguese and asked the King to settle the bill first. But Rajasinghe II who was unable to settle the bill, would say that the Dutch had exaggerated the expenditure. The Dutch would maintain that they could hold the territories and fortresses captured from the Portuguese until the King Rajasinghe II and his successors would fully settle their bill of military and naval expenditure of onslaughts against the Portuguese. This was the legal foundation upon which the Dutch justified their occupation of the maritime provinces in the southern, western and northern coastal areas. Later they formulated another legal argument in their search for a legal basis for their rule in those regions.

They argued that Rajasinghe’s Treaty of 1638 with them was a nullity with regard to the Kingdom of Kotte as King Don Jao Dharmapala had gifted it to the King of Portugal in 1591 and the Portuguese had acquired the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Jaffna by conquest by war 1621, and as such Rajasinghe II, the King of Kandy had legal status (locus standi) to sign a treaty claiming the sovereignty over former territories of the Kingdom of Kotte (south western coastal areas of Sri Lanka) and the Kingdom of Jaffna (northern coastal areas). After a war between the Kingdom of Kandy and the forces of the United East India Company, the dispute over the sovereignty of the maritime provinces was permanently settled by the Treaty of 1766, by which the King of Kandy conceded the territorial control of the western, southern, northern and eastern coastal areas to the Dutch. The maritime provinces were ruled by the Dutch East India Company from 1656 to 1796. During their period, a canal system was developed, a judicial system was introduced with the Roman-Dutch Law. The Roman-Dutch Law still remains to be the residuary common law in civil matters, though much of it has been replaced with English Law by statutes during the British rule.

A number of Dutch words have become naturalized in the Sinhalese language . Among many such words are: Kamaraya in Sinhalese is derived from the Dutch word ‘Kamer’ for the room, Kanthoruwa in Sinhalese for office is derived from the Dutch word ‘Kantoor” for office, ‘ boodalaya’ in Sinhalese is derived from the Dutch word ‘Boedel’ for the estate of a deceased person, ‘Kakkussiya” in Sinhalese for lavatory is derived from the Dutch word’ Kakhuis’. The British captured the maritime provinces of the Island in 1796. Among other legacies of the Dutch rule are Dutch forts and a few buildings preserved for posterity. The Dutch Burgher community in Sri Lanka is a living legacy of the Dutch period. When native feudal Chiefs ceded the sovereignty of the interior native Kandyan Kingdom to the British Empire by the Kandyan Convention of 1815, the whole Island came under the British rule. Sri Lanka gained independence from the British in1948.

Who are the Burghers and the Dutch Burghers?

The word ‘Burgher’ is derived from the Dutch word ‘Vrije Burgher ‘, meaning “free citizen” or “town dweller”. The Burghers in Sri Lanka are an Eurasian community of mixed origin, whose first paternal ancestors were European colonists (mainly from Portugal, The Netherlands and the UK) who had married native Sinhalese or Tamil women. The Portuguese men who opted to remain in Sri Lanka had married native Sinhalese or Tamil women because there were no Portuguese women in the Island. The children who were born in a marriage between the Portuguese colonists and native women in Portuguese colonies overseas were called Mesticos. The second and subsequent generations of Portuguese colonists who opted to remain in Sri Lanka preferred to marry the Mestico women and their second preference was the native women. The servants and soldiers of the Dutch East India who arrived in Sri Lanka were not only Dutch but belonged to other European nationalities too including German and French Protestants known as Huguenots, Scandinavian and Italian. Marriages between them and native women were less frequent with the passage of time.

The descendants of the European servants of the Dutch East India Company and Mestico women and native women ( Sinhalese and Tamil) became known as ‘Dutch Burghers’. In order to be considered as a Dutch Burgher, one’s father ought to have inherited an European family name from an European paternal ancestor who had come to Sri Lanka during the period Dutch East India Company ruled the maritime provinces of the Island. During the Dutch colonial period, the mother tongue or the lingua franca of the Dutch Burgher community in Sri Lanka was an Indo-Portuguese creole, though the Dutch Burghers later adopted English as their first language during the British colonial period.

Dutch Burghers during the British colonial rule in Sri Lanka

Although many portray British rule here as ‘exploitative’, of our country, they ignore the vast economic, social and educational developments that facilitated the transition from feudalism to capitalism and a parliamentary democracy. The contemporary progressive political trends in Britain with her social movements like utilitarianism, social, democratic and labour movements, too influenced colonial rule here. The British empire was an extension of British capitalism to the colonies including Ceylon. Lenin in his book “Colonialism: The Advanced Stage of Capitalism” presented a similar argument. Today, we beg for foreign investment. This is not a new phenomenon. During British colonial rule, British companies invested in the plantations and other sectors in Sri Lanka. These capitalists paid taxes to the British colonial government here on the profits they earned. Later parallel to the British and European capitalist class, an indigenous native entrepreneur class emerged. The colonial government managed the economy with its own tax revenue without borrowing from outside. The Dutch Burghers who were a sort of ‘people in between’ the west and the east were able to achieve eminent positions in the public service, medical profession, legal profession and judiciary during the British colonial period in Sri Lanka. They held a proportionately higher percentage of positions as clerks, engineers, surveyors, journalists, locomotive engine drivers and railway guards in the public service. Their presence was significant in the employment of mercantile sector. It was the eminent Dutch Burghers like Charles Ambrose Lorensz were the pioneer constitutionalists who agitated for more liberal and democratic constitutional reforms during the 19th century British colonial Sri Lanka.

The Dutch Burghers in Post -Independence Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka gained independence from the British in 1948 and inherited from the British a democratic form of government based on the Westminster parliamentary model. At the time of Independence, Sinhalese majority constituted 66% of Sri Lanka’s population and the Buddhists who were almost exclusively Sinhalese constituted 60% of the Sri Lanka’s population whilst the remaining 6% of the Sinhalese population were Christians. Sri Lanka’s ethno-religious and ethnic minorities ,at the time of independence constituted 34% of Sri Lanka’s population. Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister, D. S. Senanayake, a Sinhalese Buddhist, was a pragmatic leader who did not want to upset the ethnic harmony prevalent at the time of Independence. He and his political party the United National Party formed coalition governments with the major Tamil and Muslim parties and formed the cabinet of ministers representing Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese Buddhist community and other ethno-linguistic and religious minorities.

He and his two immediate successors, Dudley Senanayake and Sir John Kotalawala after Senanayake’s resignation refused to accede to the demands of the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists for making Sinhalese the only official language replacing English, making Buddhism the State religion and for immediate take over of Christian denominational schools by the State. The Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists approached Solomon West Ridgway Dias Bandaranaike, who had broke away from D. S. Senanayake’s United National Party and had formed a new political party named Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Bandaranaike promised to implement all these demands of the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists in the event his party would come to power at the next General Election. Bandaranaike was a Sinhalese born to a highly anglicized Christian aristocratic family. Educated at Oxford (1919-1925), Bandaranaike was a Barrister-at-Law and an eloquent speaker at the Oxford Union. A few years after his return to the Island from Oxford, Bandaranaike adopted the national dress, learned the Sinhalese language and began to tread on a path of communal politics based on Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism.

In 1956, a coalition led by Bandaranaike’s on communal sentiments and slogans of the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism and socialism, was elected to power and Bandaranaike became the Prime Minister. One of the first things his government hurriedly did was to enact an Official Language Act making Sinhalese the only official language disregarding the Tamil and English , and the demand for making both Sinhalese and Tamil as official languages put forward by the Tamil political parties and Marxist political parties were rejected. The enactment of this piece of legislation deprived the English educated intelligentsia of Tamils, Dutch Burghers and Sinhalese of public sector jobs unless they passed an examination to prove their proficiency in Sinhala language.

Bandaranaike who began to experience the initial destructive consequences of his short sighted policies ,could not live long to witness the long term consequence of the whirlwind of communal tensions he set in motion through his unwise initiatives.

In September 1959, Bandaranaike was assassinated by a Buddhist monk named Talduwe Somarama, a misguided instrument or a cat’s paw of a conspiracy by a group of Sinhalese Buddhists (led by a prominent Sinhalese Buddhist monk) who helped him come to power , but developed an enmity with him, when in power, Bandaranaike refused to help them form a shipping company. The enactment of Bandaranaike’s ‘Sinhala Only’ and the events that followed drastically changed the political landscape of Sri Lanka, with his SLFP’s rival, the UNP’s governments too pursuing the same policies when in power, resulting in communal riots of 1958, 1977 and 1983 disturbances and tensions culminating in a 30-year civil war. Mrs. Bandaranaike who became prime minister in 1960, pursued policies of her husband rigorously, and took over the denominational schools of which an overwhelming majority were Christian in 1961. This entailed further appeasing the demands of the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists by withholding State grants and subsidies for such schools if they opted to remain private. As result only 51 Christian school out of hundreds could remain independent.

Christians, particularly Catholics considered the take over of their schools by the State a discriminatory blow. Mrs. Bandaranaike, elected to power again in 1970 with a two third majority in parliament, severed the constitutional links with the British monarch as the ceremonial head of the state and abolished right to appeal the decisions of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council of the United Kingdom. Her government enacted a Republican constitution granting Buddhism the foremost place in the Sri Lankan State, casting a constitutional duty upon the State to protect and foster Buddhism. Her government went further to perpetuate the Sinhala Only policy of her late husband by making Sinhala the only official language in the Sri Lankan State by incorporating provisions for such status in the new constitution of 1972. History has shown that issues of race, caste, religion, language and blind political affiliations have always been exploited by the leaders, and that these machinations have not originated from the ordinary people or peasants. Innocent peasants may be misled, misguided and mobilized by the leaders to achieve their narrow self–serving interests and ambitions by exploiting ethnicity, religion, caste and language in the South Asian political context. The Dutch Burghers, having experienced anxieties and insecurities of their future prospects, opted to emigrate mainly to Australia.

(To be continued next week)

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