How The Burghers Came To Be
The term ‘Burgher’ comes from the Dutch word 'Burgher' meaning
“citizen” or “town dweller”.
Portuguese arrived in ‘Ceylon’ (now Sri Lanka). In 1612 King
(reigned 1604-1635) concluded a treaty with the Dutch
envoy Marcelis Boschouwer granting the Dutch extensive
commercial concessions in return for assistance against
over time the Sinhalese became displeased with the
brutality of the Portuguese. (For more information see
Finally on 23rd May 1638 King Rajasimha
II (reigned 1635-1687) signed a treaty approving the
Dutch to wage war against the Portuguese. A battle took
place on 4th January 1638 between the Dutch and
Portuguese and the latter were defeated.
During the Dutch period, all Dutch colonial operations
were overseen by the (‘Vereenigde Oost-Indische
Compagnie’ (VOC) or United
East India Company). Virtually all Burghers from
this period were employees of the VOC.
In 1794 the
Scottish antiquary Alexander Adam (1741-1809) in his
writings “Geography and History, Ancient and Modern”
(1794) said “Ceylon .. is thought to be the richest
island in the world”. It was at about this time the British were making plans
to take Ceylon from the Dutch.
The Burghers were legally
defined in 1883 by
the Chief Justice of Ceylon, Sir Richard Ottley, who
was appointed in connection with the establishment
of a legislative council in Ceylon.
Burghers were defined as those whose 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 almost always have
European surnames (mostly of Portuguese, Dutch and
British origin, but some are of German, French or
culture is therefore a rich mixture of East and West,
reflecting their ancestry.
Today Sri Lankan music is characterised by the ‘Baila’
(Portuguese for ‘dance’) and, it is said, over 200 words
are of Portuguese origin.
Burghers are not physically homogeneous. It is
possible to have a blonde, fair-skinned Burgher, as well
as a Burgher with a very dark complexion and black hair;
a Burgher with a complexion from brown to light brown
with black to light brown hair; and a Burgher of fair
complexion with black hair. They also possess the
full spectrum of eye colours. Fair-skinned and
dark-skinned children can even appear as siblings in the
same family of the same parents.
Some commentators believe that the
mixed backgrounds of Burghers have made their culture
more tolerant and open.
Burghers organically developed
their own unique culture
and traits. We are very fortunate and privileged
to host on this website the memoirs of older Burghers
who once lived within a cohesive and supportive society.
We hope you enjoy their recollections which provide a
firsthand insight into this people.
Sources: A Complete Illustrated History of Sri Lanka,
Robert Anton, 2012; Wikipedia