Dutch Burghers Left Behind in Colombo, 1796

From: Being “Dutch” in the Indies: A History of Creolisation and Empire, 1500–1920, by Ulbe Bosma and Remco Raben, tr. by Wendie Shaffer (National U. Singapore Press, 2008), pp. 81-82:

The British and Dutch Burgher communities lived — quite literally — separate lives. The British settled inside the walled fortress of Colombo, while the Burghers lived in the city. An eyewitness describes an atmosphere of cool friendliness: “They meet seldom, unless on public occasions, when they are mutually friendly and agreeable to one another. Intercourse of this nature does not occur sufficiently often to breed intimate acquaintance, or lasting attachments.” Yet as early as 27 August 1796, a short six months after the British occupation of the city, the first marriage was celebrated between a young woman from a Burgher family and an Englishman. And more were to follow. In addition, little by little the British fluttered forth from their entrenched position and started to rent houses in the city and surrounding districts from the impoverished Burghers.

Although we have little information about the material circumstances of Burghers in the 18th century, it is evident that after the British occupation many fell upon hard times. Before February 1796, most of the Europeans had been working for the Dutch East India Company; now they had to make ends meet in some other way. Anyone who owned land would try to manage by selling coconuts, areca nuts and palm wine, and by renting out houses to the English. Burghers gradually gained modest positions in the government, since they were very useful to the British, providing a cheap source of labour and being well acquainted with the island. The Burghers, who lived mainly in the colonial centres and traditionally worked for the government, continued to be a community of civil servants. Several prominent clergymen and lawyers emerged from their midst, but on the whole they held posts in the lower ranks of the law courts and various administrative government departments.

With the arrival of the new authority in Ceylon, the social position of the Burghers changed. Just as, 150 years earlier, high-ranking officials in the Dutch East India Company had looked down upon the Portuguese, so after 1796 the “Dutch Burghers” were dismissed by the British as a “mixed-race breed” with extraordinary habits. Only very gradually did a mixed British-Ceylonese community develop; hence, for a long time the local Mestizo community remained synonymous with the term “Burgher”. Their sense of unity was strengthened by their loss of status and the arrogant attitude of their new masters. Already under the Dutch East India Company the Burghers had regularly approached the government as a group, demanding certain rights and privileges. They continued to do so under the British. They were concerned about the erosion of their social standing, as exemplified by their (privileged) custom of keeping slaves, their educational privileges, and their job opportunities, which were being threatened by the emerging class of well-educated Sinhalese and Tamils. However, they seem to have lacked a strong sense of Dutch identity. When in the mid-19th century the Burghers began to voice their own political and cultural agenda in the press, it was not to Dutch examples that they turned, but rather to British models, and they found inspiration in antiquity and the rise of nationalism in Europe. It was chiefly Burghers who supported the founding of the newspaper Young Ceylon in 1850. Inspired by Giuseppe Mazzini’s Young Italy movement for the unification of Italy, Young Ceylon voiced the thoughts of a rising elite of Burghers and cautiously promulgated the sentiments of Ceylonese patriotism. It was an expression of the intellectual ambitions of a young generation imbued with Western culture yet maintaining a markedly Ceylonese perspective. Like the newspaper’s founders, Charles Ambrose Lorenz and the brothers Frederick and Louis Nell, most of those working on the newspaper were descended from Dutch East India Company employees, although there were also a few Sinhalese involved.

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Filed under Britain, language, migration, nationalism, Netherlands, Portugal, Sri Lanka

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