Burgher people

Last updated
Total population
37,061 (2012 census) [1]
Regions with significant populations
Western Province Flag (SRI LANKA).png  Western 24,170
Eastern Province Flag (SRI LANKA).png  Eastern 4,458
Central Province.png  Central 3,347
North Western Flag.png  North Western 2,192
Languages of Sri Lanka: Sinhala
English, Tamil, Sri Lankan Portuguese creole
Related ethnic groups

Burgher people, also known simply as Burghers, are a small Eurasian ethnic group in Sri Lanka descended from Portuguese, Dutch, British [2] [3] and other European men who settled in Ceylon [4] [5] and developed relationships with native Sri Lankan women. [6] The Portuguese and Dutch had held some of the maritime provinces of the island for centuries before the advent of the British Empire. [7] [8] [9] With the establishment of Ceylon as a crown colony at the end of the 18th century, most of those who retained close ties with the Netherlands departed. However, a significant community of Burghers remained and largely adopted the English language. [8] During British rule they occupied a highly important place in Sri Lankan social and economic life. [9]


Portuguese settlers on Ceylon were essentially traders, but wished to form colonies, and Lisbon did nothing to discourage European settlement—even to the extent of advocating intermarriage with the Sinhalese. This was not encouraged by the Sinhalese. It was not the policy of the Dutch East India Company to endorse similar unions, although a number of unofficial liaisons between its employees and local women occurred in the late eighteenth century. [8]

Burghers may vary from generation to generation in physical characteristics; some intermarried with the British [9] and produced descendants with predominantly European phenotypes, including fairer skin and a heavier physique, while others were almost indistinguishable from Sinhalese or Tamils. [7] Most Burgher people have preserved European customs, especially those of Portuguese ancestry, who "retained their European religion and language with pride." [10] [11]

The Burghers were legally defined in 1883 by the Chief Justice of Ceylon, Sir Richard Ottley, given before the Commission, 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 sometimes German, French or Russian). [12]


The Portuguese arrived in 1505 in what outsiders then called Ceylon. Since there were no women in the Portuguese navy, the Portuguese sailors married local Sinhalese and Tamil women. This practice was encouraged by the Portuguese.

The Dutch first made contact and signed a trade agreement with the Kingdom of Kandy in 1602. From 1640 on the Dutch East India Company (VOC) ('Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie' or United East India Company) had a governor installed and conquered more and more forts from the Portuguese, until, in 1658, the last Portuguese were expelled. However, they permitted a few stateless persons of Portuguese-Jewish (Marrano) descent, and of mixed Portuguese-Sinhalese ancestry to stay. Many people having a Portuguese name were a result of forced conversions of local/native people in order to work for the Portuguese. As a result, Burghers with Portuguese names are most likely to be of Sinhalese ancestry, with a very small portion being Portuguese or mixed Portuguese-Sinhalese ancestry. Those of a Portuguese-Jewish background can be traced in various forms or surmised from their surname. Most Burghers of Eurasian descent with Portuguese surnames are of Sinhalese and Dutch, British, German and/or other European descent.

During the Dutch period, all Dutch colonial operations were overseen by the VOC. Virtually all Burghers from this period were employees of the VOC. The VOC employed not only Dutch nationals, but also enlisted men from the Southern Netherlands, the German states, Denmark and Austria. It is therefore not unusual to find ancestors from these countries in many Dutch Burgher family trees.[ citation needed ]

The term 'Burgher' comes from the Dutch word burger, meaning "citizen" or "town dweller", and is cognate with the French "bourgeois" and the English word "burgess". At this time in Europe, there had emerged a middle class, consisting of people who were neither aristocrats nor serfs. These were the traders and businessmen, who lived in towns and were considered free citizens. In Europe, they were called burghers, and they were encouraged to migrate to the colonies in order to expand business horizons.[ citation needed ]

Dutch Ceylon had two classes of people of European descent: those who were paid by the VOC and were referred to as Company servants (i.e. employees), and those who had migrated of their own free will. The latter were not referred to as burghers in Ceylon, but rather by their rank, position or standing.[ citation needed ]

During the period British rule, they were referred to by the British as 'Dutch Burghers' and formed the majority of the European-descended populace residing in Ceylon. The 'Dutch Burgher' community took pride in its own achievements and prized their European ancestry. A number of Dutch Burgher Union journals have been created over a period of time, to record family histories. They were not only of Dutch origin but incorporated European (Dutch, German, Hungarian, Italian, French, Swedish etc.), United Kingdom, Portuguese Mix, and Sinhalese lines.[ citation needed ]

When the British took over in 1796, many VOC employees chose to leave. However, a significant number chose to stay, mostly those of mixed descent. Some chose to go to Batavia, which was the headquarters of the VOC. Reportedly about 900 families, both free citizens and Dutch East India Company employees, decided to remain in Ceylon.[ citation needed ] One condition of them being allowed to stay was that they had to sign a treaty of capitulation, which guaranteed they would remain loyal and not defect if the Dutch attempted to re-conquer Ceylon. Every Burgher remaining in Ceylon signed the treaty, which is commonly used by their descendants to trace their linage. In 1796, the 900 'Dutch Burgher' families residing in Ceylon were concentrated in Colombo, Galle, Matara and Jaffna.[ citation needed ]

The Burghers included members of the Swiss de Meuron Regiment, a Swiss mercenary unit employed by the VOC. In diplomatic negotiations in Europe, Count de Meuron pledged allegiance to the British in exchange for back pay and military information. This allowed the British to get detailed fortification information and reduce the garrison size of Ceylon prior to 1796. The de Meuron Regiment refused to fight the Dutch due to relationships forged on the island of Ceylon and South Africa with the British. Post 1796 members of the de Meuron Regiment stayed in Ceylon, whilst the regiment itself went off to fight and distinguish itself in India and later in Canada.[ citation needed ]



Historical population
1881 17,900    
1891 21,200+18.4%
1901 23,500+10.8%
1911 26,700+13.6%
1921 29,400+10.1%
1931 32,300+9.9%
1946 41,900+29.7%
1953 46,000+9.8%
1963 45,900−0.2%
1971 45,400−1.1%
1981 39,400−13.2%
1989 (est.) 42,000+6.6%
2001 35,300−16.0%
2011 37,061+5.0%
Source: Department of Census & Statistics, Sri Lanka [13]
Data is based on the Sri Lankan Government Census.

In the census of 1981, the Burgher population of Sri Lanka was 39,374 persons, about 0.2% of the total population. The highest concentration of Burghers is in Colombo (0.72%) and Gampaha (0.5%). There are also significant communities in Trincomalee and Batticaloa, with an estimated population of 20,000.

Burgher descendants are spread throughout the world. Families with surnames such as Van Dort (or the variant Vandort) are of Dutch ancestry.


Percentage of burghers per district based on 2001 or 1981 (cursive) census. Sri Lanka Burgher.svg
Percentage of burghers per district based on 2001 or 1981 (cursive) census.

Nowadays Burgher people predominantly speak Sinhala. Until the early 20th century, many Burghers spoke English and Sri Lankan Portuguese creole, even those of Dutch descent. Portuguese Creole had been the language of trade and communication with Sri Lankans. It is now only spoken in parts of the coastal towns of Trincomalee and Batticaloa. While much vocabulary is from Portuguese, its grammar is based on that of Tamil and Sinhala.

Depending on where they live in Sri Lanka, Burghers may also additionally speak English and or Tamil. According to the 2012 Census 73.6% or 24,412 Burghers also spoke English and 88.3% or 29,277 Burghers also spoke Tamil. [15]


Burgher culture is a mixture of East and West, reflecting their ancestry. They are the most Europeanised of the ethnic groups in Sri Lanka. Most of them wear modern contemporary clothing, although it is not uncommon for a man to be seen wearing a sarong , or for a woman to wear a sari .

A number of elements in Burgher culture have become part of the cultures of other ethnic groups in Sri Lanka. For example, baila music, which has its origin in the music of 16th-century Portugal, has found its way into mainstream popular Sinhalese music. Lacemaking, which began as a domestic pastime of Burgher women, is now a part of Sinhalese culture too. Even certain foods, such as love cake, breudher, bol fiado (layered cake), ijzer koekjes (iron cookies), frikkadels (savoury meatballs) and lamprais, have become an integral part of Sri Lankan national cuisine.

Burghers are not physically homogeneous. It is possible to have a blond, pale white-skinned Burgher, as well as a Burgher with a very dark complexion and black hair, a Burgher with complexion from brown to light brown and black hair, and a Burgher with fairer complexion and black hair. Pale-skinned and dark-skinned children can even appear as brother and sister in the same family of the same parents. Burghers share a common culture rather than a common ethnicity.

Burghers have a very strong interest in their family histories. Many old Burgher families kept stamboeken (from the Dutch for "clan books"). These recorded not only dates of births, marriages and deaths, but also significant events in the history of a family, such as details of moving house, illnesses, school records, and even major family disputes. An extensive, multi-volume stamboek of many family lineages is kept by the Dutch Burgher Union.

Individual families often have indigenous European traditions reflecting their specific family origins. Burghers of Dutch origin sometimes celebrate the Feast of Saint Nicholas in December, and those of Portuguese-Jewish origin observe customs such as the separation time of a woman after childbirth (see Leviticus 12:2-5), the redemption of the Firstborn (Pidyon ha-Ben), and the purification bath (taharah) after a daughter’s first period (see niddah ). Most of the latter Burgher families, being unaware of the Jewish origins of these customs, have given them a Catholic slant. (Catholic and Episcopal churches had services for the churching of women after childbirth from ancient times.)

However, some traditions attributed to Judaism can also be explained as borrowings or retention from the Tamil and Sinhalese communities with whom many Burgher families also share ancestry and culture. For example, the purification bath after a girl’s first period is a common cultural feature of the Tamil and Sinhalese communities of Sri Lanka and neighboring India. Hence its prevalence amongst some Burghers families of Sri Lanka is not necessarily of Jewish origins.

Some commentators believe that the Burghers’ own mixed backgrounds have made their culture more tolerant and open. While inter-communal strife has been a feature of modern Sri Lankan life, some Burghers have worked to maintain good relations with other ethnic groups.

In 2001 the Burghers established a heritage association, the Burgher Association, with headquarters at No.393, Union Place, Colombo 2 Sri Lanka.

See also

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