good, the bad and the Dutch
makes a Burgher becomes a hot topic for debate at a symposium on
the 400-year-old relationship between Sri Lanka and the Netherlands.
Feizal Samath reports
It may not
be only the Sinhalese and the Tamils who are being accused of discrimination
in the ethnic conflict debate these days!
In some sections
of society, even the Burghers are considered a discriminatory crowd.
of Wimala Dharma Surya I, the King of Kandy and Joris van
were some of the lighter asides of an academic discourse on 400
years of relations between Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and the Netherlands
held in Colombo last week. Before the issue could grow into a controversial
debating point, who better than the unflappable Rodney Vandergert
to calm the turbulent waters.
of this session I need to be impartial. Let's move on to the next
topic," the retired Foreign Secretary said drawing peals of
laughter from an audience of eminent historians, architects, archaeologists,
economists, writers, policy-makers and diplomats.
A few minutes
earlier, writer Deloraine Brohier had appealed to Vandergert after
the Dutch Burgher Union (DBU) was accused of being elitist and discriminatory
against less-affluent Burghers. Vandergert and Brohier, also union
president, are livewires of the DBU.
Burgher' label arose because of the snobbery of the DBU. They refused
membership to Burghers from Batticaloa, those who didn't wear shoes,"
said architect Ashley de Vos, who added that he did not join the
DBU, despite having 'all the qualifications' because of these attitudes.
the symposium organized by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS)
in collaboration with the Sri Lanka Netherlands Association to mark
this historic event brought forth reams of old and new information
on the Dutch colonial past, the events of 400 years ago, the rich
culture inherited from our former masters and the excellent cuisine
like love cake, kokis and lamprais.
And it was
left to the irrepressible Carl Muller, journalist, author and raconteur,
to close the interesting two-day meeting with a presentation on
language and colourful Dutch words like booruwa, thay, kakkusiya,
bakkiya and thurumpu!
Director Dr. Saman Kelegama opened the meeting on a cautionary note
saying this event was not a celebration but an academic exercise.
to the controversies raised in the US in 1992 when festivals were
organized to commemorate 500 years after the discovery of America
by Christopher Columbus. The American Indian movement opposed having
a Columbus Day.
a similar controversy erupted in India in January 1998 when two
universities organized an international symposium to mark 500 years
after Vasco Da Gama's voyage to India's Malabar coast. "There
were questions raised as to why there is a need to celebrate 500
years when India got a raw deal from European colonial rule,"
he said, adding that events of this nature could touch a raw nerve
among some sections of society.
expressed the view that what happened is history and should be considered
in that light - without worrying too much about whether the invaders
were hostile or friendly, or the natives were subjected to ruthless
organizers accuse me of being flippant and dealing only with controversy
while more serious matters were discussed, the conference I must
say raised a range of interesting issues with subjects ranging from
cuisine, common practices, furniture, archaeology, mercenaries,
the Dutch East India company, religious influences, the legal system,
impact on education, shipwrecks, maps, paintings, impact on the
There was Prof.
K.M. De Silva, well-known historian, who spoke on colonialism, saying
the Dutch was the middle colonial power; successors to the Portuguese
and predecessors of the British.
religious centres and edifices belonging to the Buddhists, Hindus
and Muslims were destroyed by the Portuguese in areas which they
controlled, the Dutch for their part, were somewhat more restrained
in this, but demonstrated far greater zest in demolishing Roman
Catholic churches and institutions constructed by the Portuguese.
"There are no Portuguese churches or public buildings in existence
in Sri Lanka today from the days of Portuguese rule on the coasts,
the result of the anti-Catholic zeal of the Dutch," he said.
a maritime consultant, referred to Dutch shipwrecks while Denis
Fernando, another luminary in the sciences, spoke on Dutch maps.
early artistic impressions of Sri Lanka were produced by Cornelius
Jansz Vennop, an artist who accompanied Joris Van Spilbergen, the
first Dutchman to set foot on this island in June 1602," said
Dr. R.K. de Silva who spoke on paintings.
Roland Silva dealt with Dutch ports, canals, how the term Elephant
Pass was coined, coins, lamps and chandeliers, kaolin clay pipes,
and spoke of efforts to preserve the colonial heritage.
Mendis presented a paper on the 'Limits of Mercantilism' in which
he argued that there was no 'take off' in the new economy under
the Dutch as there was under British rule.
such a take off did not take place is due to the fact that the Dutch
were constrained in their economic policy-making and practice by
ideas of monopoly which lingered on for so long," he said.
One of the
points that was clearly illustrated and that went unchallenged was
that unlike other colonial powers the Portuguese, and later the
British and Dutch were only interested in trade rather than bringing
large groups of people and colonizing the country.
Who is a Burgher?
According to Brohier, daughter of Dr. R. L. Brohier, one of the
country's best-known Burghers, the term 'Burgher' is not an ethnographic
name and has nothing to do with race.
one of her father's books, she said the term was of historic origin
and refers to a political community which has a distinctive character.
of the Dutch East India Company saw the emergence of two classes
of people - the company servants who received the company pay, status
and privileges and the other class who came out on their own for
adventure and to better their prospects and thus settled in the
colonies as Burghers.
In 1908, when
the 'Hollandische Burgher Vereeniging van Ceylon' or the DBU was
formed those accepted for membership were identified from families
originating in Europe as well as those with lineage traceable to
European genealogies. The Portuguese Burghers and others claiming
to be Burghers were not accepted by the DBU, said Brohier.
Dr. K.D.G. Wimalaratne, Director of the National Archives, to say
that he was once asked to trace the lineage of a world-renowned
Sri Lankan writer living abroad probably for the purpose of joining
the DBU. "I gave him a report after a thorough investigation
but I am certain he would not have been satisfied with its contents."
Burghers of Portuguese descent, shut out by the DBU, recently formed
a separate organization under the leadership of popular western
singer Maxi Rozairo, who was not among the participants at the conference.
to the many Burghers who served as lawyers, judges, civil servants
and other respected professionals saying they were men of letters,
culture and wide knowledge.
the difference between the Dutch and Portuguese Burghers, Brohier
said the latter category were of a lower social and economic status
taking to menial occupations, sometimes referred colloquially as
a 'shoe-maker' class. They were associated with lively dance forms
like the Kaffringa or Baila.
of the Burgher is of men and women who were cultured, dignified,
attractive and always well-mannered and courteous. It is for these
personal attributes as well as for their contributions to culture
that they have earned an honoured place in this country. They have
merged themselves so wonderfully by their courteous and dignified
appearance and their flair for making friends with everyone, that
they are some of the most loved members of the country," she
On a very sentimental
note, architect De Vos spoke of how all the Dutch monuments in this
country were built by local craftsmen to European designs and ideas.
But there were
also Sri Lankan ideas in crafting these masterpieces, he argued
and pleaded that this is one of the reasons why forts and ancient
buildings should be preserved.
Leave it to
Carl Muller to have the last word: "I have seen hotels in Kandy
advertising takeaway Lump Rice and wondered who the devil would
like his rice in an unseemly lump."