Dutch-Burghers and mythmaking: the myth of pure European descent

J. B. Muller

The male ancestors of that community of people known and called the‘Burghers’ originated from the European continent from the beginnings of the 16th century. That is an incontestable fact of history. They were, broadly, ‘Europeans’ drawn from the assorted mixture of ethnicities that inhabited that continent at that time. However, they did not have a stereotyped appearance and ranged from the pale pink, blue-eyed and blond-haired to the swarthy, dark-skinned, black-haired and black-eyed types found around the Mediterranean coast. Indeed, there were tall and blond Swedes, Lithuanians, and Russians as well as Greeks, Maltese, and Italians. The first wave were from the Iberian Peninsula, that is, modern Portugal and Spain, and it should be remembered that the southern portions of the peninsula were occupied by the North African Arabs for hundreds of years during which Arab, Berber, Taureg, Jewish and Negro genes (DNA) mixed with those of both the Portuguese and the Spanish. Several hundreds of years before that, Europe up to the banks of the Rhine and Britain up to Hadrian’s Wall were all part of the Roman Empire and the other boundaries of that empire encompassed parts of Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Greece, Romania, and the southern parts of Middle Europe. Rome’s legions were drawn from all these parts of its empire and certainly included Asians and Africans. These soldiers like all soldiers and sailors everywhere, wined, dined and wenched and added their genes to the largely Celtic pool then spread all over the European continent. All of this contributed to an amazing racial mixture before their descendants ventured out of that continent in the 16th century.

Portugal was a sparsely populated country of mainly poor peasants but from the latter part of the 15th century its ports teemed with all sorts seeking employment on its caravels and galleons then beginning the great exploratory voyages initiated by Prince Henry, the Navigator. Others were seeking to escape from something or the other, usually deadly, such as the horrible Inquisition or impositions by their secular and spiritual lords. You could be sure that not many rich and famous manned these ships except perhaps as adventurers and merchants seeking wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. Therefore, these ships were manned by those classified as ‘riff-raff,’ the homeless flotsam and jetsam that inhabit every port and when even these were not available, the authorities quickly emptied the jails. This does not mean that these people were never-do-wells or criminals. They were unfortunate enough to fall on very hard times in a day and age when life wasn’t easy. Then, mortality was high not only from diseases and draconian discipline but also from the horrendous storms at sea. Some authorities estimate that as much as 60 per cent of the ships that set out never made it back to their home ports! One should also remember that all these voyages were into the Great Unknown—navigating with crude instruments. Landfall was not always a welcome blessing as the native peoples encountered were fearful, suspicious and distrustful of these peculiar strangers. This was also compounded by the inability to communicate meaningfully.

This scenario, with some improvements with the passing of time and somewhat better knowledge, was repeated when the Dutch ventured forth to create their seaborne empire around the world. Holland, too, was a thinly inhabited country that thrived on trading. The fat and comfortable Burghers were loath to leave their counting houses and trading chambers for obviously dangerous voyages into the unknown. However, history, time and circumstance played into their hands as Europe was convulsed with wars, dynastic struggles, and the religious wars that erupted with the advent of the Reformation. These struggles, of one sort or another, had refugees from persecution streaming into countries that provided refuge, such as Holland. It now had an abundant pool of manpower to make the most of for its forays to grab hold of the Portuguese monopoly of valuable commodities. Thus, the Heeren XVII recruited Walloons, Flemings, French, Germans, Swiss, Frisians, Danes, Luxembourgians, Swedes, Lithuanians, Russians, Poles, Hungarians, Swiss, Italians, Britons, Irish, Spanish, and Portuguese to serve the Veerening Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC, the world’s first transnational trading corporation established in 1602. This heterogeneous collection of ethnicities went to man the crews of its vessels and formed its defence forces. Many of these only possessed the clothes on their backs and were, perhaps, the poorest of the Poor. You can be sure that most of them were illiterate, didn’t possess any family names or surnames as we know them today, and couldn’t even spell those names properly. Thus, it was left to the Dutch boekhouders or record-keepers to write down their names with wide variations in spelling! Many of the Jews who were forcibly converted to Christianity were given identifying names that were offensive and insulting and had no connection to genuine ancestral names in the countries of origin. This was done in the baseless belief that they were guilty of deicide—that is, killing Jesus Christ—God! It should be remembered that the naming conventions of the time named people after their ancestral villages, their occupation or vocation, some physical peculiarity or resemblance to something, or merely as ‘son of’ and some names were made ‘Dutch’ to resemble Dutch-sounding names much like some names were ‘Anglicized’ during British times. It should also be mentioned here that the language of the intelligentsia at that time was Latin and all educated people spoke it and wrote it. In order to escape being denounced for their Judaic faith by the ‘righteous’ Christians, many ‘volunteered’ to become either crew or soldiers on board the Dutch ships leaving the Netherlands during that period.

Many of those who arrived on this Island during the Portuguese period (1505-1656) and the following Dutch period (1656-1796) chose to settle rather than go back to a Europe full with the continuing danger of persecution. They settled and took Sinhalese, Tamil, Moor, Malay, Malayalee, and Negro, women as wives or common-law wives (mistresses). Naturally, they had children within and without the benefit of wedlock or ‘holy matrimony’ as it is now called. It should also be acknowledged that few European women, if any, ventured to embark upon what were still dangerous voyages on ships that were, by today’s standards, no better than small fishing trawlers. Generally, these were the wives of high officials, merchants, and the ubiquitous onder-koopmen junior merchants or buyers. Through the natural process of mixed marriages a coloured or hybrid population slowly grew in the coastal towns of Sri Lanka, notably Jaffna, Mannar, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Hambantota, Tangalle, Matara, Galle, Kalutara, Colombo, and Negombo. Some few descendants of the Europeans also intermarried with the coloured population of mixed origin and it is from this heterogeneous gene pool that a political community or class of persons was designated by the British who referred to them as ‘Burghers.’ During Dutch rule, the Company’s employees (or servants) were designated ‘compagnie-dienaars’ and the others were ‘vrijburgers’ or Free Burghers. Many British [English, Welsh, Scots, and Irish] soldiers, sailors, and ‘shoppies’ also married cinnamon-complexioned Burgher girls, contributing to the population of fair-skinned Burghers who believed themselves to be ‘pure’ European! In the 19th century, under the British, educational opportunities available trough the missionary schools were taken advantage of by Burgher parents who saw the wisdom of a good education and secure employment in the developing public services being established by the British. The British also saw an advantage in employing this hybrid community that they placed between themselves and the heterogeneous indigenous population. Whatever some older members of the Burgher Community might fondly imagine about the ‘good old days’ the British saw to it that there was a ‘line’ that no Burgher or other native on the Island was permitted to cross and this taboo was enforced on stringently British terms: As the imperial Rulers and the subservient Ruled. Indeed, ‘natives and dogs’ were not allowed into their clubs and the signs were only removed post-1956! Many Burghers who enlisted in British regiments were astonished at the racial discrimination practiced by the British even though some of them were equally ‘white.’

As an imperial power with a globe-girdling empire the British were a relatively benign power and were inclined towards liberalism and the ideas that flowed from the Enlightenment. However, all shades of opinion were tolerated and freely expressed as long as it was recognized that Britain was a leading power that ruled the waves—and she brooked no challenge from any other.

Then, the class system was well-entrenched with the aristocracy at the top and the commons at the bottom and everyone knew what his place was within this time-hallowed structure. This was also practiced among the Burghers with the fairest-skinned Dutch-Burghers at the apex of the pyramid and the darker-skinned Portuguese Burghers at the base. But this was a ‘class’ distinction and it was only when ethnicity became the basis for representation that the issue of ‘race’ came to the fore and the Burghers began thinking of themselves as a separate and distinct ‘race.’ This new misconception relegated those at the bottom of the pile, that is, the so-called Portuguese Burghers to be part of the indigenous population. When Burgher leaders were questioned on what constituted a ‘Burgher’ racially, they were hard put to come up with a clear definition because each and every family was mixed to some degree with the indigenous population and Sinhalese, Tamil, Moor, Malay, and other Oriental ancestors on the distaff side that were hardly acknowledged. This was in the 19th century. In the 20th many families had their indigenous or Oriental ancestors on the female side quietly erased and the mythmaking began in earnest. Many Burgher genealogists or amateur genealogists actively participated in this exercise to ‘Europeanize’ and sanitize Burgherancestry.

In this day and age we know that the concept of ‘race’ is not scientific but entirely religio-cultural. It has no basis whatsoever in human biology where there is only one ‘race:’ the human race inhabiting the Planet Earth and all such so-called ‘races’ are mixed to a greater or lesser degree. The three broad types are Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid with many sub-types—but all are distinctly human sharing the same blood, or, to put it another way, “of one blood.” The mixing of these types have produced hybrid communities all over the world and the mixing goes on apace as people free themselves from archaic and unscientific religio-cultural taboos. Therefore, to insist that any one or more races are ‘pure’ is specious at best. It follows that there are no ‘pure’ Dutch-Burghers [or for that matter, Portuguese Burghers]. All the male ancestors originated in the European Fatherland and domiciled themselves in the Sri Lankan Motherland, which provided the mothers and, in the process, produced the Burghers—a synthesis of two different types or sub-types. Whilst the Burghers are a rather heterogeneous genetic sub-type their religion, culture, and language belongs to what we loosely term ‘Western’ as distinct from ‘Oriental’ even though Burgher culture has adopted many Oriental traits, habits, mannerisms, and attitudes over the almost 500-year period of their sojourn on the Island of Sri Lanka. For example, speaking English does not make them British, having a German surname does not make some of them German, making and eating bolo d’amor or love cake does not make them Portuguese, following a remarkable Palestinian prophet from the land of Judah does not make them Jewish. Likewise, wearing a sarong and cotton vest at home with chappals on the feet does not make them Sinhalese, Tamil, or Moor. The Burghers do all these things with an easy-going friendliness and without even a shadow of racial prejudice. If all this be true it is illogical why any Burgher should try to establish that he or she belongs to a separate and distinct ‘race’ with pretensions to superiority? The sooner some Burghers with ‘Bourbon’ attitudes shed those and reconcile themselves to the fact that they are a hybrid people of mixed origin, the better for the Community.

Mythmaking may perhaps or might be comfortable for some but the fact is that the myth created does not stand scrutiny and unbiased investigation. When it is exposed as without any foundation in fact, the shame is doubled and the family with false airs and graces [about ancestry] stands discredited.

Burghers must get real about who they really are; they should know their history and heritage; they should disabuse their minds of myths and prejudices fostered and promoted by the ignorant and uninformed, and in objectively appreciating the ground realities that now obtain, integrate themselves into mainstream society as fully co-equal citizens of Sri Lanka.

In conclusion let me say that the Burghers are a most unique ethno-socio-cultural community [a mosaic made up of different pieces, different colours and textures] with a rich and varied heritage drawing its stimulation from not one but two well-loaded sources: One European and the other Asian and this is simply tremendous because of its indescribable diversity. As a unique community with a dual and complex Euro-Asian heritage, Burghers have much to offer their compatriots in developing a healthy world-view shorn of fallacious beliefs about racial superiority, in Aryan supremacist ideas, and ethno-religio-linguistic majoritarianism on the one hand and the enervating victim syndrome of those who have been led to believe that they are ‘second-class’ citizens or unwanted aliens. This also makes the Burghers potential ‘bridge-builders’ between diametrically different socio-cultural streams. This is largely unrealized potential that could be channeled and let loose, especially in the Burgher homeland of Sri Lanka now sorely in need of reconciliation and healing between its other estranged communities. The Burghers could work towards negating the polarization that has taken place since the Donoughmore Constitution was introduced by the British in 1931.

The heterogeneity of the Burghers is their greatest strength and asset in a shrinking world and the role of peacemaker fits like a glove with their shared Judaeo-Christian heritage, their ability to communicate internationally, their connexions in the worldwide Diaspora, and their intrinsic ability to smile, make friends, and crack a joke and to live and let live.


Filed under communal relations, cultural transmission, life stories, sri lankan society, world events & processes

2 responses to “Dutch-Burghers and mythmaking: the myth of pure European descent

  1. Titus

    Running away from Sri Lanka at the drop of a hat hasn’t really helped the Burghers has it? They are a dying group of people now, scattered across the world. If only they had they guts to stick it out in Sri Lanka they would have had a much better chance at preserving their community and idenitity.

  2. Philip Sansoni

    Running away from Sri Lanka certainly helped some, See what is happening today in the motherland. But I know burghers who stayed and are happy to remain where they were born, and others who left but did so reluctantly for their families and children.

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