Disappearing Burgher and Malay Surnames in Island Lanka

Tuan M. Zameer Careem,  initially extracted from  https://sirimunasiha.wordpress.com/about/sinhala-names-through-out-the-ages/rare-ethnic-surnames/ where the title reads “Rare Ethnic Surnames” … but I have since been informed that Mr Careem published it in Ceylon Today . Since it has received a record number of hits over the last two days, Careem can be well pleased.

The multi ethnic Sri Lankan society has since recent decades witnessed
innumerable changes and many of the most notable ethnic communities are now
on the brink of extinction, with the population dwindling to a noble
handful. Some of the most colourful surnames that once stood as a beacon to
help distinguish the ethnic backgrounds of locals have now gone into abeyance.
The ethnographers are of the opinion that the frequent intermarriages with
members of the prominent ethnic groups and the death of male line descendants
have gradually airbrushed the identities of many minorities. It is sad to
note that there is hardly any material written on the subject of Lankan
Onomatology. However, it is unmistakably clear that many of the Lankan
patronymics and surnames have European roots.

burghhers-11 Pic from www.burghersuk.com

The Ceylon Burgher Community is the finest exponent of this European
Onomatology in Sri Lanka, as the members of the community carry some of the
World’s rarest surnames, several of  which at present verge on extinction. The ancestors
of the Dutch Burghers were not necessarily Dutch by ethnic origin as the
Dutch East India Company installed hundreds of mercenaries from all parts
of Europe who later reached the shores of Lanka to strengthen the Dutch
garrisons on the Island. These Europeans later espoused local women and
paved the way for the Lankan Eurasian Community, which later came to be
known as ‘Dutch Burghers’ meaning ‘Town Dwellers’.
The Dutch surnames can be recognised by the ‘tussenvoegsel’ referring to
the words positioned between the forename and last name similar to the
Scottish prefixes. Many Dutch surnames begin with ‘Vanden’ a collective
term meaning ‘from the’, while prefixes such as ‘Van’ meaning ‘of or from’,
‘der’ meaning ‘of the’ and ‘de/het/t’ meaning ‘the’ are commonly used by
the Dutch Burghers in Sri Lanka. The fifth Solicitor General of Sri Lanka
was Mr. JamesVan Langenburg and based on his surname it is clear that the
progenitor of his family hailed from the German village Langenburg.
The Ceylonese Van Geyzals descend from Franc Van Geyzal from Belgium
(St. Nichola’s) who married the daughter of Angelo Pegolloti, an Italian,
and his descendant Carl Theodore van Geyzel, was a first class Lankan
cricketer. While the Vandorts, trace their lineage to the Dutch hamlet
named ‘Dordrecht’, and the first Vandort to have set foot on Lankan soil
was Cornelis Jansz Van Dort from Utrecht who arrived on the ship “Bellois”
in 1700 and settled down in Galle. One of his descendants was Leonhard
Kalenberg Van Dort, born in 1831, a famous artist whose water colours of
19th-century Sri Lanka can still be found in Leiden, while Lankan Cricketer
Michael Vandort is yet another descendant.
The famous ‘Van’ prefixed surnames include, van Arkadie (from Arkadiem,
France), van Cuylenburg (from Culenberg, Germany), van Dersil, van der
 (Van der Straeten, presumably Flemish), Van Hoff (also spelt as
Van’t Hoff like in the case of Jacobus Henricus van ‘t Hoff, Dutch Physical
and Organic Chemist), Van Rooyen (also spelt Van Rooijen, meaning those
from the remote areas), Vander Zeil (from the rail), Vander Putt
(topographic name for someone living besides a ‘putt’ meaning pit or well-
Village ‘Putte’ in Netherlands and Belgium), Van Sanden and Vander Gucht.
The origin of surname, Van Houghton remains blurry as ‘Houghton’ or Hutton
is an Anglo Saxon habitation locational surname referring to a ‘High Town’
while ‘van’ is purely Dutch. However, the early English names had three
parts, the first name (Christian name), followed with ‘De’ and the name of
the place which the family lived (locational name) and Houghton is derived
from ‘De Hocton’. Nevertheless, Van Houghton is at present an endangered
surname in the world, and based on the geographical spread its only the
Ceylon Burghers who use this uncommon surname.

The De Soysas, De Silvas, Peiris, Rosayro, Dias and De Serams identify
themselves as ‘Sinhalese’ though they are bearers of Portuguese surnames.
However, Dr. Lucian de Zilwa, the first Ceylon F.R.C.O.G. and former Senior
Physician and Gynaecologist was a Dutch Burgher and not a Sinhalese, as
substituting the letter ‘S’ for letter ‘Z’ is yet another Dutch Burgher
feature seen in their surnames like Diasz (days), Peiriz, De Zoysa etc. The
prefix ‘De’ meaning ‘the’ was used by both the Dutch and Portuguese.
Surnames like De Kresters (e.g. Dr. David Morritz de Kretser, a Ceylonese
Medical Researcher who later became Governor of Victoria, Australia), De
Hoedt, De Koning, De Niese, De Kauwe, De Wet, De Vos, 
and De Coan helps
exemplify the ‘De’ prefixed Dutch Burgher surnames.

Amongst the LankanBurghers we do find abbreviated patronymic surnames, like Jansz which is
originally the Dutch surname Janszoon meaning ‘Son of Jan/ John’ while Loos
is the abbreviated patronymic of ‘Lodewijk’ meaning ‘akin to Louise’. Other
Dutch surnames used by the Burghers include Prins (meaning Prince),
Antonisse, Andriesz, Baldesinger, Brohier (R.L.Brohier, an Engineer who
built Ceylon’s first whole irrigation system), Bulne, Beekman (meaning
‘Creek man’), Claasz, Ebert, Engelbrecht (glorious Angel), Foenander,
(son of Fernando/ Spanish), Frugtniet, Kegel (Dutch and German
origin) Kelaart, Martinus, Melder, Meynert, Milhuisen, Neydorff, Passe,
Philipsz, Scharenguivel, Werkmester, Wille, 
and Willenberg.

The ‘Barthalomeaucz’ is of course such a totally unheard of name in present
day Sri Lanka. However in the bygoneeEra, this particular patronymic was so
popular that people couldn’t ignore it. As we delve deep into the etymology of
this distinctive surname it is clear that the patronymic is derived from
‘Bartholomew’, meaning ‘son of Ptolemy’ based on Aramaic literature. The
Dutch variant of Bartholomew known as ‘Bartholomeuszoon’ has filled several
volumes of military history and Egbert Bartholomeuszoon Kortenaer
(1604-1665), who bore the same patronymic, was a renowned hero of the
Second Anglo-Dutch War.
The earliest known ancestor of the Barthalomeaucz clan in Sri Lanka was
Daniel Barthalomeaucz (1735-1798) who made settlement in Jaffna and after
the advent of the British, the family expanded and domiciled in the Western
and North western provinces of British Ceylon. Some of the notable
Barthalomeucz who have stamped their identity in Ceylon include Surgeon
Noel Bartholomeusz and Ramani Barthalomeaucz, former model, actress and
Miss Sri Lanka. The Sansoni’s (Sansone), yet another unique patronymic
which is neither Dutch nor German and based on onomatics it is of Italian
origin. The name is originally the Italian variant of English Samson
meaning Sun child or bright sun in Hebrew. Guiseppi Joseph Sansoni born in
Italy, regarded as the progenitor of the Sansoni clan in Ceylon was the
commander of the ship “Livorna” which served the Dutch belligerents during
several battles.
The Sansoni’s have definitely left their mark in Lankan history, and former
Chief Justice Miliani Claude Sansoni who chaired the Sansoni commission
which investigated the 1977 communal violence helps testify the importance
served by a Sansoni in the Lankan Judiciary. The ancestor of the Oorloff
clan in Ceylon hailed from Russia as the Patronymic is derived from the
Russian Eastern Ashkenazic personal name ‘Orlov’ corrupt form of ‘oryol’
meaning eagle. Andris Andriesz Oorloff (b.1730) of Rypdewack, the founder
member of the family arrived in Ceylon in 1761 in the ship “Fransz
Elizabeth” which served the Dutch East India Company. Back in the days of
the British both the Medical sector and the Railway Department benefited
from the services extended by the Oorloffs. Besides the Oorloffs, the
surname Heins/ Heyn (Major General Bertram Russel Heyn) is also derived
from Russian Hutterite/ Mennonite.

Though the bearers of the patronymic ‘Ohlmns’ identify themselves as ‘Dutch
Burghers’, sources reveal that the founder member of the family was
originally a German and his descendants later intermarried with other
Eurasian families in Ceylon thus making this rare German Surname part of
the Dutch Burgher Community. The founder member, Jan Carel Ohlmns, born at
Hildesheim an ancient town located in North Western Germany arrived in the
ship ” Amelisvaart”, and later settled down in Sri Lanka as a mercenary
serving the Dutch. While surnames like Koch, Gogerly and Landberger are
also derived from German literature and the name Koch refers to a Cook. The
surname Lourensz is derived from German (Roman) word ‘Lorenteus’ meaning
‘from Lorenteum’ and Cole is derived from German ‘Khol’ meaning ‘swarthy’.
The French in Sri Lanka are also identified as Burghers a common term used
by the locals to identify those of Eurasian descent, and this French factor
is clearly manifested by the use of Lankan surnames like Toussaint,
Kherkovan, Crozier, Delile, Andre, Gauthier, 
and Spitttel. The Toussaint is
French patronymic of baptismal origin and the Medieval English surname
‘Spittel’ is derived from “spital”, an aphetic form of the Old French
“hospital” while Crozier is derived from old French word ‘Crois’ for crook.
Dr. Richard Lionel Spittel, was a foremost expert on Lankan veddha
Community and authored several books on Lankan heritage. The Anglo Saxon
(English) Burgher surnames include, Villiers (from Villiers, Normandy),
White (Athlete Duncan White), Arndt ( derived from Ernault or Arnolt,
meaning an eagle/ rule), Wright (from ‘wryhta’ or ‘wyrhta’, meaning worker
or shaper of wood),
Herft (Model Sabrina Herft), Bevan (from Welsh ‘ab Evan’ meaning ‘Son of
Evan’), Deutrom, Hepponstall (Habitation surname derived from Parish
Hepponstall, Yorkshire), Sella (Scottish occupational surname used to refer
a merchant who works in a cellar or saddler), Rode from’ Rodd’ a village in
Harefordshire, Steinwall, Robertson, Greig (pronounced ‘Greg’ originated in
Scotland from the Scottish Highland clan MacGregor), Baldsing,
Holdenbottle, Fraser
 (Scottish surname derived from French word
‘Frederius’) Keegal, Hingert, Barker etc. Morrel is a Medieval English
surname derived from ‘morel’ originally from the nickname More or ‘Moore’
meaning dark complexioned man.
Last but not least, the famous Ondaatje’s aren’t really Burghers as the
progenitor of the clan was a Tamil Ondaatchii from Tanjore South India who
was commissioned by the Dutch to serve in Ceylon.


The Malay Community is indeed an entity famous for its unique sounding
patronymics, alas, since recent past many Malay surnames have gone extinct
presumably due to frequent intermarriages. Unlike their Muslim
counterparts, the Malays use distinctive prefixes along with their rare
sounding surnames. The prefixes Tuan/ Maas/ Raden are used by the male
folks while their women use Gnei/Nona/ Sitti Nona/ Gnonya. The Malay
community despite its small number is made up of an intricate network
comprised of several sub ethnic groups who trace their descent from the
archipelagos of Indonesia and from the Malayan Peninsula. So the Patronymic
helps trace the ancestry, social class, creed, caste etc. of a Sri Lankan
Malay individual. For example, the Malay Patronymics such as Lye, Chunchie,
Doole, Kitchilan, Kutinun, Kanchil, Sainon, Bongso, Bohoran, Kuppen, Lappen
and Booso helps reveal their Peranakan lineage or those of mixed
Chinese-Malay heritage. Patronymics of Sanskrit/ Indian origin include
Jayah, Weerabangsa, Sinhawangsa, Jayawangsa, Wangsa, etcwhile Saldin,Rahman, Drahaman, Bucker, Ramlan, Rajap, Jumat, Mannan, are those derived from Arabic literature.
The progenitor of the Malay Kayath family in Ceylon was a local Chieftain
from the Banda Archipelago known as Orang Kayat who was exiled to Ceylon by
the Dutch, so the present day Kayath’s aren’t really Malays by ethnicity
instead they are Bandanese. Alas, Deen Azeez Kayaths are on the brink of
extinction with just a single family left on the Island with no male line
descendents. While the Raden‘s anglicized as Rawdin belong to an
aristocratic clan, however Raden is a Javanese title of respect and not a
patronymic as used today. The ancestor of late Minister, Dr. T. B. Jayah
was Raden Thurtho Perma Jayah, an aide de Camp to the Javanese King who was
exiled to Ceylon.

Thus it is clear that some of these quirky yet ancient ethnic surnames which can be considered to be endemic to Sri Lanka are dying out rapidly while some are already extinct. 





A NOTE: Readers who have absorbed this essay by Tuan Careem may also be interested in these items and the books they point to


Filed under British colonialism, cultural transmission, economic processes, education, ethnicity, heritage, historical interpretation, landscape wondrous, life stories, sri lankan society, travelogue, world events & processes

24 responses to “Disappearing Burgher and Malay Surnames in Island Lanka

  1. Much appreciated if you could find the historical lineage of Jurangpathy. It’s a massive family yet it’s so hard to find the roots.

  2. Tuan Zameer Careem

    Thank you for having posted my article which appeared in CEYLON TODAY. My name is Tuan M. Zameer CAREEM.

  3. Graham de Kretser

    Please note the spelling of De Kretser. It is not DE KRESTER !

    • THAT is clearly a typing error … It should be obvious to all but the most pedantic. One of the problems in the world today is EXTREMISM. That complaint can be extended to pedantic extremism — but thankfully such a perspective is not quite as dangerous as Islamic extremism, right-wing extremism of the sort just witnessed in Toronto … or — as we know only too well in Sri Lanka– Tamil and Sinhala chauvinist extremism ….PS as this is written in haste and not proof read there may be typos !!

  4. Dr. M.E>Joachim

    Joachim has been left out. Originally of German origin,joined the Dutch East India Co.I have his letter of appointment.

  5. Is there any possibility of tracing the roots of the Samath family.

  6. Ivan Amarasinghe

    For those of us who were born and bred in Galle and the surroundings, this is essential reading as most of these names and families were part and parcel of our birthplace. We shared so much in our youth and these divisive definitions of race and religious identity were virtually non-existent. Perhaps the social coherence of Galle is a reflection of such historical kindred spiritedness irrespective of individual spiritual preferences. Thank you again Michael. Incidentally, Roberts is a majority Welsh name. I also remember the Crutchleys, the Felsingers, the Kelaarts, Gibsons etc.

  7. lionel gunasekara

    great stuff Michael. Best Lionel

  8. Graham de Kretser

    Please note – DE KRETSER is the correct spelling of the name not
    de KRESTER as in the article.

  9. Guncor Pieris

    The Garden party pictures is of Rose Pieris nee Bulnere. Gladyss Deutram. Hedy Deutram and Percy Pieris father of my husband P. I, Pieris

    • Owen Moses

      This is interesting, my Mother’s Maiden Name was a Pieris, her Mother Married a Thomas M. Pieris, known the Deutrams as Family Friends, they immigrated to Australia in the 50’s or 60’s not sure.

    • Astrid

      Is this the Pieris who started “Arpico”? My father worked for Richard Pieris company, in the 50’s

      • Astrid

        Sorry, did not think. My maiden name was LeMercier and my first name was Astrid. My father was known as Murphy LeMercier. I imagine that most people who worked with him have passed on a long time ago.

      • Surely you must provide your name (as maiden) …. and also indicate WHO “this” is — before anyone can answer.

      • Astrid

        Astrid LeMercier

  10. Hugh

    Well researched and interesting article by MrCareem.

  11. Russell Garth

    Very interesting article I would like to know who me 4th. Grandfather married His name was Edward Archer Turnour. Garth brother to George Turnour Garth fathers name Hon George Garth son of Ist Earl of Winterton Edward Turnour Garth thanks Adrian Russell Garth Queensland Australia born Colombo 1950

  12. D Gonsal

    … another name that has been left out is Caspersz

  13. Pingback: Ceylon — British Empire | Vermont Folk Troth

  14. Shane Vanheer

    I can predict the fate of the VanHeer name but I wont be able to control that prediction…

  15. Ranjan de Silva

    Very interesting. A great job Michael. Congrats. I am very interested in reading articles that bring back memories of the past. Keep going.

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