About the Portuguese Burghers and Kaffirs

Nan, in Island, 4 November 2017  where the title reads as “The Portuguese Burghers and Kaffirs”

Ethnic groups are disappearing and thus the research interest on these endangered human groups, their language and culture. One such research that is on-going is on the Portuguese Burghers by the Universidade de Lisboa with funding from the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme of SOAS, University of London. The International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) which is collaborating with the research, facilitated a discussion on the Sri Lankan Portuguese Burghers and their heritage with those on the research project: Hugo Cordosa, Patricia Costa, Rui Pereira, Mahesha Radakrishna – all of the University of Lisbon; Dinali Fernando of the University of Kelaniya and Earle Barthelot, representative of the Portuguese Burgher Community and former secretary of the Burgher Union of Batticaloa.. This was on Tuesday 31 October.


A Comprehensive Research Study
Details of the research project were presented verbally by the speakers and via power point projection. Their study is much into the language spoken by the Portuguese Burghers who live mostly in Batticaloa, Ampara and Trincomalee, estimates of population families being 800 in Batti, 200 in Ampara and 525 in Trinco. The language and its orthography (the conventional spelling system of the language) are being closely studied through conversations and recordings of conversations among members of the communities, and the study of the few texts written and/or published by Portuguese Burghers. Their unique music, song and dance and culinary arts are also closely scrutinized.The main aim of the project as its title denotes is to study the Sri Lankan Portuguese Burghers and their heritage, but along with this will be the setting up of an archives of existing books of the community, recordings and video tapes of their narratives, songs, dance and music. Still extant are the first grammar -1811 by Berenger; first dictionary by Fox -1819 and trilingual English/Sinhalese/Portuguese dictionary; an early Bible in Creole – 1852; and manuscripts of song 1869-1886, which are in London.
Interesting facts that emerged. I found the presentations made by Earle Barthelot and Dinali Fernando very interesting. Earle gave an intimate picture of the communities of which he is an active member. Dividing his analysis to various heads he spoke on their occupations, social customs, cuisine, sports, dress and legal identity.The Portuguese Burghers are descendents of the Portuguese who came over to Ceylon in 1518 and colonized most of the coastal belt until they were defeated by the Dutch in 1658. They intermarried with the Sinhalese, Tamils and the Kaffirs who were already living in the island, being descendents of earlier Portuguese traders and the African slaves they brought over. These Burghers speak a language that is a Creole derivative which is slightly different from pure Portuguese and of course with a transference of words from Sinhala and Tamil which transference also occurred in the opposite direction. Their cuisine likewise was absorbed by other cultures, breudher for example. They are Roman Catholics. Marriages are usually arranged and their national dress for women is a dress (frock or gown). They were employed mostly in the Ceylon Government Railway but most were craftsmen, cobblers, ironsmiths, tailors and mechanics. During WW II they fought along with the Kaffirs in the Allied Forces contingents. Their favourite sport is football while their music and dance have been adopted from the Kaffirs – Kaffringa and Baila music.
Barthelot spoke on the discrimination his community suffers – earlier from the Dutch Burghers, the British colonials and now the Sri Lanka government. He said they were looked down on by the Dutch descendents so they retaliated by parodying the name Dutch Burgher Union to Doubtful Burgher Union! The government did not recognize them as a separate ethnic group nor their language. This is being addressed now. They were made to sign documents in Tamil and their names were thus slightly altered. School curriculums totally neglected them and school children were classified as Sinhala or Tamil, mostly the latter. Their legal identity is usually under ‘Other”. Their mother tongue is totally ignored. Their IDs list them as Tamils mostly.
I was in empathy with Dinali’s presentation as she started by quoting terms used on the Portuguese Burghers – Sapaththu Lansi and worse. This I admit with a sense of shame. We were guilty of such meanness through our ignorance. We had friends who proudly proclaimed they were Dutch Burghers and so, far above the others descended from Portuguese traders who came to this island. When the near mass exodus of Burghers began in the early 1960s because of the Sinhala only government policy, we heard that Australia allowed only ‘white Burghers’ to enter and thus you had to prove you were Dutch or British descendant producing proof from even church records of marriages and christenings. Dinali said that she made a study of the realities of the Portuguese Burghers in Sri Lanka and attitudes, identities, and opinions of low esteem. She said the demarcation between the Dutch and Portuguese Burghers was an artificial division because they were both colonial descendents of European nations. The Portuguese Burghers as they lived in the North East and East of Sri Lanka suffered the devastating effects of the tsunami and during the years of the civil war, but one advantage was that they escaped conscription by the LTTE being labeled Burgher or Sinhalese.
Ethnic Group of Kaffirs

The Sri Lankan Kaffirs (cafrinhas, kapiriyo in Sinhala, kapili in Tamil) are an ethnic group in Sri Lanka who are partially descended from 16th century Portuguese traders and Bantu slaves who were brought by them to work as labourers and soldiers  to fight against the Sinhala Kings. They are very similar to the Zanj-descended populations in Iraq and Kuwait, and are known in Pakistan as Sheedis and in India as Siddis. The Kaffirs spoke a distinctive Creole based on Portuguese which evolved to the Sri Lankan Kaffir language (now almost extinct). Their cultural heritage includes the dance styles Kaffringna and Manja and their popular form of dance music is Baila. They are a few thousand in number and originally followed a folk religion but were converted to Roman Catholicism with the occupation of the maritime areas by the Portuguese traders who turned colonists.

The Portuguese, Dutch, and the British used the Kaffirs as a part of their naval forces and for domestic labor. When Dutch colonialists arrived around 1650, the Kaffirs worked on cinnamon plantations along the southern coast and some had settled in the Kandyan kingdom. Some research suggests that Kaffir slaves were employed as soldiers to fight against Sri Lankan kings, most likely in the Sinhalese–Portuguese War, (Mulleriyawa (1562) and Randeniwela (1630),

Thus being earlier domiciled here in Ceylon, the Kaffirs are distinct from the Portuguese Burghers though they share language and culture traits.

The on-going project by the University of Lisbon would help much in restoring the identity and language of the Portuguese Burghers of Sri Lanka.

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a beauty

 A NOTE by Michael Roberts

This is an encouraging and welcome study. I am, however, surprised that neither the researchers nor Nan seem to be aware of the ongoing work of Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies; earlier work in the Eastern pPovince by  the American scholar Kenneth David Jackson of Yale University and the tit-bits that could be garnered from the work on the “Coast Veddahs” edited by KNO Dharmadasa & SWR de Samarasinghe; or the British documents edited by Vimalananda Tennekoon and the Editions on Sinhala Verse collected by Hugh Neville –to name just a few from long list of ‘openings’.

The well-meaning remarks of disparaging epithets must attend to the combination of caste and/or racial epithets that occurred under colonial rule –building on deep boundaries rooted in caste differentiation that existed before the colonial interventions. Some understandings of this aspect and the searing sword of pejorative epithets could be gleaned from the opening chapter in Roberts et al, People Inbetween (1989) which is entitled “Pejorative Phrases:  the Anti-Colonial Response and Sinhala Perceptions of the Self through Images of the Burghers.”

Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya: The African Diaspora in Asian Trade Routes and Cultural Memories (UK: Edwin Mellen Press, 2010)

Kenneth D. Jackson: A Hidden Presence: 500 Years of Portuguese Culture in India and Sri Lanka (1995)

Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya: The Portuguese in the East: A Cultural History of a Maritime Trading Empire
Allan R. Juriansz: Colonial Mixed Blood: A Story of the Burghers of Sri Lanka 2013
Pon Kulendiren:  “Where Music transcends Ethnic Divisions,” 21 March 2017,  https://thuppahis.com/2017/03/21/where-music-transcends-ethnic-divisions-sinhala-nona/#more-24614


Filed under art & allure bewitching, British colonialism, caste issues, cultural transmission, discrimination, disparagement, economic processes, ethnicity, female empowerment, heritage, historical interpretation, island economy, landscape wondrous, life stories, politIcal discourse, Portuguese in Indian Ocean, power politics, racist thinking, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real, tolerance, unusual people, welfare & philanthophy, working class conditions, world events & processes

2 responses to “About the Portuguese Burghers and Kaffirs

  1. T.Vivanantharasa

    It is an important article which guide a lot to understand the status and significance of the communities and personally it is very useful to me as a researcher on cultural heritage of the numerically small communities of Sri Lanka.

  2. Pingback: Presenting the Portuguese Burghers of Sri Lanka: Today and Yesterday | Thuppahi's Blog

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