The Burgher Elite and the British Raj

Michael Roberts 

   George F Nell, Louis Nell, C. A. Lorenz,  James Alwis and Charles Ferdinands moving anti-clockwise

Preamble:[1] In locating the Burghers in ‘social space’ the book People Inbetween deploys statistical detail, text and quotation to place them within the Ceylonese middle class of British Ceylon.[2] The socio-political clout which accrued to the Burgher segment of the middle class is further illustrated by indicating the complex ways in which they fulfilled intermediary roles between the mass of the people and the British rulers and/or between powerful segments of the majority community, the Sinhalese. The extract printed below is a section of Chapter 6 [in People Inbetween] devoted to this purpose and is reproduced without citations.

The best known of the intermediaries in the British Raj, of course, were the headmen, whether the cohorts of lower-echelon headmen or the top layers represented by the maniagars, ratēmahatmayas, and mudaliyars. In the low-country districts the latter were known as the ‘mudaliyar class’. In People Inbetween they are described as ‘the Low Country Goyigama establishment elite.’ They were represented by such families as the Ilangakoons, the Obeyesekeres, the Bandaranaikes, the Pieris Siriwardenas (Deraniyagalas) and the de Sarams.

Main Article

The comfortable circumstances in which a significant proportion of the Burghers were placed [as well as] their urban concentration supported their political power during the mid-late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (say, 1840 to the 1920s).

They paralleled the territorial and kachcheri headmen in their intercalary roles. Their networks of kinship and friendship, their Westernised lifestyle and growing command of English were assets which enabled them to control mediatory positions in relation to powerful institutions in the colonial era: the government’s civil administration, its judicial arm, the missionary schools, the Colombo Academy or Royal College, the battery of Christian churches and missionary organisations, and, finally, the agency houses and European business houses.

Such intermediary roles meant access to information about jobs and other economic opportunities. It enabled them (especially the lawyers) to provide reciprocal patronage to rising Sinhala merchant princes: it is no accident that the photographs of R. F. Morgan and C. A. Lorenz grace the treasured family album of the Hännädige Pierises. Nor could it have been accidental that a “Parsee philanthrophist” should dip into his pocket in 1905 to construct a cricket pavilion, that which became known as the Khan pavilion, at Racket Court for the use of the Colts Cricket Club, then a Burgher Club. The marriage alliance with branches of the de Saram clan which were effected by the Morgan, Martensz, Dickman, Van Cuylenburg and other families meant that a segment of the Burgher elite were linked to the Low-Country Goyigama establishment elite. Hector Van Cuylenburg (1857-1915) appears to have run his Ceylon Independent from 1888 through to the 1910s in ways which meshed with the interests of the latter and even, at times, with the British. Predictably, he received a knighthood in the year 1914.

Paradoxically, at the same time that the house of Morgan was linking up with the house of de Saram, through the marriages of three Morgan girls to de Saram men in the latter part of the nineteenth century, Richard F. Morgan (later knighted) retained close socio-political links with the Warusahännädige de Soysas, a family which was in the vanguard of the Karava elite’s challenge to the “mudaliyar class.” It was Morgan who had argued the case against the “first class” Goyigamas when the latter attempted to perpetuate caste distinctions in the composition of juries in the year 1843. When, as an eminent lawyer, Morgan travelled down the coast road in 1858 in order to board a P & O steamer for Europe, Susew de Soysa intercepted his carriage as it passed through Moratuwa and handed him a purse containing one hundred sovereigns “as an expression of esteem.” When the Church of Holy Emmanuel a Moratuwa, constructed mostly from assets donated by the de Soysas, was consecrated in the Governor’s presence on the 27th December 1860, it was Morgan who made the speech at the luncheon gathering for the guests which was held afterwards at the de Soysa walauwwa (manor house).

Again, when the negotiations for the marriage of C. H. de Soysa with Lindamulage Catherine de Silva (an heiress) broke down because the de Silvas were Catholics and had a Catholic suitor in view, Morgan and Cowasjee Eduljee interceded and worked out a compromise which eventually led to their marriage in February 1863. According to Karava folklore, moreover, it was Morgan, then Queen’s Advocate and trusted confidante of Sir Hercules Robinson, who was instrumental in providing the Karava fraction of the middle class with that major triumph in the year 1870 when the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Alfred, the future King of England, visited Sri Lanka: the privilege of hosting this dignitary was granted to the Warusahännädige de Soysas, that is, to Susew de Soysa and his nephew C. H. de Soysa – a privilege of far-reaching implications insofar as it was the only non-official reception within the Low-Country districts. It is hardly surprising, then, to find that Morgan and George William Rudd (an Englishman who had married a Burgher lady, Eugenia Piachaud, in 1854) were specifically singled out by a reporter as those among the organizers of the de Soysa banquet whose unceasing labour had ensured its success.

These details on Richard F. Morgan’s intermediary activities depict interventions at the highest socio-political levels. Burgher notables were also useful patrons, brokers or intermediaries at more ‘prosaic’ levels, whether in facilitating access to jobs or in commercial and legal transactions. This was in part a function of their respectable standing, the social graces they commanded, their competence in English speaking and their working knowledge of the Sinhala language and Sinhala culture, all of which counted for a great deal within a dispensation wherein the British were the final arbiters. It was in part due to the trust engendered within the local populace by their honesty and integrity (a broad generalisation which admits of exceptions).

But these were not the only reasons. The social structure of the Sinhala and Tamil districts provided the Burghers with an ecological niche — a critical structural role as brokers and arbiters – in much the same fashion as the sociopolitical order in the Kandyan Kingdom had provided the Moors with a role as traders and transport people. If one takes the Sinhala majority regions as a site for illustration, the point is that during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the transformations effected by capitalism and the British raj had led to the proliferation of disputes and competitions for places and assets, disputes that could be founded upon individual, familial, caste, caste faction or class identities, or a combination of these identities. The prevalence of such disputes has been widely documented through the numerous British references to the so-called litigiousness of the Ceylonese and we need not dwell at length on the matter. One illustration from the year 1880 should do. In penning a “Minute on Village Tribunals,” the Auditor General, John Douglas, had this to say of “the western and southern seaboards of the Island.”

“Here is to be found a pushing and industrious population of carpenters, fishermen, coir-rope dealers, and the like, belonging exclusively to what are regarded as the inferior castes. These people are brought much into contact with Europeans, education is largely spread among them, and they have outstripped their high caste neighbours in the race for wealth and material prosperity. In these localities a constant struggle is going on between the higher and lower castes of petty assault, and the like, and it would be hardly natural that the inferior castes should favour the relegation of the decision on such disputes from a European tribunal to one drawn possibly, if not presumably, from the ranks of their adversaries.”

With suitable modifications, these remarks could be extended to the rest of the island, and could also be extended into the twentieth century.

In such a setting there was a place for Burgher notables as respected arbiters, especially as they were more alive to the nuances of local cultural etiquette than the average British officer. It is no accident that one found Burgher proctors, surveyors and doctors in every little down in Sri Lanka, whether at Tangalle, at Kegalle, at Badulla or at Kalutara. It is our speculation that caste suspicions provided ‘space’ in which these Burgher notables could happily (or even unhappily) repose during the nineteenth century and the first three decades of the twentieth century. For one thing, at that stage of our history, the depressed castes among the Sinhalese and Tamils had few men in the professions. Thus, a Wahumpura merchant involved in some commercial transaction, or Berava, Hunu, Oli, Batgam, Rajaka or Badahala persons involved in a dispute, would find it necessary to approach a proctor outside their own caste. In such a situation, we suggest, many would have preferred a Burgher proctor (or surveyor or whatever).

Likewise, there were imperatives for the labouring poor among the Goyigama and Salagama castes, and perhaps even the Karava, Durava and Navandanna castes, to look towards Burgher proctors or arbiters even when they could draw upon a professional from their own caste who lived in the vicinity. Speaking broadly and admitting exceptions, the problem was that Sinhala notables had a tendency to behave in domineering ways in their interactions with the labouring poor. The Sinhala language provides one with a hierarchical scale in the terms of address, including the second person, “you,” which a speaker can utilise; and the pervasive power of hierarchical values encouraged Sinhala magnates to adopt imperious attitudes and to degrade supplicants, clients and labouring poor. Burgher gentlemen, on the other hand, tended to be more courteous and relatively more egalitarian in their style of interaction. This won clients.

Another domain in which Burghers fulfilled intercalary roles during the nineteenth century was that of teaching. During the first three or four decades of British rule, both the government and mission schooling programme seems to have been directed towards the rural areas rather than the towns. What is more, the descendants of Europeans were not their targeted constituency, so that in places like the Cotta School (or Kotte) run by the Church Missionary Society they were charged the prohibitive sum of 3 pounds 15s per month, whereas other children had no fees. In consequence, as Gratiaen tells us, “the bulk of the European descendants were taught in private schools.”

During these decades and till well into the nineteenth century, a large number of the little private schools in the urban centres of Galle, Matara, Colombo, etc, seem to have been conducted by either British or Burgher ladies and schoolmasters. There was a school at Colpetty (Colombo) in the 1810s which was supported and supervised by Lady Johnson: [while] a British lady named Mrs Mary Conway (formerly Mrs Gunn) opened a school for boys and girls at No 8 Hospital Street, in the Fort of Colombo on the 15th July 1817 (a school which Richard F. Morgan subsequently attended).

It was the foundation provided by such facilities in the early years of British rule that enabled the emerging Burgher population to enter government service in a big way. This network of tutories was supplemented by an avid interest in reading and the setting up of libraries. The Ceylon Almanac for 1855 lists 11 libraries. Excluding 5 libraries that were dominated by the British and those in Jaffna and Trincomalee, the following appear to have been conducted by Burgher gentlemen: the Colonial Medical Library, the Colombo Pettah Library, the Kandy Central Town Library and the Galle Library.

From our point of view the most significant of these reading rooms was the Colombo Pettah Library which was founded in 1829 and re-organised in 1836. Its Committee in 1836, for instance, was made up of Burgher clerks and proctors, its President being John James Staples (1798-1852), the son of a British Quartermaster and himself a leading advocate who was soon to be absorbed into the CCS as a judge and Deputy Queen’s Advocate. The Ferguson’s Ceylon Directories of the 1870s reveal that four decades later, the committee of the Colombo Pettah Library continued to be predominantly Burgher. This was as true of the Catholic Reading Room in the Pettah established on the lst December 1867) and the Central Town Library in Kandy (estab.1841); while a sprinkling of Burghers peopled the committees running the Nuwara Eliya Library, the Jaffna Library and the Colombo Catholic Library (established in 1867 as well). The Pettah, it should be noted, was the centre of the Burgher society in Colombo from the 1820s into the late nineteenth century.

It was not till the 1880s that a handful of non-Burghers (e. g. H. G. Gomes, W. P. Ranesinghe, T. E. de Sampayo, A de A. Seneviratne) entered the Committee of the Pettah Library. But even in [the period] 1980-91, most of the Committee members and office bearers were Burgher. By then, of course, the population of Burghers within that ward was on the decline: 19.6 per cent of the total population of the Pattah in 1868-72, the proportion of Burghers sank to 3.7 per cent in 1901, a mere 439 people, and by 1921 there were only 26 Burghers in the Pettah.

The private tutories were eventually pushed into a secondary place by the expansion of the missionary school system and by the Colombo Academy (which began as a small tutory of this sort). About 60 per cent of the schoolboys at this last-named school during the 1830s and 1840s were Burghers. During the next century this predominance was subject to progressive decline. Nevertheless, it is our guess that the minority at such schools as St. Thomas’, St. Joseph’s, St. Peter’s, Wesley, Trinity, Kingswood and Richmond during the last nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This meant that they had a leading place in the old boy’s associations and old boy networks in subsequent years, a circumstance compounded by their intermediary professional roles in the colonial administration and the bourgeois order.

The fact that Lorenz, Morgan, the Nells, Francis Beven and others were intellectual lights in the mid nineteenth century, with the capacity to hob-nob with literary minded European administrators and notables (e. g. in the Colombo Pettah Library, the Colombo Athenaeum or the Royal Asiatic Society, Ceylon Branch) gave the Burgher elite a social clout. This was bolstered by the linkages and affinities which they developed with the European missionaries as leading members of various congregations, whether Methodist, Anglican, Catholic, Baptists or Presbyterian. As Yasmine Gooneratne has stressed, churchgoing was “a sign of respectability in British times:” as in Batavia, the Burgher womenfolk in the mid-nineteenth century appear to have bedecked themselves in the best clothes on these Sunday social occasions. Such conspicuous competitiveness notwithstanding, it could be said that during the British period, churchgoing contributed to the model of sober decorum which was cultivated by Burgher notables and which became such a social asset.

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Amunugama, Sarath 1979 “Ideology and class interest in one of Piyadasa Siris­ena’s novels: the new image of the “Sinhala Buddhist” nationalist,” in M Roberts (ed.) Collective identities, nationalisms and protest in modern Sri Lanka, Colombo:: Marga Institute, pp. 314-36

De Silva, C. R. 1983 “The historiography of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka. A survey of the Sinhala writings,” Samskrti 17: 13-22.

De Silva, K. M.  1988 “Political crisis and Ethnic Conflicts in Sri Lanka,” Ethnic Studies Report, Vol VI/1, January 1988, pp. 63-74

Foenander, S. P. 1924 Sixty years of Ceylon cricket. Colombo: The Ceylon Advertsisng & General Publicity Co.

Godakumbura, C E 1955 Sinhalese literature, Colombo: Colombo Apothecaries’ Co. Ltd.

Henry Candidus 1998 “A desultory conversation between two young aristocratic Ceylonese,” in Michael Roberts (ed.) Sri Lanka. Collective Identities Revisited, Vol. II. Colombo, Marga, 1998, pp. 000 Originally printed in 1853.

Malalgoda, Kitsiri 1973 “The Buddhist-Christian confrontation in Ceylon, 1800-1880,” Social Compass, XX: 171-200.

Malalgoda, Kitsiri 1976 Buddhism in Sinhalese society, 1750-1900, Berkeley, University of California Press.

Obeyesekere, Gananath 1979 “The vicissitudes of the Sinhala-Buddhist identity through time and change,” in M Roberts (ed.) Collective identities, nationalisms and protest in modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Institute, pp. 279-313.

Roberts, Michael 1979a “Meanderings in the pathways of collective identity and nationalism,” in M Roberts (ed.) Collective identities, nationalisms and protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Institute, pp. 1-96.

Roberts, Michael 1979b ‘Elite formation and elites, 1832-1931′, in M Roberts (ed.) Collective identities, nationalisms and protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Institute, pp. 153-213.

Roberts, Michael 1982 Caste Conflict and Elite Formation, Cambridge University Press.

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Roberts, Michael 1989b “The political antecedents of the revivalist elite within the MEP coalition of 1956,” in C R de Silva and Sirima Kiribamune (eds) K. W. Goonewardena Felicitation Volume, Peradeniya University, pp. 185-220.

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Roberts, Michael, Raheem, Ismeth and Colin-Thome, Percy 1989 People inbetween, Vol. I, The Burghers and the middle class in the transformations within Sri Lanka, 1790s-1960s, Ratmalana: Sarvodaya Book Publishing Services.

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[1] This article was presented in a popular journal known asThe Sri Lankan in its May 1990 issue with authorship attributed to Roberts, Raheem & Colin-Thome, the authors of People Inbetween (Ratmalana Sarvodaya Book Publishing, 1989).  I do not have the journal and discovered a news cutting of A$ size with the article. Photos taken of segments of this cutting were sent to Ms Nadeeka Paththuwaarachchi in Battaramulla, Colombo and she has managed to piece it together as a digital version for me to place in Thuppahi. THANKS, Nadeeka. Highlighted emphasis has been added HERE in this Thuppahi version.

[2] In this regard the argument was informed by the work done by me in producing essays on “elite formation” (see Roberts 1979b and the book on Caste Conflict and Elite Formation).


Filed under accountability, British colonialism, British imperialism, centre-periphery relations, commoditification, cultural transmission, economic processes, education, ethnicity, heritage, historical interpretation, island economy, life stories, literary achievements, nationalism, patriotism, politIcal discourse, power politics, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, transport and communications, unusual people, world events & processes

3 responses to “The Burgher Elite and the British Raj

  1. Jeremy De Lima

    A very scholarly piece of writing, which is what I expected from an erudite historian like yourself.
    Certainly worth a place in Sri Lanka’s archives.

  2. Pingback: Political Crisis and Ethnic Conflicts in Sri Lanka: A Rejoinder to Michael Robert | Thuppahi's Blog

  3. Pingback: Percy Colin-Thomé and the Composition of the Book People Inbetween | Thuppahi's Blog

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