Defining Ethnicity in Sri Lanka and the United States: David Graham’s Story

David Graham

I only refer to myself as a Burgher or lansi with people who are likely to know who Burghers or lansis are–or rather, were. It wasn’t until 1986 that I was required to classify myself racially. This was in Grand Junction, Colorado. I needed a social security number to open a bank account, and back in those days the application form said nothing about Eurasians. Since Asian was the closest it came to describing what I was, that was the racial classification I was obliged to choose. Pursuant to U.S. law, my race isn’t mentioned anywhere on my passport or driver’s license.

That said, I’m often asked how come a person who looks like me has a name like Graham. Americans seem unable to grasp the concept of primogeniture. I’ve tried to explain it this way: imagine that a fellow named Smith moves to China, marries a Chinese woman and has a son by her. Whatever his first name is, that boy’s last name is going to be Smith. And when he in turn has a son, that boy’s last name will also be Smith. And if each son has a son of his own, three or four or five generations down the road, you’re going to wind up with (visibly at least) ethnically pure-looking Chinese people named Smith.

The British are far more worldly than Americans in this regard. They are aware that Englishmen, Scotsmen, Welshmen and Irishmen — and for that matter, Frenchmen, Germans, Spaniards, Portuguese and Dutchmen — fathered children all over Asia and Africa in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

A railway porter at Waverly Station in Edinburgh wouldn’t turn a hair if he meets an ethnic Chinese-looking fellow who says his name is MacDonald. In the United States, chances are that the same Chinese fellow would be regarded with suspicion, as if he was an imposter of some kind. Not for nothing did Ambrose Bierce quip that war is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.

For what it’s worth, every time the HR folks at both Apple and Google assigned me a digital avatar at Christmas, they always made sure it depicted an African-American. I was twice mistaken for Ed Bradley, the black journalist on the CBS News television program 60 Minutes, the first time in a bar in midtown Manhattan and then at a Denny’s in Boise, Idaho.

What we see is colored by what we know. Goethe was blunter: “We see only what we know.” Or as W.I.B. Beveridge put it in The Art of Scientific Investigation, “We are prone to see what lies behind our eyes rather than what appears before them.”

In Sri Lanka, it’s another matter entirely. Sri Lankans are obsessed with skin color and can differentiate between dozens of different shades of brown with the discerning eye of a Rembrandt. I suspect Sri Lankans have as many words to describe the gradations of skin color as Eskimos have words for snow.

My dad and his siblings–a brother named Stephen and sisters named Agnes, Alice and Mary–were the illegitimate children of a tea planter named Alexander David Callander. Agnes died of a childhood illness while my dad was still in his infancy.

My grandfather was born in Airth, Scotland, on January 20, 1880. A.D. Callander arrived in Ceylon in 1901. He was the superintendent at Narathupana Estate, Neboda in 1919, the year my father was born. The old boy had just turned 89 when he died at the Central Hospital, Horton Place, on January 30, 1969.

Meanwhile, my dad’s mother died when he was three years old, and he and his younger brother and two surviving older sisters were sent to live with Reverend James Samuel Henry Edrisinghe in Palatota, Kalutara.

So whence the name Graham? It’s from the distaff side of the family. My grandfather’s mother’s maiden name was Elisabeth Anderson Graham. One of my grandfather’s brothers, John Graham Callander (1873-1938), had been director of the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh. Uncle Graham was a bit of a lush and was known for his boorish behavior.

One of my granddad’s other brothers was Thomas Callander (1877-1959), Professor of Greek at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario (1904-1934). Uncle Thomas also taught at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. His magnum opus The Athenian Empire and the British was published posthumously in 1961. His friend B.H. Liddell Hart edited it at Aunt Beatrice’s insistent prodding (letters from Thomas and Beatrice Callander are among the papers catalogued in the Liddell Hart military archives at King’s College, London).

There’s a trenchant review of the theme of Uncle Thomas’s book on the Henry Williamson Society’s website. Williamson quoted extensively from Uncle Thomas’s book in Lucifer before Sunrise (No. 14 in the Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight series).

Thomas Callander believed the punitive terms of the Treaty of Versailles laid the groundwork for the Second World War. It’s a view I happen to share. Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau and Woodrow Wilson imposed crippling reparations on Germany. Those three idiots made the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of World War II all but inevitable, just as John Maynard Keynes predicted in his prescient little book, The Economic Consequences of the Peace.

To no avail did Keynes caution his readers, “Men will not always die quietly.” I cannot imagine what life must have been like during fourteen years of hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic, when you needed a wheelbarrow filled with paper money to buy a loaf of bread.

Colin John Holcombe notes in Money, Coinage and Society that “in November 1923, one US dollar was worth 4,210,500,000,000 Reichmarks.” Bad things happen when you make living conditions so desperate that you turn millions of civilized people into ravening beasts. As Einstein said, an empty stomach is not a good political advisor.

Anyway, my dad was hopelessly confused about his racial identity. On my birth certificate, he gave his race as Eurasian. When my brother Tyrone was born my dad called himself a Burgher on the birth certificate. When my sister Charmaine was born my dad was calling himself a Ceylonese, and by the time Lorraine came along, my dad had decided he was a Sinhalese.

Daddy didn’t have a birth certificate. In the 1930s his father signed an affidavit acknowledging paternity. I believe the occasion for that was the need to get him a passport so he could go on a trip to India with the Ceylon Boy Scouts. I never saw that original passport, but the name on the Ceylon passport he used to travel to London and Zurich in 1959 and on the one he used to visit Israel in 1968 and Zurich and London in 1969 was David Graham Callander.

There was a certain odium attached to the word Eurasian in polite society during colonial times. Growing up, my dad heard disparaging things said about his parentage, and I suspect the more patrician Burgher families looked down on him as well. And then of course he went to the other extreme and married a dirt-poor girl from a Burgher family.

My dad was visibly uncomfortable in the presence of my mom’s relatives, who were your typical party animal Burghers. I recall one memorable party in Kelaniya, when my dad sat on the edge of his chair, chain-smoking and staring into the middle distance. I vividly recall one old guy at that party. Everyone called him Uncle Ernie, and he was strumming a guitar and singing a baila. My dad couldn’t join in that kind of thing. He was too uptight.











My mother’s maiden name was Bouvard. Her mother’s maiden name was Van Zyl. My mom was delusional and a pathological liar with a diabolical imagination. She habitually spun fantastic yarns about her ancestry. But in the last year of her life, no doubt sensing that the jig was up, she revealed the truth about her parentage. Her father, Eustace Melville Bouvard, was an Anglo-Indian from Bangalore. I have seen one picture of him. He looked like a Batticaloa Burgher.

So, what does that make me? My siblings and I grew up assuming we were Burghers. We went to school with Burgher children and at least until the end of sixth grade we were in segregated classrooms (“English medium” they called it). Our childhood friends were Burghers. From the time I was four till the year I was twenty-three, we lived next door to Burgher families.

I was born in the 1950s. My education, such as it was, began at two and a half, when I was sent to Carmen Gunasekera’s Montessori School. I was enrolled in kindergarten at Bishop’s College, Colombo at three and a half, and then–after an eighteen-month caesura when I was kept at home unschooled–I was sent to St. Thomas’s Prep School as a six-year-old boarder.

I don’t have pictures of myself as a teenager (growing up, we didn’t have cameras in the house–or books, for that matter). Instead, here’s a picture of me with the re-enactor portraying General Robert E. Lee at the 143rd anniversary of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. As you might guess from that, I’m a history buff (I’m mostly interested in the Mexican War, Civil War and the Great Sioux War of 1876).

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One response to “Defining Ethnicity in Sri Lanka and the United States: David Graham’s Story

  1. Ranil Perera

    I was at STC Prep 1959 to 1962. I recall Tyrone Graham was in my year.

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