Disappearing Burgher Surnames in Island Lanka

“Disappearing Burgher Surnames in Island Lanka” …. Author and location unknown at present … and not to be confused with Careem’s article on “Disappearing Burgher & Malay Surnames in Island Lanka”at… https://thuppahis.com/2017/01/30/disappearing-burgher-and-malay-surnames-i

Pix of Burgher Tennis Club in the Fort of Galle in 1928 inserted here courtesy of David Colin-Thome … for names: visit https://thuppahis.com/2017/06/29/burgher-tennis-club-in-galle-circa-1928/


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. However, it is unmistakably clear that many of the Lankan patronymics and surnames have European roots. 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. James Van 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 Straaten (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 Lankan Burghers 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, Fernandez (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 bygone Era, 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.

Milani & Alice Sansoni ...courtesy of David Sansoni

The Sansoni’s (Sansone), yet another unique patronymics 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.

Dr RL Spittel

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 Sansoni Lineage” …. by David Sansoni, responding to a Thuppahi request, 14 December 2022

 While Guiseppe Sansoni (b. 1745) is indeed the first ‘Sansoni’ on record, as far as the family’s “Ceylon” period is concerned, the acknowledged forefather of the ‘modern era’ is surely Miliani Henri Sansoni (b.1849, d.1907).

Great-grandfather Miliani married Alice Rosalind Aldons (b.1856, d.1921). All the Sansonis of your acquaintance — Aldo, Pip, Dominic…many more, including my sister Astrid, and I — are the fruit of their union.

And therefore; here they are, on their 25th Anniversary – circa 1898.



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4 responses to “Disappearing Burgher Surnames in Island Lanka

  1. Sachi Sri Kantha

    Not to be omitted in this listing of Burgher surnames of Sri Lanka is the Keuneman clan. It was represented in the Ceylon-Sri Lankan parliament for 30 long years by Pieter Gerald Bartholomeusz Keuneman (1917-1997), between 1947 and 1977, as a member of Communist Party.

    There was also Herbert Keuneman (I gather a cousin of Pieter)– the writer, journalist.

  2. Edward T. Upali

    This comment is to correct a minor error in the main write up :
    ” Brohier (R.L.Brohier, an Engineer who built Ceylon’s first whole irrigation system),”

    Most Sri Lankans know that Sri Lanka’s first Irrigation system was built almost 2000 years ago, and it was not built by R.L. Brohier.

    By profession R. L. Brohier was a Surveyor. He joined the Department of Surveys as Supernumerary Surveyor and rose to be the Deputy Surveyor General. Later, he was a Board Member, and the Chairman of the Gal Oya Development Board.

    R. L. Brohier was the author of number of books on Sri Lanka including the three volume ” Ancient Irrigation Works of Ceylon”. He was conferred D.Lit Honoris Causa by University of Ceylon.

    Dr. Brohier passed away in Colombo, Sri Lanka in 1980.

  3. Edward T. Upali

    Thank You. I had the honor of proposing the vote of thanks, when Dr. Brohier visited the Faculty of Engineering – a long time ago. He was a distinguished Sri Lankan.

    In addition to his interest in the Ancient Irrigation Works of Ceylon, he was very interested in preserving Dutch period furniture and ruins in Sri Lanka.

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