Standing Forth as Ceylonese in the Early 19th Century

Michael Roberts  …. presenting the first section in Chapter X of People Inbetween (1989) pp 140-47. … The chapter is entitled “Standing Forth as Ceylonese, 1850s” *++*


We need to begin by reaching back into the Maritime Provinces of Ceylon during the first decades of British rule after their seizure of these territories in 1795-96. We shall first recapitulate some of the points made in previous chapters.

We saw that the distinction between VOC officialdom and the Burghers quickly disappeared under the British; that the Hollandsche and even the Tupass of yesteryear were defined as Europeans in some British regulations. We also saw that there was some measure of social interaction between the British and creole families of respectable status during the early decades of British rule (supra: 50ff). In both social intercourse and collective designation, however, the old distinction between the Hollandsche and the Tupass persisted in the form of the opposition between the “Burgher Inhabitants” (or its equivalent, for example, “Dutch”) and the “Portuguese” (or Tupass, Topaz, Mestizos, Mechanics) when people used the English language; and in Sinhala between “lánsi” on the one hand and “tuppáhi” or “párángi” or sinno on the other.[1]

While the latter distinction was widely recognized by contemporaries, we have demonstrated in chapters 3 and 4 that in the everyday world of the early nineteenth century the boundary between Tupass/tuppáhi and lánsi was subject to penetration, either through the decline of respectable families or the upward mobility of Tupasses or ex-slaves. While most of the artisans in the major towns whom contemporaries knew as “Mechanics” may have been Tupass, this does not mean that all the Tupass were artisans; or that the Tupass folk of a particular generational cohort remained Tupass or Mechanic. For instance, it is pertinent that in 1850, when alluding to the fact that “the Portuguese” had intermarried with the Sinhalese over the years, John Capper found them in a range of occupations: “their descendants of the present day are to be seen of every shade and grade, from the well-clad medical student, to the half-starved, ill-clad mechanic or the indolent bazaar-keeper.”[2]


The social world of the southwestern littoral in early British times appears to have been marked by some measure of flux, what with the ingress of Asian migrants from the Indian coast (e.g. Moors, Bharathas, Colombo Chetties, Chetties) and the upward mobility of individuals from disadvantaged Sinhala castes. As we have indicated earlier, the disabilities and oppressions of the caste system as it was upheld and/or deployed by the colonial governments, including the early British, created the incentives for non-Goyigama caste members to seek new opportunities[3] or to slip out of the caste dispensation altogether. Becoming a Muslim and Moor, or becoming a lánsi or Tupass, were two of the possible escape routes. We know nothing about the former path. The latter was a course that appears to have been pursued in Portuguese and Dutch times (supra:42). During the first half century of British rule the relaxations in administrative support for caste discrimination and the widening of economic opportunities seem to have provided some Sinhalese from disadvantaged castes with the scope to move into the category “Burgher” in the broad sense of the term. Besides the evidence we have presented earlier in chapter 3, we have the authority of J. W. Bennett in support of this conclusion:

“It is not uncommon for a low caste Singhalese to be ambitious of the name of European; and as the Hindoo-Portuguese , who have all the privileges of Europeans in courts of justice, are as dark in color as the Singhalese, and often much darker than the higher castes of the latter, the ambitious aspirant thinks it no greater difficulty to get upon the first bar of the European ladder, than to prove that he possesses some portion of Lusitanian blood; and therefore the moment he can raise sufficient cash for a second-hand coat or jacket, or if these are not to be obtained at his own price, a white cotton jacket, waistcoat, trousers, shirt, a hat (Chape), and shoes (Zapatas), the candidate for European honours is complete in point of dress; he next wants a Portuguese name, and of course a title. German Barons are scarcely less plentiful than Ceylon Doms and Dons, and the latter appendage is just as easily assumed as the former title.”[4]

The social confusion was compounded by intermarriages and liaisons between British residents on the one hand and the creole, Sinhala, Tamil, Colombo Chetty and other Asian folk on the other. Such marriages occurred at all status levels and was not restricted to the Tupass and indigenous working class population. Both in chapter 4 (supra:51ff) and in Appendix 5 we have pointed to a number of marriages between British officials or officers and Dutch ladies from elite families during the early decades of  British occupation. The mortalities in the island were so high, moreover, that some British widows married Hollandsche men (see Appendix 5). This appears to have been especially pronounced in the first two or three decades of British rule, but the subject could profit from more minute examination.

The years 1802 to 1807, as we saw, were a crunch-point for the Hollandsche population. Those who decided to stay on in Sri Lanka were, for the most part, committed to developing their ties within the country. For them, as we have suggested in chapter four, the period 1807-1820s must have been a critical period of re-adjustment. This adjustment included the process of ethnic conceptualization, a redefinition of self that was at once individual and collective in the sense that individual perceptions were socially constructed and patterned.

The reconstruction of their ethnic identity by the remaining Hollandsche and the parallel process among the Tupass of yesteryear did not emerge as an aggregate result of individual choices. Ethnicity is shaped in part by structural forces associated with the distribution of power. Individual self-perceptions and collective typifications develop within the corridors and interests that are constituted by these structures. In British Ceylon in the first half of the nineteenth century these structural forces included the emerging status formations of colonial society and the interlinked class order of early capitalism.

In focusing upon the significance of “boundary maintenance”, Fredrik Barth has pointed to the importance of the interface between distinct ethnic communities and the interactions that maintain ethnic boundaries[5] The interface, we would note, is brought into being by differentiations in language, custom, dress and lifestyle, by the cultural form of human thoughtways and lifeways. Thus, contra Barth,[6] we hold that the cultural content of interaction at the interface is critical to its very constitution as an “interface”, a point of differentiation. These boundaries can be reshaped and reconstituted in the process of interaction. The communities cannot always be treated by the analyst as a given entity with clearly defined boundaries. Among the forces that can determine the outcome are those directing the distribution of productive resources.

That is why the institutional order of British rule and the fledgling stage of capitalist development must be treated as a context which conditioned the development of Burgher ethnicity. We have noticed earlier that the Burghers of British Ceylon were predominantly urban residents (supra:46. 90; also see Table 10). This was true from the outset: the Hollandsche and Tupass of late Dutch times had mostly resided in the towns along the coast. Even when they joined in the capitalist diaspora into the hills, the Burghers (in the wide sense of the term) tended to settle in the plantation towns as government servants or professional men. Thus, Clyde Mitchell’s attentiveness to the structural form of emerging urban centres in moulding ethnicity becomes pertinent to our case.[7] Such a perspective, however, must be complemented by attention to the role of the colonial state as well as the anthropology of social practice.[8]

The analytical reconstruction of the manner in which ethnicity took form in British Ceylon, as it was constituted and reconstituted in different periods, would be a monumental book in itself—demanding a thorough analysis of all the available documents. Here, we can only attempt a more limited survey, and one that is, within its restricted field, distinctly preliminary.

We will outline the story of how those whom we have called “the Burghers” came to be described as Burghers and came, increasingly, to see themselves as a distinct community (even though there may not have been any agreement on whom they would include within the category). We will also show that these Burghers began to see themselves as a segment of the native population, a population which was increasingly described as “the Ceylonese” by the British as well as the emerging, English-speaking middle class. Our story will be long on description and short on analysis. The how of our story, therefore, will be blatantly incomplete.

In the collective designations that came into play one needs to take note of at least seven different elements whose perspectives and practices shaped the construction of the Burghers as a distinct ethnic category: (1) the British institutional measures, whether embodied in statutory acts or administrative practice; (2) the prejudices, typifications and practices of British residents within the island, especially those in the urban centres; (3) the self-perceptions and practices of the Burghers or lánsi in the narrow sense of the terms (thus, excluding the Tupass); (4) the self-perceptions and practices of the Tupass people: (5) the self-perceptions and practices of the new creole segment whom we have called “Anglo­ Ceylonese”[9]: (6) the perceptions and practices of the Sinhala people, especially those in and around the towns and especially the emerging middle class families; and (7) the perceptions of the other indigenous or migrant Asian people who came into contact with the Burghers, Tupass and British. Unfortunately, we have no data on the Tupass attitudes (4 above) or those of the labouring poor among the Sinhala and other Asian residents in the island.

Descriptive Labels and Self-Typifications, 1796-1871

We have seen in chapter four that in the 1800s and 1810s the British administration sometimes treated the former Hollandsche population as Europeans. But they also separated them from the small British population and described them compendiously as “Dutch Inhabitants and Burghers,” or more simply as “Dutch Inhabitants”, “Dutch” or “Ceylonese Dutchmen” (supra: 47-52). The leading Burghers seem to have adopted variations of this collective designation. We supply the descriptive terminology which they adopted in petitions or addresses which they presented in the 1810s:

*        “We the undersigned Dutch Inhabitants and Burgers [note spelling] of Colombo”;

*        “We the undersigned Dutch Inhabitants, and Burghers of the Province of Jaffnapatam”:

*        “……. the undersigned, Europeans, Descendants of Europeans, and the Burghers residing in the dis­trict of Galle”;

*        The numerous and respectable body of Burghers of the Town of Colombo”.[10]

The use of the “and” is suggestive of differentiation between the Burghers and the other categories that were deployed, but we should be cautious in cleaving to this conclusion[11] — even though the early British censuses of 1814-16 and 1824-27 did in fact treat Europeans, European descendants and Burghers as distinct categories in some districts. The problem is that there was no consistency on this point: in some districts the census of 1824 does not have the category “European descendants” and in the Tamil regions the term “Dutch Burghers” rather than “Burghers” is used (see Table 18). It would appear, therefore, that there could be an overlap between the categories joined by the “and”. When Colebrooke wrote his report after visiting the island in 1829, he treated the labels as synonyms and spoke of “the Burghers or descendants of Europeans” (emphasis added), while a British missionary in Jaffna drew a simple distinction in 1836 between “Burghers and Natives”[12].

An influential factor in the consolidation of the Burghers as distinct ethnic community was the introduction of juries by the Charter of Justice 1810 and the Proclamation of the 23rd November 1811. The jury as an institution within the British system of judicial administration became a site for social discrimination and differentiation till 1843. For one thing, the Proclamation ordered that the juries should be separated “into their respective classes and castes”. The several “classes”, that is, categories, were identified in ethnic terms thus: “that is to say: Burghers, Native inhabitants, viz. Sinhalese, Malabars and Moors. For another, those who drew up the lists in subsequent decades not only distinguished the Sinhalese juries by caste, they also established “First Class” and “Second Class” lists for some castes; and constructed a set of Low Country Goyigama families from the ranks of the headmen (known as mudaliyars in the island’s historiography) into a ‘cabal’ of the first class.[13]

The latter distinctions became the object of public contention in the early 1840s, but for our purposes the significance of the jury system is twofold: firstly, in the separation of “the Burghers” from the “Native Inhabitants” and the institutionalization of this distinction in administrative practice; and, secondly, in the use of the word “Burgher” as an adequate label for those Hollandsche and Tupass families of the eighteenth century who were still in existence within Sri Lanka. It is significant, too, that some Tupass men had improved their circumstances sufficiently to be included among the jurors, as evidenced by a “Letter from a Mechanic Juror” published in 1832—although there is a suggestion that these jurors may have been listed in a separate, second class category![14] In the perceptions of some Goyigama mudaliyars of the first class, moreover, some Burghers were a tainted category of people. As we indicated earlier, around 1831, when a leading Sinhala mudaliyar (Abraham de Saram) was approached by the Chief Justice to see if he would serve on a Grand Jury if such an institution was established, the chief headman stressed that he would decline such an offer if he was likely to share the bench with any Burgher who had a “taint of low caste blood in him'”.[15]

A Squabble over Government Office: Burghers versus Mudaliyars in the Colombo Journal, 1832

At this point of time, in the 1830s, there appears to have been considerable rivalry between a segment of the Burgher population and the mudaliyar families of that day, whether Tamil Vellala, Colombo Chetty or Sinhala Goyigama. This rivalry spilled over into the pages of the government-run Colombo Journal.[16] Since virtually all letters to the editor were penned under a pseudonym, it is not possible for us to identify the authors beyond placing them within a particular ethnic group or a particular status group on the basis of the manifest prejudices and objectives within these letters. Because one or two of the anti-Burgher protagonists had sent their letters from Jaffna, we conclude that the ranks of the headmen were not confined to the “first class Goyigama”. It is also our speculation that Simon Casiechetty, a Colombo Chetty of mudaliyar rank, had a hand in the controversy.[17]

We have no means of assessing the extent to which these writers were representative of the social categories they spoke out for. But it should be noted that the number of individuals with a command of English at this stage of Sri Lankan history could not have been very large. The verbal dog fight, therefore, took place within a small circle of the newly-emerging middle class (in the retrospective conceptualization which we have adopted and which subsumes the Goyigama aristocracy as one segment, or faction, within this newly emerging status group).

In entering this rhetorical squabble in the Colombo Journal we need to note that the occupational callings of the Burghers were seen to be so singular that “Dicky Snip” (a Briton) spoke of “the history of the Clerks” as synonymous with Burgher history.[18] It was the Burgher monopoly of clericaldom that aroused the animosity of a young and educated member of the mudaliyar ‘class’ who wrote a letter to the Colombo Journal on the 20th May 1832, under the signature, “A Native”. The letter defended the powers of corporal punishment vested in the headmen against the criticism raised by a previous anonymous writer—whom “A Native” divined to be “a kidney of the Belgic community” masquerading as a native. “A Native” ended his convoluted letter in this manner:

“In conclusion, I cannot help expressing the conviction, that my letter has given offence to many Indo-Belgians, for having had the presumption to aspire at sharing offices now wholly monopolised by them. I respectfully offer, for their consideration, the Christian precept “Love thy neighbour as thyself’, and in the adoption of more liberal sentiments, they must acknowledge, that though foreigners on our soil, enjoying privileges from which we are excluded, yet they are the offspring of those, who calling themselves “the guardians of the seacoasts” usurped the possession of our country, of which they were deservedly dispossessed by the present Government, from whom alone we expect redress (emphasis added)”.[19]

This essay attracted a number of counter charges. We focus on one, that written by “Carolus Van A.,” whom we presume to be a Van Arkadie or Van Alken. Carolus Van Arkadie spoke up self-consciously as a “member of a large and respectable community”, those whom he called “the Community of Dutch descendants”.[20] His ability to envisage a tiny population of Dutch Burghers as a large body of people is in itself remarkable and an indication of the self-centered narrowness of world-view which directed his interests. Such limitations produced contradictions. He was able to treat the clerical posts in government (and mercantile?) service as a Burgher “franchise” at the same time that he complained about the majority of Burghers “pining in poverty” and struggling “to maintain a creditable footing in society … by dint of frugality … and … steady decency.” We shall let him speak further for himself:

“I don’t presume to arraign the spirit of exclusion which shuts out our whole community from high office, although there are not a few of us who are in all respects qualified to fill important situations in the Judicial and Revenue Departments …. [Regrettably] the colonial Government does not hold out to them [the Dutch descendants] proper objects of advantage ….

…the scheming which was of late come into vogue, of Cingalese and Malabar People assuming the European Costume, Cravat, Socks and all, in lieu of the native petticoat (which, by the by, one of that kidney in a recent Epistle to your Editorship declares with a complacent chuckle, is a garb very agreeable to the Aborigines of this Eden, that it is not even a Magistracy that can tempt one of them to lay it aside for European inexpressibles) and thus managing to insinuate themselves into Clerkships and Secretaryships to the great annoyance and detriment of that fraternity which found consolation fancying that stock of service as peculiarly appropriate to, and reserved for them—Now such irruption of interlopers into our franchise on the one hand and Barriers opposed to our advancement on the other… must necessarily operate to discomfit us entirely….

[“Timon” has condescendingly suggested that we should take to Agriculture]; it would be more consistent for the Natives to stick to their farms and train up their Children to follow the plough, rather than to send them forth to infest the public Offices as candidates for Employment, where their services can be well dispensed with.”

Carolus Van Arkardie’s prejudices are so patent that they require no comment. What is equally manifest is his attempt to protect a Burgher monopoly from the erosions being effected by a few indigenous inhabitants who had acquired a command of English and primed this social advancement with European styles of dress. In this view, the “natives” should keep to their station, retaining their “petticoats” (sarongs) and remaining cultivators.

This sort of arrogance on the part of certain Burghers did not pass unanswered. We do not propose to indulge in a ball-by-ball description of the ensuing tussle by proxy in the Colombo Journal. One illustration, that by “Neuter” published on the 24th March 1832 which is especially significant because of the terminology which it deploys, will be adequate. “Neuter” was hardly as non-partisan as his pseudonym suggests and his letter was explicitly designed “to expose the real character of a rather arrogant race—the Dutch descendants”. He went on to glorify Learning as a valued social attribute and to argue in pan-humanistic terms thus:[21]

“Formed of the same earth, and animated with the same portion of celestial fire, who shall hinder the aspiring native in the career of improvement? …. If there be any so presumptuous, it is the Dutch descendant. But let him take warning….

The majority of the Clerks (and they are all Dutch descendants) can exhibit beautiful specimens of penmanship, [but they are merely] faithful transcribers…. I defy nine out of ten of them to produce an original letter in English. Dutch or Portuguese, with half the correctness and elegance of the “NATIVE” ….

[With the Dutch descendant] the shew of learning passes for learning itself …he mounts in bombast and soars in unintelligibles. Add to this, the Love of Fashion and all its vices and follies… and the Dutch descendant stands fully displayed before you.

….It is high time for the Dutch descendants to desist from viewing things through the medium of prejudice; to rise from the love of self to the love of mankind; to cherish every noble and manly sentiment…. Then, and not till then can they hope to rise to eminence… [and] contest the right of superiority with the natives.

I trust that the golden age of Ceylon is not far distant when it shall arrive at its elevation of Learning, greatness and opulence.”

As the correspondence grew more insidious and polemical an ex-British soldier intervened. Referring to “the insinuating letters” from “two classes of people” wherein the one tended “to degrade and traduce the general character of the other”, his letter to the editor predicted the possibility of “an internal commotion” in the near future.[22] The Governor and other officials behind the newspaper (see footnote 16) took the cue. They called a halt to the controversy:

“Our patience is nearly exhausted with a continuance of this exhibition …Having begun with throwing grass, they are finishing the struggle with stones; we therefore, who have offered a fair field for the combatants, now put an end to the “keen encounter of wits”…. When “a Native’s” first letters were inserted, we did not in the least anticipate how fierce a storm would be excited… we have not the slightest intention of allowing our columns to continue the channel of endless recrimination or bitter invective…. [The] only result… will be to widen the gulf of separation between two classes, whose feelings and interests ought to be in common. For our part, although we wish a little exclusive spirit had been displayed on one side, the parties are in our eyes

Arcades ambo

                             Et cantare pares. et respondere parati.”

Elsewhere in the same edition they carried a notice for several correspondents waiting in the wings and for those who may have been sharpening their pencils for polemics in the future:

“MODESTCS, ANOTHER NATIVE, A FRIEND TO NATIVE, VERITATIS and A CLERK OF THE DUTCH TIME will find in one of our leading articles of this-day the resolution to which we have come, of no longer allowing the Natives and Burghers to find a vent to their angry feelings in our columns…. We shall destroy unnoticed any further communications on the subject….” [23]

Besides attesting the importance attached to government office and governmental patronage, this controversy in 1832 reveals the exclusiveness and distinctiveness of that segment of the creole population known as “Dutch Burghers” or “lánsi”. Several Britons and several indigenous inhabitants as well as spokesmen for the “Dutch descendants” were agreed upon this point. In this frame of argument, the Dutch Burghers were regarded as being quite distinct from the Portuguese Burghers (i.e. the Tupass or Mecha­nics) as well as that segment of the creole population which was an outcome of liaisons between the British and local people. Thus, the Tupass were not brought into the purview of this correspondence, but we are supplied with a critical piece of information about the Anglo-Ceylonese (i.e. British descendants) in “Neuter’s” epistle:

“A few remarks on the descendants of the English [those referred to by TIMON as “descendants of native mothers by European Fathers” …] …They are, almost all of them from the necessity of birth, neglected and unfortunate… they are held in contempt by the Dutch descendants, who esteem themselves a superior race of mortals: and unmindful that their hue and extraction are quite similar. The disgraceful appellation of HALF-CASTE which the proud Dutch descendant freely bestows on them, and which is prohibited to be used on the Continent of India, is, I suppose, as much inapplicable to them, as that of Dutch Burgher to their deriders. Yet, neglected as they are, there are some amongst them who were born and educated under a milder destiny, and are superior to the Dutch descendants in every attainment.”

The situation in the early 1830s was not as clear as all this might suggest. We cannot conclude that the Burghers, in the narrow sense of Dutch descendants, were invariably regarded as a special category of foreigners who were distinct from the indigenous population as well as the Tupass. The Colombo Journal had another letter in February 1832 from yet another “A Native” which remarked that “the Dutch descendants” were “equally the conquered with us”.[24] Here then we find the Burghers being treated as distinct, yet not totally distinct. There was an opening here for the development of a confederative unity.

What is more, a letter printed in the Colombo Journal of the 14th March 1832 had this to say of “the Burghers”: “they have now become, comparatively speaking a nation”.[25] This comment was entirely in line with Dicky Snip’s reference to “the collective Body which is designated by the term “Burgher”[26]. The inference in Dicky Snip’s case is that he was referring only to the Dutch Burghers or ex- Hollendsche, but a similar inference cannot be readily attached to the letter of the 14th March 1832. There is sometimes an element of uncertainty as to which peoples were being encompassed by the term “Burgher” when it was deployed by non-Burghers, while the historical record has left us with no traces of the self-perceptions of those who can be clearly identified as Tupass.

Our reading of the fragmentary references within the historical records must also be guided by the knowledge that marriages were taking place, or had recently taken place, across the lines of distinction. In previous sections of this book we have indicated that these interconnections could involve Hollandsche, Tupass people, ex-slaves, indigenes and British; and our Appendices document some of these marriages. One also finds that the connections between British and Burgher families were consolidated in subsequent generations by marriages between their Anglo-Ceylonese descendants and Burgher personnel (supra: 51ff and Appendix 5). And despite the stigma attached to the Anglo-Ceylonese descendants of Bri­tish-“native” marriages (see “Neuter’s” letter above), those with the valued social accomplishments of that day, such as the Stewarts, were able to marry into respectable Burgher and Sinhala families (supra: 52ff). In short, the urban world of Sri Lanka in the early nineteenth century was both “a melting pot” and yet not a melting pot. Cross-ethnic marriages took place. But they occurred at an individual level in ways which did not erase the ethnic divisions and prejudices of the day.

Against such a backdrop, then, what does our fragmentary data add up to? By the early 1830s, both British residents and indigenous notables viewed the upper strata of the creole population as a distinct community possessing some measure of cohesion. They called them variously “Burghers”, “Dutch descendants”, “Indo-Belgians”, or “European descendants”. The old compendious label of “Burghers and Dutch descendants (inhabitants)” was falling into disuse.

This was an uneven and incomplete development as yet: in a context in which a schoolboy at the Colombo Academy could say “We see persons of every description meet here [in the school]. English, French, Dutch, Singhalese, Malabar….” it is hardly surprising that a correspondent in the Colombo Journal in 1832 who called himself an “Indo-Briton” should refer to them as “East Indians”, or that a British governmental statute in 1852 should describe them as “persons commonly known as Europeans”.[27]  To the extent that we can generalize, however the term that was most commonly used by non-Burghers in the 1830s and 1840s to describe this tiny, but prominent, segment of the population in urban centres was “Burgher”. In this usage, “Burgher” did not include the “Portuguese Burgher” and appears even to have excluded some of those whom we have called “Anglo-Ceylonese”, that is those viewed by contemporaries as “English descendants” (where “English” stood for “British”).

In other instances of island-practice in the 1820s, 1830s and 1840s, the context and content of usage does not clearly indicate who precisely was being incorporated within the term “Burgher”. In yet other instances it appears that the Portuguese Burgher people (also known variously as Tupass, Topaz, Mestizos, Mechanics, tuppahi, parangi or sinno) were encompassed within the ambit of this label. It is evident that the jury system treated the Tupass as one part of the category “Burgher”. Another illustration of this encompassing usage is provided in the Revd. Selkirk’s statement (in 1844) quoted a few pages hence, and gains in significance from the fact that Selkirk resided in Sri Lanka from 1826 to 1840. The considerable variation and ambiguity of local practice should not be allowed to obscure the significance of this point: by the 1830s and 1840s the term “Burghers” could be, and was sometimes, used to describe the totality of the creole population.

Richard Morgan

Encountering these designations in their daily intercourse with the British, the Sinhala people and individuals from various other ethnic groups in a social context in which ethnicity was encoded into forms of dress and other lifeways,[28] the Burghers began to adopt these labels themselves. More work needs to be done on the newspapers and documents of the 1830s and 1840s before a firm conclusion can be drawn, but our impression is that the term “Burghers” had become the favoured self-typification within the upper layers of the Burgher population (a typification which, in their usage, probably excluded the Tupass people).[29] This label did not gain predominance in one fell swoop. It did not prevent a group of Burgher petitioners in 1841 from describing themselves as “East Indians”, or Richard Morgan in 1851 from referring to “the class of European descendants” when he wrote to a British official about the nominated seat in the Legislative Council which was conventionally reserved for the Burghers.[30] But the weight of self-referencing fell upon “Burghers” and gained in power because non-Burghers were now employing it widely.

The data which we assembled thus far embodies labels intended for a collection of people, whether a self-typification or as the identification of some Other. But each member of the Burgher community was forced to construct an identity for himself or herself as an individual. Understandings of family history and genealogy, usually constructed with a patrilineal bias, came into play in this process. As we indicated earlier, the Hollandsche of Dutch times, whether Burgher citizens or VOC officials, had been drawn from a number of European ethnic groups. In the early decades of British rule, it seems, those who were not of Dutch descent continued to adhere to their Swedish, Danish, Swiss, German or French identity, just as the British residents in Sri Lanka thought of themselves as “English”, “Scotch”, “Irish”, “Welsh”, “Celtic” or “Anglo-Saxon”. An exquisite illustration of the obduracy which could prevail on this point is provided in the letter from old J. F. Lorenz which we have quoted earlier in chapter three, a letter in which he insisted that “for the whole Island of Ceylon [he] would not be mistaken for a Dutchman” (supra:39).

We believe that such understandings functioned as a constraint upon the acceptability of the label ­”Ceylonese Dutchmen”, “Dutch” or “Dutch inhabitants” as an adequate description of the remaining Hollandsche population during the first half century of British rule. Likewise, memories carried over from Dutch times may well have questioned the adequacy of the label “Burghers” in that it did not refer to an ethnic identity under the Dutch. It is for this reason, we speculate, that the cumbersome portmanteau, descriptions which we have outlined earlier were adopted by the Burgher notables who penned petitions or addresses in the early nineteenth century. It took time, and the passing away of one or two generations in a situation where longevity was not as marked as it is today, for “Burghers” to shed their eighteenth-century load and become more widely accepted by the Burghers themselves as a suitable ethnic label.

The incredible variety in the self-perceptions of the creole population in Sri Lanka is revealed in the census of 1871. On this occasion the census officials asked heads of households to provide information their “Race” as well as their place of birth (“where born”), etcetera.[31] We do not know the details of the process of compilation. Notwithstanding this shortcoming, the tabulations (listed under the head of “Nationality of the Inhabitants”) amount to a marvellous social document. The various “nationalities” or “races” that identified themselves in the process are listed in Table 21. Those whom we speculate to have been Burgher are separated out in Table 22.

Though the majority of creole householders described themselves as “Burgher”, it is evident that this ­term was not as yet dominant. Others described themselves as “Dutch”, “Dutch descendant”. “East-­Indian”, “Indo-Briton” or “Eurasian”—the latter term not having as yet developed the stigma which was attached to it by the twentieth century. Yet other Burghers may have described themselves as “French descendant”, “German descendant”, “European descendant”, and so on, and even perhaps as “European”; but we cannot be certain about this insofar as some individuals from the European continent who had ­moved recently to Sri Lanka in pursuit of trading or other occupations could have chosen such labels.

It was not till 1881 that the British bureaucratic order attempted to reduce this medley of terms into manageable categories: namely, European, Eurasian and Burgher. The latter two were then grouped ­together under one head from 1881 upwards. In this manner, the classificatory process of census taking probably influenced the crystallization of ethnic identity, contributing to its standardization and codification.[32]

In overview, therefore, it is evident that the period extending from 1796 to the 1870s was a formative stage in the clarification of ethnic identity among the creole population. Even thereafter the distinction between the Burghers (lánsi) on the one hand and the Tupass and Anglo-Ceylonese folk on the other came into situational use. However, there was little to prevent a member of the latter categories from describing ­his or her family as “Burgher” when a census enumerator arrived on the doorstep. And if armed with the requisite social accomplishments (including physical beauty), he or she could attempt to pass as a Burgher (in the narrow elitist sense), or even seek to marry one. Some of the elite Burgher families resisted this process and sought to keep the Anglo-Ceylonese (“Eurasians” in the narrow sense) and the Tupass at bay: as we saw, the formation of the DBU in 1908 was a major step in this policy (supra: 122ff).

The outcome, however, did not rest solely in the hands of the pukka Burghers, the Tupass and the Anglo-Ceylonese. It depended in large part on the attitudes of the British residents on the one hand, and the indigenous peoples on the other. We have seen that their tendency was to aggregate all the creoles within a single’ overarching typification: “Burgher”. As more and more migrants assembled in the metropolis of Colombo in the decades after 1881 (see Tables 11 and 12), this tendency gained ground. The accumulation of people and the presence of indigenous migrants served to dissipate the intimate local knowledge upon which the distinctions between Dutch Burgher and Portuguese Burgher, lánsi and tuppáhi, rested. Lánsi and Burgher became, increasingly rather than invariably, generic and encompassing terms.

In the course of the nineteenth century, moreover, the British proceeded to treat the Burghers as one part of the “native” population; while the indigenous notables began, albeit in qualified ways, to incorporate them within the overarching category that had emerged newly in the English language: “Ceylonese”.[33] The latter term was used descriptively every now and then by Britons writing about the island’s affairs and was also adopted in the same descriptive style by some indigenous notables: viz, the individual who referred to “us poor Ceylonese” in 1832.[34] In the late 1840s and the early 1850s, however, this label was invested with a more evocative patriotic loading by middle class spokesmen led by Burgher notables, among them the Nells and C. A. Lorenz. In this form it was not only a counter to the colourlessness of the label “natives”, but was also, as we shall demonstrate, a form of resistance to the pejorative connotations which were sometimes attached to that term in British usage. And in the case of the Burghers we shall show that it was also a counter to their designation by individual Britons as “half-castes”, a label which seems to have been usually disparaging in intent and/or implication.

Percipient readers would already have noted that 176 persons, perhaps 35 to 44 families in all, identified themselves in 1871 as “Ceylonese” (see Table 21). In contrast, three or four creole families saw themselves as “half caste”. These terms were at the two poles in the ideological battlefield of the nineteenth century. Those who accepted the label “half caste” as their ethnic identity would seem to have succumbed to the subordinations created by racially-minded British residents and visitors. The “Ceylonese,” on the other hand, were adhering to the ideology spelt out in Young Ceylon and the Examiner when the latter was directed by Lorenz and Leopold Ludovici: they were seeking to get rid of ethnic identities among the peoples who called Ceylon or Lankāva their home and to fuse these peoples together as a superordinate citizenry in opposition to the “outside”—an “outside” which was presented so powerfully by the British or “English”.[35]

The editorial team of The Examiner in the 1860s …with CA Lorenz in the centre and Leopold Ludovici seated on his right

We will now proceed to illustrate this argument. A word of caution must preface this account. One must be alive to the fact that the transformation and solidification of ethnic perceptions takes place within the domain of verbal exchanges. Since researchers delving into the nineteenth century must perforce rely upon literary data, our reconstructions in this sphere are correspondingly weak. In this instance, as remarked upon earlier, the weakness of our analysis is compounded by the fragmentary and contradictory nature of the literary evidence which has come to our notice so far.

“Damned” as “Half Caste” and “Native”

Because of their institutionalized dependence on the British dispensation and because of the emergence of Anglophilic leanings, the opposition to the British that was embodied in the concept “Ceylonese” and expressed by Burgher notables in the mid-nineteenth century was a qualified opposition. It was nevertheless significant as an expression of Ceylonese patriotism. In delineating the conditions which stimulated and informed this development, we hope to elucidate its significance.

In chapters four and eight, we indicate that the social exclusiveness of the British ‘community’ in Sri Lanka developed increasing rigidities as the nineteenth century progressed. Those who were especially disadvantaged by this tendency were the creole elite families of the early nineteenth century. The occasional marriage between members of elite Burgher families and upper crust British residents in the decades spanning the mid nineteenth century (supra: 51 and Appendix 5) did little to check the widening of the gap. Indeed, there is room to suspect that such cross-ethnic connections tended, as they usually do, to exacerbate the situation by bringing antipathies to the boil and generating problems of etiquette.

Likewise, the fact that some British and Burgher gentlemen mixed freely in the activities of the newly-formed St John’s Lodge during the 1840s (supra: 95ff) and that Anglo-Ceylonese (e.g. the Staples brothers) and British (e.g. Emerson Tennent) visited the Colombo Pettah Library, a Burgher domain, did not prevent the contemporaneous expression of pronounced racial prejudices by British ‘settlers’, officials and visitors.

      *****   *****    *****

A SPECIAL NOTE: It has not been possible to compile a bibliography of the published works cited in this segment of the chapter. Assiduous readers will have to consult the book People Inbetween for this background.


*++* The recent proliferation of items in Thuppahi on some of the Eurasian lineages and specific Burgher families in Ceylon/Sri Lanka has encouraged me to reproduce this segment of the book People Inbetween (Colombo, Sarvodaya Publishers, 1989) … where the author’s hand was that of myself, Michael Roberts – while Percy Colin-Thome and Ismeth Raaheem participated in vital supporting roles in sifting through and/or locating vital sources.

Also see this item as it is directly relevant to some of the points made in this presentation above: “Revelations? “Nationalities” in the 1871 Census of British Ceylon,” 19 November 2021, ………………………….


[1]           See Goonetilleke 1888-89:212-13; McGilvray 19S2 and supra: 39-50.

[2]           Capper 1878:174-75. This essay was written in 1850 (internal evidence); and in any event was published initially in Capper 1854.

[3]           On the various disabilities which weighed upon the non-Goyigama and/or the “low castes”, see Roberts 1982:33-34, 51-54, 63ff. On the occupational diversification that occurred as a result during colonial times, see Ibid: 50-56, chap.4 and 128-31. Also see Peebles 1973.

The phrase “low caste” must be interpreted according to its context of usage in the past. In some contexts, it probably encompassed all non-Govigarna castes.

[4]           Bennett 1843:103:04. emphasis in original

[5]           Barth 1969a.

[6]           “The critical focus of investigation…become the ethnic boundary that defines the group, not the cultural stuff that it encloses” (Barth 1969a: 15). Barth’s ethnography (1969b) and statements elsewhere in his theoretical introduction (e.g. 1969a: 13, 14) can be pursued in ways which would contradict the key statement quoted above and which would support the argument that “the cultural stuff” helps constitute the boundary  that he is talking of

[7]           Mitchell 1966. Because Gluckman and Mitchell were battling against the simplicities of those analyses which pressed a de-tribalization thesis, they tended to over-dichotornize urban and rural situations (e g. lbid: 47-48).

[8]           For the analysis of social practice, see Bourdieu 1977 and 1979; Ortner 1985: 144-60 and Thompson 1984: chap.2. Mitchell’s studies, especially his work on the Kalela Dance (1956), had elements of this approach, but the attentiveness to cultural practice is submerged by the rigidities of a cybernetic and organic paradigm and by a tendency to study social transactions in terms of “behavior” directed by institutional norms or individual choice. The concept of a “cultural logic”, and the idea of “culture” and “structure” as a relatively seamless web (see Ortner 1985:148-49), were both foreign to this approach.

[9]           For the nineteenth century, this term has been invented by us as an equivalent for the designation “Eurasian” as it was (is) employed in the twentieth century. This is because, as we have stressed elsewhere, “Eurasian” was not uncommonly used in the nineteenth century as a synonym for “Burgher.” Also see the Notes on Table I and Appendix 3 below.

[10]          Johnston Manuscripts 1957 and J.P. Lewis 1913:87.

[11]          Here, we are in opposition to the firmness with which this conclusion is drawn in Henry 1986:47.

[12]          Mendis 1956, 1:43 and Gooneratne 1968:58.

[13]          This paragraph is drawn from the excellent summary in K.M. de Silva 1965:199-203. For other information, see Digby 1879, I: 120-27 and Roberts 1982: 142-43.

[14]          Colombo Journal, 1 June 1833 and E.W. Jayewardene’s evidence in Legislative Council 1910: 60.

[15]          The quotation is from Horton’s despatch to Goderich. 14 December 1831, as summarized and quoted in Kannangara 1966: 209. For general background, see Roberts 1982:46-74. Also see Kannangara 1966: 243-44 and Mendis 1956, 1: 48-49.

[16]          The Colombo Journal was run by British officials and produced by the Government Printer. It is widely held that the new Governor, Sir Robert Wilmot Horton, who had been a prominent pamphleteer in Britain, was one of the principal agents behind this newspaper. It appeared twice a week. Its generalized practice of having pseudonymous letters, a practice that also characterized the essays published in magazines during the mid nineteenth century, makes the researcher’s task a difficult one.  Given the scale of urban elite society in British Ceylon, it is likely that the readers of these newspapers and magazines knew who the authors were. Today, we don’t have this advantage.

[17]          Simon Casiechetty (1807-1860) was a Colombo Chetty who became a Mudaliyar of Calpentyn. He was nominated a Member of the Legislative Council by the Governor, Horton; but the Secretary of State decreed that government servants could not hold such positions. He was then appointed Police Magistrate, Calpentyn and ended his career as District Judge, Chilaw. He was the author of several learned articles and books, among them The Tamil Plutarch (1857) and The Castes, Manners and Literature of the Tamils (rep.1934). However, his best-known work is The Ceylon Gazetteer (Colombo: 1834). Significantly, in this work it is stressed that “almost all” the magistracies were held by Burghers, “no native having as yet been allowed to participate in the benefit they may confer” (1834: 50).

[18]          Letter from “Dicky Snip,” dated 27 March 1832, in the Colombo Journal, April 1832, p.130.

[19]          Letter dated 20 March 1832 in the Colombo Journal, 4 April 1832, p.129.

[20]          Letter from “Carolus Van A …” dated 30 March 1832, in the Colombo Journal, 14 April 1832, p.145. We believe that the “’A.” stands for “Arkardie” or “Aiken.”

[21]          Letter from “Neuter”, dated 20 March 1832, in the Colombo Journal, 24 March 1832, p.118.

[22]          Letter from “A British Pensioner”, dated 10 April 1832, in the Colombo Journal, 18 April 1832, p.15l.

[23]          Colombo Journal, 18 April 1832, pp.150 & 151.

[24]          Letter from “A native”, dated 16 Feb.1832, in the Colombo Journal, 25 Feb. 1832, p.83.

[25]          Letter in the Colombo Journal, 14 March 1832, p.104.

[26]          Letter from “Dicky Snip”, dated 27 March 1832, in the Colombo Journal, 4 April 1832, p. 130.

[27]          Letter to the Principal of the Colombo Academy from “M,” n.d., in the Colombo Academy Miscellany, June 1837,6: 81; Letter from “Indo-Briton”, dated 1 June 1832, in the Colombo Journal, 9 June 1832, p. 229; and Sections 8 & 9 of Ordinance No.5 of 1852 (see Nadaraja 1972:74-75).

[28]          The Briton’s fascination with this Oriental variety is recorded in numerous paintings, sketches and caricatures. The works of Samuel Daniell (1808), Major Darby Griffith (1841-42) and Lt. Col. Bruncker (late 1840s) are instances, as also the sketches in A.M. Ferguson 1868. For Daniell’s paintings, see R.K. de Silva 1985: 2-23.

This sort of attentiveness to heterogeneity may not have been wholly antithetical to the construction of a homogeneous object identified as “the Oriental” or “the Native”, but the relationship between these perceptions, especially as they were comprehended by Britons living in the colonies, needs to be investigated.

[29]          E.g. note the reference to “a deputation of the principal Burghers” who met the Governor on 4 January 1836 in order to petition for the retention of the Revd. Joseph Marsh in Colombo so that he could continue to direct the school known as the Colombo Academy (S.S. Perera 1986: 70-73).

[30]          P.E. Pieris, Diaries of Gooneratne, n.d.:23, 46 and Letter from Morgan to MacCarthy, 1 October 1851 in Digby 1879, 1:168. Note that the word “class” is used in the sense of “community” or “race”.

[31]          See schedule in the Census of Ceylon 1871: xxiv.

[32]          On the codifying impact of the decennial census in India, see Cohn 1984.

[33]          In the Sinhala language during the nineteenth century, it is probable that the equivalent concepts were “mē ratē vasiyō” or “mē ratē aya.” We speculate that the term “Lankikayō” was a relatively late development in popular usage and probably a response to the increasing prevalence of the concept “Ceylonese” in English media representations. The dialectical relationship between the English and Sinhala languages over time is a subject that would be as fascinating as critical for the island’s historiography.

[34]          E.g. Letter from Torrington to Grey, 4 March 1848 in K.M. de Silva (ed.) 1965: 81 and Letter from “A Cultivator”, dated 24 Jan. 1832, in the Colombo Journal, 1 Feb. 1832, p.41. In the circumstances, the popular notion (attributed to E.W. Perera) that Lorenz invented the term “Ceylonese” (see Blaze 1948: 76) must be jettisoned.

[35]          From the nineteenth onwards, it has been common for Sri Lankans to speak of “the English” in the sense “British”. That is, “England” has been a synonym for “Britain”. This attitude, then, ignores the ethnic differentiations within the British citizenry.


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One response to “Standing Forth as Ceylonese in the Early 19th Century

  1. I agree with your point of view, your article has given me a lot of help and benefited me a lot. Thanks. Hope you continue to write such excellent articles.

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