The Origins of Burgher & Malay Surnames in Colonial Ceylon

Author Unknown … sent to Thuppahi by Kodi Kodituwakku of Chandos St, Fort, Galle

The Ceylon Burgher Community is the finest exponent of this European onoma-tology in Sri Lanka, as the members of the community carry some of the world’s rarest surnames which at present verge on extinction. The ancestors of the Dutch Burghers were not necessaril.y Dutch by ethnic origin as the Dutch East India Company [recruited] 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 watercolours of 19th-century Sri Lanka can still be found in Leiden. 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 it is 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 SeniorPhysician 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 Kreters (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, Frugtniet, Kegel (Dutch and German origin) Kelaart, Martinus, Melder, Meynert, Milhuisen, Neydorff, Passe, Philipsz, Scharenguivel, Werkmester, Wille, and Willenberg.

The name ‘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 Kortenae(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.

The Sansoni’s (Sansone), yet another unique patronym 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, is regarded as the progenitor of the Sansoni clan in Ceylon and 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 “Amelis- vaart”, 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. The Toussaint is a French patronymic of baptismal origin and the Medieval English surname ‘Spittel’ is derived from “spital”,  “hospital,” while Crozier is derived from old French word ‘Crois’ for crook.

Dr. R. L. Spittel in one of his jungle sojourns

Dr. Richard Lionel Spittel, was a foremost expert on the Lankan veddha [sic] 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 Herefordshire, 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 in South India who was commissioned by the Dutch to serve in Ceylon.


The Malay Community is indeed an entity famous for its unique-sounding patro- nymics, [but], alas, since the recent past many Malay surnames have gone extinct — presumably due to frequent intermarriages. Unlike their Muslim counterparts, the Malays use distinctive prefixes along with their rare sounding surnames.

The prefixes Tuan/Maas/ are used by the male folks, while their women use Gnei/Nona/Sitti Nona/ Gnonya. The Malay Community, despite its small number, is made up of an intricate network comprised of several sub-ethnic groups who trace their descent from the archipelagos of Indonesia and from the Malayan Peninsula.

So, the Patronymic helps trace the ancestry, social class, creed, caste etc. of a Sri Lankan Malay individual. For example, the Malay Patronymics such as Lye, Chunchie, Doole, Kitchilan, Kutinun, Kanchil, Sainon, Bongso, Bohoran, Kuppen, Lappen and Booso helps reveal their Peranakan lineage or those of mixed Chinese-Malay heritage. Patronymics of Sanskrit/ Indian origin include Jayah, Weerabangsa, Sinhawangsa, Jayawangsa, Wangsa, etc; while Saldin, Rahman, Drahaman, Bucker, Ramlan, Rajap, Jumat, Mannan, are those derived from Arabic literature.

The progenitor of the Malay Kayath family in Ceylon was a local chieftain from the Banda Archipelago known as Orang Kayat who was exiled to Ceylon by the Dutch, so the present day Kayath’s aren’t really Malays by ethnicity instead they are Bandanese. Alas, the Deen Azeez Kayaths are on the brink of extinction with just a single family left on the Island with no male line descendants. The Raden’s, anglicized as Rawdin, belong to an aristocratic clan; however, Raden is a Javanese title of respect and not a patronymic as used today.

The ancestor of late Minister, Dr. T. B. Jayah was Raden Thurtho Perma Jayah, an aide de Camp to the Javanese King who wasexiled to Ceylon.


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A SPECIAL NOTE from Thuppahi

In the field of linguistics, onomastics is the study of proper names, especially the names of people (anthroponyms) and places (toponyms). A person who studies the origins, distributions, and variations of proper names is an onomastician. Onomastics is “both an old and a young discipline,” says Carole Hough.

Etymology is the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history.


Deborah Philip: “Modern Menaces: The Burghers and Art in Early 20th Century Ceylon,” …………………………………………… …………..


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8 responses to “The Origins of Burgher & Malay Surnames in Colonial Ceylon

  1. Mo Marikar

    Wonderful summary of Burgher and Malay names.
    I had two Jansz’s (Ivan and Vernon) teach me Math in grades 6 and 7 at TCK.
    Cedric Orloff took my Latin for the GCE O’ Level.
    Then there was the rugby player Glen Vandenberg.

    • Jennifer Treleaven (nee Jansze)

      Actually, the surname of those Trinity College teachers was Jansze (with an acute accent over the e).

  2. Daya Wickramatunga.

    It is a pity that the Burghers had to leave Sri Lanka following the ‘Sinhala Only’ bill introduced by SWRD.

  3. Rex Olegasegarem

    Thank you Michael for the interesting article on the origins of Burgher names in Sri Lanka ( Ceylon). Perhaps the Portuguese had the biggest impact on the popular Sinhalese names such as the De Silva, Fernando, Fonseka etc. Some Tamils from the Parravar caste group too adopted the name Fernando. A number of words used by Sinhalese and Tamils, such as Sappattu (Shoes), Almarah, Almari (Wardrobe) are of Portuguese origin. Additionally, descendants of Portuguese married into local Tamils are prevalent in Jaffna and Batticaloa, In Jaffna, there are the Jansens and Martinesz. They are generally referred to as “sinnakadai” burghers. Sinnakadai is a section of the Jaffna Town area. In my time as a student of St. John’s College, Jaffna in the 1950s the school’s bursar was a Jansen. Perhaps the biggest impact was in Batticaloa as the Portuguese Burgher community there has maintained and can speak the Portuguese dialect to this day as spoken in Portugal in the 1550 AD. This makes sense as the Portuguese came into Ceylon in 1505 AD until they were ousted by the Dutch in 1652 AD. Socially, the Portuguese had the biggest impact (compared with the Dutch and the British) as they married freely into the local Sinhalese and Tamil population.

    • Mark La Brooy

      Rex, you are very generous to the Portuguese invaders by saying that they married freely. In the traditional sense a marriage is a bond where a man and woman settle to raise a family. In some small part that may have happened, but as sailors and soldiers I would say that rape and consensual bordello/non-bordello sex was more the order of the day. Galle and Colombo had plenty of brothels in the day.

      • Good Morning Mr. Mark La Brooy,
        I completely agree with you: there were brothels for paid sex.
        But I hope they weren’t just frequented by Portuguese?
        What do you think about it?
        Ciao ….. Piero

  4. Mark La Brooy

    “The ancestor of the Oorloff clan in Ceylon hailed from Russia” One has to be careful in drawing conclusions. The explanation given is indeed drawing a very long bow. The Dutch archives show that Andris Andriesz Oorloff hailed from Ribe in Deen Marrken (Denmark). Occams Razor would suggest that we stay with the VOC recorded information and not without any basis whatsoever. Ribe is a very old Danish Viking town and it is perfectly plausible that Andris was a Dane.

  5. Hi is the Fernandez surname also of Dutch origin, I know it’s originally Spanish but just wanted to know if it was also categorised in the surnames of the Dutch Burghers, can’t seem to find it

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