Posted by: lrrp | May 29, 2008

The tsunami that devastated Sri Lanka in December has had the effect of bringing together the country’s Burgher community.

The tsunami that devastated Sri Lanka in December has had the effect of bringing together the country’s Burgher community.

The Burghers are descendants of the Dutch and Portuguese who colonised Sri Lanka in the 16th Century.

Before the tsunami they preferred to remain in their own enclaves – hardly making any contacts with their brethren in others parts of Sri Lanka and abroad.

But the situation has changed since December.

The tsunami was a terrible disaster for the nearly 4,000 Burghers living in the eastern town of Batticaloa.

More than 150 people perished and many others lost their properties and livelihood, mainly in and around the Dutch Bar area.

Overseas help

Three months on, Burghers in Batticaloa are now slowly trying to rebuild their lives.

Soon after the tsunami struck, news spread that the Burgher community on the east coast was one of the worst affected in Sri Lanka.

Burghers in Colombo immediately rushed essential supplies to help victims in Batticaloa.

It was the first time in decades that the two groups came in contact and the sudden solidarity is slowly evolving into a bond.

Soon, more help started to come in from those who had migrated years ago to countries like Australia, Canada and the UK.

“Every day, we were getting 30 to 40 e-mails from Burghers living abroad offering help. Suddenly, we feel that we are a bigger community,” says Sunny Ockersz, president of the Burgher union in Batticaloa.

Social history

Earlier, the community was divided as Burghers in Batticaloa, Dutch Burghers and the “affluent” English-speaking Burghers in Colombo.

The Batticaloa Burghers for centuries were mostly manual labourers – carpenters, mechanics and masons – and were at the bottom of the Burgher social ladder.

“There was hardly any contact with each other. Burghers in Batticaloa were looked down on by others in the community,” says Maxi Rozairo, president of the Burgher association in Colombo.

Community members say the emphasis was on making a decent living rather than trying to find out about their roots.

Schools or universities in Sri Lanka do not offer any courses on the history of the community.

When the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka in 1505 they brought soldiers and other supporting staff.

Those who settled down got married to local women and a new ethnic group was born.

Soon, the Dutch and the British followed. The descendants of the union between the colonisers and the locals came to be known as Burghers.

Portuguese roots

Despite the arrival of the Dutch and the British, most Burghers preferred to retain their Portuguese cultural roots.

The interaction also led to the evolution of a new language, Sri Lanka Portuguese Creole which was the lingua franca for more than three centuries.

“For centuries we have been following Portuguese customs and traditions. Some elders still speak Creole Portuguese. Portuguese music and dance are common in our get-togethers,” says Mr Ockersz.

But the community also thrived under British rule as most Burghers were educated and fluent in English.

Burgher engineers, doctors and other professionals played a key role in managing Sri Lankan railways.

But the situation changed after Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948.

The new government gave prominence to the Sinhala language.

As the Burghers did not speak that, there were few job opportunities for them and many of them went abroad.

“The mass migration split families. Due to the subsequent socio-political changes Burghers were slowly marginalised in Sri Lanka,” says Mr Rozairo.

New bond

Today only about 34,000 Burghers are left in the Sri Lanka – down from a high of 100,000.

Before the tsunami, the community had planned to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Portuguese arrival in Sri Lanka. For now, the plans have been shelved.

Nevertheless, membership of Burgher associations in Sri Lanka has gone up in recent months.

Community leaders want to capitalise on the new found camaraderie. They say it is time to bring the scattered community together.

“No doubt the tsunami caused havoc. But it has brought a new identity for the Burghers,” says Mr Rozairo.

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