Index Page
2nd January 2000
Past Times The Sunday Times on the Web


The Burgher exodus

Changes in the educational policy shut out the Burghers contends Deloraine Brohier

There are very few Burghers left in Sri Lanka today. As for the Dutch Burgher, fair of skin and Europeanised in style of dress, they are taken to be by the general mass of the island's people today, foreigners- tourists or expatriates from the West. "What country do you come from?" is the often repeated question. When speaking on the occasion of a farewell to an outgoing Ambassador for the Netherlands, our Foreign Minister said: "Alas! there are very few Dutch Burghers in Sri Lanka. They began to melt away perhaps most markedly in the 1950s and in the decade that followed."

The exodus of the Burghers saw them emigrating to Australia, Canada or the U.K. In the years between 1948 and the late 1960s, against a total population of which kept growing in leaps and bounds, the Burgher community kept shrinking. In the General Census 1963, the statistics of the Burghers as against the total population figure of 12 million (12.7) had dropped to 0.4 per cent. By the General Census taken in 1971, the statistic while remaining at 0.4 per cent, saw that the total population had risen to 14 million (14.8), indicating a still further drop in the statistic of the Burgher community.

Undoubtedly the two post-Independence decades saw this falling ratio as against the increase of the island's total population. This was due to the departure of many Dutch Burghers. It must be remembered that at this time a "white Australia" policy prevailed and tended to restrict a free and open entry in emigration to the country. Thus those Burghers who could prove by genealogy their European origin had an advantage. There were church and family records to substantiate their claim. So with the early exodus of the community, it was the Dutch Burgher who went.

Why? The question might be asked: Why did the Burghers go?

Four centuries had elapsed since, as foreigners, the Burghers had come to Ceylon between 1656 and 1796, when the Dutch East India Company had occupied the maritime regions of the island. As Company servants and free citizens, who were designated "the Burghers", they had emigrated from Europe and decided to strike their roots in this tropical land. When the time for change came with the island becoming a Crown Colony of Great Britain, for reasons personal, about 900 families chose to remain in Ceylon. For 150 years thereafter, in the period of British occupation of by then the entire island, the "Burghers" (as the European-Dutch overflow came to be popularly known), were considered as part of the mix of the island's people.

The Burghers blended easily with the many races and communities of the population and endeared themselves to all. They entered every sphere of activity in the country and worked toward its development - also in the struggle for Independence. "In literally every walk of life in Sri Lanka, the Dutch Burgher made an outstanding contribution and showed that our national life could be enriched," said the Foreign Minister on the occasion earlier referred to.

So what could have prompted these people - the community, Burghers, and more specifically the Dutch Burghers, to betake themselves away from the land of their birth?

Having engaged in many a discussion on the subject this writer is inclined to sum up the reason to - compartmentalisation into language streams in our schools.

The decade of the 1940s saw the beginning of significant changes in the country. The emotions of nationalism brought the enactment of policy measures which reflected these trends. In 1942, while still under the British colonial government, there was introduced a ruling that in all national schools in the island, children of one ethnic group had to follow an education in their mother tongue. There was a time-lag before the private missionary schools to which the elite in society sent their children, in Colombo and other leading towns like Kandy, Galle and Jaffna, introduced this policy. So it was only immediate post-Independence that segregation commenced its implementation islandwide. Previously school-goers in all private schools, mainly run by religious missions, studied in the English language, irrespective of which community they belonged to. The latter went up their full educational years, from kindergarten through primary and secondary and then on to university, in English. Examinations in all subjects were held in English - with Sinhalese, Tamil and the older languages like Latin or Sanskrit or Pali taken as separate subjects.

With the policy change in the educational system as referred to, the child became compartmentalised. The child whose parents were both Sinhalese went into the Sinhala stream and the Tamil child into the Tamil stream. Burgher and Muslim went into an English stream, did all their subjects of study in English and took their examinations as such. Eventually the English stream in schools, in the 1960s and early 1970s (maybe due to a steady dwindling in the number of Burgher children), died out. Muslim parents chose to send their children into either the Sinhala or the Tamil streams on the geographic location in which they lived.

An educationist of our present day, Dr. Wimala de Silva, now retired Chancellor of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura said that the Burghers "not being allowed to study in the national language" was a serious detriment to the community. It was not a question that the Burgher did not want to study Sinhala but that he or she was not allowed to do so by being channelled into a language stream that had lost its acceptability in public life, post-Independence. Thus the Burgher youth emerging at the end of an educational training in English, and at a time when further political measures were being introduced to give importance to the national language, would have been placed at a distinct disadvantage.

Moreover, it must be realised that the home language of the Burghers is English and can be described as their mother tongue. The "mother tongue" being defined by no less a person than Sir Ivor Jennings as "the language a child speaks at his mother's knee".

The Burghers were essentially middle class, by tradition coming from the salaried Public Service sector. When seeking employment, the Burgher could have faced discrimination for not having fluency and working ability in the national language - rather, in having these capacities in a foreign language. This was the apprehension of many a Burgher parent.

Entering the Public Service there were language examinations in order to be considered for advancement in one's employment - salary increments, scholarships, even promotions. In truth it should be added here, that with most Burghers the above requirement was no great obstacle and many a case can be cited of Burgher men and women who worked their way up successfully in the Public Service.

K.M. de Silva, Professor of History, University of Peradeniya once stated also that the Burghers cherished the security of the Public Service which began to come under greater challenge at the time. With the expansion of educational opportunities more Sinhalese and other minority communities were also brought into the professions. Dr. de Silva also notes that after nearly 70 years, in the Legislative Council "the arithmetic of Council membership was (at this time) definitely against the Burghers". So there was also a political factor.

These were all serious considerations in the general movement of change from a colonial era to one of Independence.

Thus, uncertain of their future and the prospects in opportunity for work status and success - in the context of the above, the Burgher parent made the choice to seek other pastures.

They departed in a steady flow, leaving behind the land of their birth. It was not an easy decision - especially for those of an older age group. For amongst those who emigrated were men well-positioned in their professions, in private and public employment. They headed government departments, were managers of company plantations, of high rank in the mercantile sector and in banks.

It was a sacrifice for many to pull up their roots and it was not an easy decision for those more advanced in years. The heartache of leaving familiar sights and sounds, the nostalgia and memories of the past, parting from old friends, sometimes aging parents who could not or did not want to uproot themselves - and to go out to face the unknown, to make a new beginning was a tough decision. Lifestyles, living conditions, strange climates to get accustomed to and the need to seek employment anew, were challenges. For the young on the other hand, it was exciting.

Political analysts, historians and writers can pontify on the Burghers' exodus from Ceylon - Sri Lanka. The average reader can argue - agree or differ - with hindsight. The writer leaves the subject at that.

Sir John - 1953 - 1956

A man of courage

Sir John KotelawalaHe (Sir John Kotelawala) has courage. He has brawn. He is frank. He has money. He has friends. He has background. He has personality. He can cut a figure wherever he goes. He is the well-graced political actor who can play the hero strutting across the stage.

Thus he is able to draw loyalty of an unknown kind from his followers and friends. For there is nothing he will not do for his friends. When there is trouble or turmoil, he is at his best slapping his arms, jutting out his chest.

When there is work to be done, he is there to do it. When money has to be spent, he is there putting his hand in his pocket.

But in spite of all these sterling qualities people thought he would always remain a kind of political King Kong forever challenging others to a fight. For, although he had courage there was a doubt whether he had enough caution to prevent his courage from becoming foolhardiness.

He was not afraid to say anything. But what he was not afraid to say was often the wrong thing. From Early Prime Ministers of Ceylon as seen by D.B. Dhanapala



Return to the contents


Please send your comments and suggestions on this web site to

The Sunday Times or to Information Laboratories (Pvt.) Ltd.