Rekindling the spirit of Burgherhood
By Laila Nasry
Light-skinned and well versed in the Queen's language, they were the wine
drinking, partying and merry making kind. They dominated the then nightlife
of Ceylon, be it at the Orient Club, the Atlantic or the Orchid Room. They
were the Burghers dubbed affectionately the local 'Suddaas'.
Outgoing, democratic and liberal in their way of life, the Burghers
provided the perfect foil to the conservative society of the pre and post-independence
eras. Very much a part of Sri Lanka's history, being direct descendants
of the colonial masters, the Burghers made worthy contributions in all
spheres of national life.
However, this colourful race, which graced every dance and social gathering
in town, is gradually facing extinction. Statistics show that in 1963,
the country boasted of 46, 050 Burghers, while the recent census recorded
a drop to 34,616.
Now comes a rallying effort in the form of 'The Burgher Association'
to salvage what is left of their lifestyle and preserve it for posterity.
Though the idea for an association was mooted in 1997, it didn't get
off the ground until October 13, this year.
"Over the years the Burghers have been pulling in different directions
because amongst us there have been some who believe they are more superior
" But it's time we got together and forgot our differences," says its
President Maxi Rozairo, reiterating that the association is dedicated to
uniting the community and regaining its lost identity.
Unlike at the Dutch Burgher Union which admits only Dutch Burghers as
full members with voting rights and the ability to hold office, the Burgher
Association is calling for membership from the Portuguese, Dutch and British
descendants who make up the community. "We have a common goal to uplift
the community, give them a sense of identity and revive dying Burgher customs
and traditions," says Rozairo.
Life for the Burghers in Sri Lanka changed drastically in the late 1950s
with the introduction of Swabasha. Upto then English was their mother tongue.
"Our forefathers didn't see the need to learn Swabasha. The public service
then worked in English and there were several schools run by missionaries
to cater to the needs of their children." Thus the shift was unanticipated
and one for which they were least prepared.
Widespread fear set in, for it was a language very "foreign" to them.
Says Rozairo in retrospect, "I don't know whether the fear was real or
Some of them resisted the change and began looking to settle elsewhere.
Britain, Australia and Canada provided greener pastures. "We lost parents,
siblings and relatives. Families were divided. The ones who could cope
stayed back, while the others packed and left," he says.
The unique thing about the Burghers was their ability to integrate easily
with other communities. "We were always part of the festivities of the
Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. We had no problems with them. They always
found us fun to be with and a good diversion from their conservative backgrounds."
There were no hard and fast rules when it came to the Burghers. "Our
girls could marry outside the community. We could pursue unconventional
professions," says Rozairo, tracing his musical talents to his Burgher
roots. "Life was good."
Sadly today it's "I've forgotten what it is to be a Burgher". This was
one of the initial responses Rozairo received when he began inviting fellow
Burghers to join the association, and one they would seek to rectify.
Uniting the community, educating the youth and ensuring the continuance
of Burgher customs and traditions are priority. The Association hopes to
revive their Christmas celebrations, sit-down dinners and sing-alongs.
"It will be easier for us to raise our heads now because today most
of these customs have spread to other communities," says Rozairo, adding
that this also makes it all the more important for them to distinguish
themselves as a race.
The Association will promote fellowship, create opportunities for youth
to meet each other and assist their less fortunate fellowmen.
It also hopes to advance the use of English in the community and go
a step further by teaching it to the rest of society. "Now there seems
to be a realisation of past follies and there are programmes conducted
to further English," says Rozairo.
"We have the initial teething problems any association would have,"
says Rozairo still in the process of establishing a constitution and finding
a meeting place.
He hopes a Burgher philanthropist would chip in.
The response has been overwhelming. "Especially among the youth who
are very keen. They are looking for an identity and I think they've found
it," he adds.
Have you got Burgher blood in your veins? The Burgher Association invites
all Burghers to be founder members of the association and play a leading
role in fulfilling its objectives. Contact its President Maxi Rozairo on
685877; e-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org, Vice
President Pastor Brian Perera on 074408359, Secretary Anne Marie Kellar
on 726896 or Treasurer Lorenz Spaar on 852937.