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8th August 1999

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Dutch Burghers of Jaffna

By V.Vamadevan

Much is talked about the Burghers living in Colombo and about the Batticaloa Burghers, but little is documented about the Burghers of Jaffna. It may come as a surprise to many that Jaffna was home to a strong and vibrant Dutch settlement. It was probably the last bastion to hold out against the British onslaught before the Dutch grip on Ceylon was ultimately lost.

There are many reasons why the Dutch selected Jaffna as one of their chief settlements: the climate was warm, equable and dry; the large trees gave an abundance of shade; the rain-bearing south west monsoon after depositing its torrential rain over south west Ceylon and the hill country, swept over Jaffna as a dry breeze called 'Solaham'; Jaffna itself was easily defensible because it was the furthest place from the coveted city of Colombo sought after by other colonial powers.

An ever-present problem for the Dutch was where to settle their discharged soldiers to civilian life. Jaffna was selected to be the discharge town. The VOC (Veerenigde Oostindische Compagne), also called the Dutch East India Company, based in Batavia, gave subsidies and encouragement to these soldiers to settle in Jaffna. In this manner the city became a focal point of Dutch policy, to open settlements for discharged soldiers.

For these reasons Jaffna over the years became a stronghold of Dutch power in Ceylon, and it is not surprising that many of the leading Dutch Burgher families have their roots there. To minister to the religious needs of these many and large Burgher families, churches were built of Dutch architecture. One was in the shape of a cross on a flat plain, similar to the church at Wolfendhal in Colombo. Many Dutch churches, graveyards, monuments and tombstones are found in Jaffna. One tombstone in the Cruciform Church in the Jaffna Fort is not without humour. The engraving reads:-

'Fui quod es, sum quad eris,' Meaning: 'what you are, I was; what I am, you will be."

Another influx of Burghers migrated into Jaffna followed the fall of Colombo to the British. Life in Jaffna was cheaper and it was better supplied with the essentials of life than other parts of the island. In the long term when the British took over the whole of Ceylon the Burghers were left with three options: return to VOC territory in Batavia, return to Holland, or settle in Jaffna. To many the obvious choice was Jaffna.

By the standards of that time, Jaffna had a good infrastructure. It was clean and in a good state of repair. Dutchmen, being connoisseurs of good tobacco, gave a fillip to tobacco cultivation on the peninsula. This influx gave a shot in the arm for the enlargement of the town in the closing years of the 19th century. In these circumstances it is not surprising that H.W. Cave left the following description of the town in 1908:

"....there is no town in Ceylon which still bears on its features the impress of the Dutch occupation as does Jaffna."

Dutch architecture is conspicuously visible in the Jaffna fort, the bungalows on Main Street, the spacious verandahs, gables and the thick walls. The Dutch houses had characteristic 'Stoeps' or verandahs (note origin of Sinhala word 'isthopuwa') and inner paved courtyards, both of which became very popular there.

It will not be out of place to mention the names of some of the Dutch Burgher families with roots in Jaffna. To many of the old residents the name of Van den Driesen will be very familiar. In our times this name was synonymous with the dwindling Burgher population of the city. Van den Driesen (Senior), came to Jaffna as a government surveyor. Harry, Eric, Colin and Billy were students at St John's College, and their sister Lorna a teacher at the same college.

Dr. R.L. Brohier's ancestors too hailed from Jaffna. Lucien de Zoysa states that Peter Isaac John Brohier, son of Captain Jean Brohier, was born in Jaffnapatnam.

When the whole of Ceylon came under British occupation and the opening of roads, railways and the need for a complete survey of the island threw open several avenues for employment, many of the Burghers of Jaffna left for Colombo and took up lucrative jobs as second level managers. The words of Governor North bring this out amply: -

"...... in the office of Police and in many inferior administrations, myself as well as the heads of departments have placed many Dutchmen whose local knowledge, as well as that of language have rendered them highly necessary..."

Now there are more descendants of Jaffna Burghers in Australia than in Jaffna or indeed in the whole of Sri Lanka.

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