The concise guide to the Anglo-Sri Lankan lexicon by Richard Boyle - Part XV
Dutch traces in the language
Henry Yule writes in the Introduction to the second edition of Hobson-Jobson (H-J2): "The Dutch language has not contributed much to our store. The Dutch and the British arrived in the Indies contemporaneously, and though both inherited from the Portuguese, we have not been the heirs of the Dutch to any great extent, except in Ceylon, and even there Portuguese vocables had already occupied the colloquial ground... An example from Ceylon that occurs to memory is burgher." Apart from Burgher, however, there are very few words from the Dutch language to have entered the Anglo-Sri Lankan lexicon and that are recorded in H-J2 or the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED2). Others include fiscal and proponent. The Dutch representation, however, should be greater. Take the culinary art, for example. Both pol sambol and short-eat are recorded in the OED2. Therefore, lamprais merits inclusion on the basis of its similar prevalence in Sri Lankan English.

Burgher (1807). "An inhabitant of a burgh, borough or town; a citizen." Under the sense of this word recorded in the OED2 that is associated with the island is the bald explanation, "In Ceylon." Moreover, users are advised to read the illustrative quotations for the definition.

The earliest reference to the word in English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka given in the dictionary is by James Cordiner from A Description of Ceylon (1807[1983]:52): "The greater part of them were admitted by the Dutch to all the privileges of citizens under the denomination of Burghers." The other reference, from the Penny Cyclopaedia (1836:VI.457), reads: "The descendants of Europeans of unmixed blood, and that race which has sprung from the intercourse with the natives, are called Burghers."

There are many other references in 19th century English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka. For example, Charles Henry Sirr remarks in Ceylon and the Cingalese (1850:I.9): "The touter is invariably a half-caste or burgher, who generally abounds in a very unique appreciation of his own dignity... most ludicrous is the assumption of these half-castes, who are held in supreme contempt by the full-caste natives, their greatest term of reproach being - 'he burgher man,' (or half-caste,) and many a hearty guffaw is indulged in at their expense by Europeans."

Robert Binning writes in A Journal of Two Years Travel in Persia, Ceylon, etc. (1857:I.9): "The term Burgher is properly applicable only to white persons of pure Dutch descent, of whom there are now but very few in Ceylon; but the name has, by courtesy, been given to all those who in India are styled Indo-Britons, Eurasians, Anglo-Indians, or more commonly half-castes, namely, the descendants of white men by native women."

James Emerson Tennent notes in Ceylon (1859[1977]:II.603): "At the present time, the establishment of clerks is composed almost exclusively of burghers and gentlemen who trace their ancestry to Holland."

One of the best descriptive 20th century references is by Bella Woolf from How to See Ceylon (1914:39): "A large and important class in Ceylon are the Burghers. Certain Dutch Burghers are of unmixed Dutch descent. Otherwise the Burghers are of mixed Dutch or Portuguese and native descent. Many of them are employed in government service, and they also number among their ranks an unusually large proportion of lawyers and doctors."

R. L. Brohier states in Changing Face of Colombo (1984[2000]:70): "The smaller Burgher community weathered the changes introduced by the language issue in 1801 to greater advantage than the larger communities in the Island. Affiliated as they were to the multi-racial European infiltration in the Dutch era - some of them even speaking an English tongue - they had the advantage of subconscious antecedent, and facilities within the community to render adaptation easier."

Michael Roberts, Ismeth Raheem and Percy Colin-Thome note in their book about the Burghers, People Inbetween (1989:12): "They had indigenized themselves to sufficient degree that from the late 19th century onwards the majority of Burghers regarded themselves, first and foremost, as Ceylonese. This self-perception was supported by their status and power in Sri Lankan society. At this stage of time, the 1880s to 1920s, the majority of Burghers were above the tumult.

"Thus secured, several Burghers thought of themselves as a superior category of Ceylonese. This sense of superiority had different dimensions. In the first place, it attempted to enforce distinctions within the Burgher community. A line was drawn between the 'front door Burghers' and the 'back door Burghers.' More vigorously, the superior Burghers saw themselves as 'Dutch Burghers' and thus as 'true Burghers,' and denied the rights of those known as 'Portuguese Burghers' and 'Eurasians' to call themselves Burghers."

Over the past decade Carl Muller has employed the word in all its various shades of meaning in his novels on the subject of the Burghers. The first reference by him is from The Jam Fruit Tree (1993:7): "Because the English nabobs favoured the 'educated' Burghers, he knew that someday he would become a locomotive apprentice and actually ride the rails."

Another reference (Ibid.27) reads: "The sons of the Dutch found Sinhalese and Tamil girls to their liking and the British, who ramrodded the plantations went in among the natives too. The result was a hotch-potch that was, for convenience, classified as Burgher (from the Dutch 'burgher' or townsman). The brew was further spiced by other foreign types who drifted in and out with each East Indiaman that sailed in - French, German, Persians, Indians, Afghans (who became very serious-minded money lenders) and Scandinavians."

Muller writes in a later novel, Once upon a Tender Time (1995:137): "The ships of the Dutch East India Company would bring in these emigrants twice a year and they all settled down or ran amok as inclined and became 'Burghers.' You see, the Dutch wanted a cohesive European population. The community was made up of all nationalities, true, but the generic was important as well as administratively convenient. Without distinction, they were nominated 'Hollanders' and more conveniently 'Burghers.'"

Henry Yule comments in the Introduction to HJ-2: "Burgher is unusual in that the word has three distinct applications in three distinct localities. The Dutch (in Ceylon) admitted people of mixed descent to a kind of citizenship and these were distinguished from the pure natives by this term, which survives. Burgher in Bengal means 'a rafter,' properly barga. A word spelt and pronounced in the same way had again a curiously different application in Madras, where it was a corruption of Vadagar, the name given to a tribe in the Nilgherry hills."

In the entry the definition of the first of these applications reads: "This is used only in Ceylon. It is the Dutch word burger, 'citizen.' The Dutch admitted people of mixt descent to a kind of citizenship, and these people were distinguished by this name from pure natives. The word now indicates any persons who claim to be of partly European descent, and is used in the same sense as 'half-caste' and 'Eurasian' in India proper.'"

H-J2 credits Cordiner (1807) with the earliest reference, and gives the following from the Calcutta Review (1877:180-1): "About 60 years ago the Burghers of Ceylon occupied a position similar to that of the Eurasians of India at the present moment."

Fiscal (1653). "In Holland and Dutch colonies: A magistrate whose duty is to take cognizance of offences against the revenue."

None of the references given in the dictionary has relevance to Sri Lanka so here is an example in verse from "The Tamby," by Vereker M. Hamilton and Stewart M. Fasson, contained in Scenes in Ceylon (1880:88):

"Whenever a sleek, smiling Tamby appears,

I'm always assailed with excusable fears;

For tho' I'm in debt, and the Fiscal's court nigh,

I know that the wretch will induce me to buy."

The corresponding entry in H-J2 reads: "Dutch Fiscaal; used in Ceylon for 'Sheriff;' a relic of Dutch rule in the island." The editor adds in parenthesis: "It was also used in the Dutch settlements in Bengal. In Malabar the Fiscal was a Dutch Superintendent of Police, Justice of the Peace and Attorney General in criminal cases."

Proponent (1825). "A kind of government agent in Ceylon under the Dutch."

This definition infers that the word is or was employed in the Dutch language (though it is of course Latin in origin). The definition needs to be revised; not only to provide more clarity, but also to give a more complete history, for during the British period the word continued to be used in an ecclesiastical context.

The earliest reference given in the dictionary, which is dated 1860 and does not come from English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka, reads: "These men were selected by the Government, paid stipends varying from sterling pounds 60 to 100 per annum, and called Proponents."

However, an antedating or earlier reference exists, for Amelia Heber writes in Reginald Heber's Narrative of a Journey (1828:III.150): "There is another object which he has, if possible, still more at heart, which is giving the native proponents, or catechists, such facilities for education as would gradually fit them for admittance into holy orders, and make them the groundwork for a parochial clergy."

Another reference that antedates the OED2 is by James Selkirk from Recollections of Ceylon (1844:26): "Those who perform the marriage ceremony, and by licence from government even administer baptism, are called Proponents."

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