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Relics of Dutch linger in Sri Lanka 400 years on

by Lindsay Beck - Daily News Wed Nov 13 2002

COLOMBO, Reuters - Hulftsdorp Hill is home to the law courts, Carl Muller is a well-known writer and Wolvendaal Street a bustling commercial avenue.

A glance at a city map could fool visitors into thinking they are in a European capital.

But the city is Colombo, and the names vestiges of centuries of contact between Sri Lanka and the Netherlands, beginning with the arrival of the Dutch East Indies Company in 1602.

The 400th anniversary of that arrival is being marked this year with a series of events throughout the island.

"They stayed, you see. Many of the servants of the Dutch East Indies Company just stayed", said Deloraine Brohier, the president of Sri Lanka's Dutch-Burgher Union, explaining the lasting Dutch influence in the Indian Ocean island.

By the time Dutch colonisation began in the mid-1,600s there had been decades of trade, and Sri Lanka's southern city of Galle had become a key port in the fabled trade-winds route that brought spices from what is now Indonesia to Europe.

Ousting the Portuguese before them, the Dutch ruled Sri Lanka's coastal provinces for 150 years before succumbing to the expanding British empire by the end of the 18th century.

Another two centuries on, the descendants of the Dutch traders, known as Burghers, still form a distinct group apart from the island's Sinhalese majority and ethnic minority Tamils and Muslims.

"They got accustomed to the climate, they weren't guaranteed employment at home, and there were restrictions on who they could sell their property to. So they absorbed themselves into the British colonial system", said Brohier of the 900 families who elected to stay under the British crown.

The legacy of those 900 families lasting 400 years seems unlikely, but the Burghers thrived, favoured by the British colonial administration and famed for their wild living.

"The only occupation that could hope to avert one from drink and romance was gambling", says novelist Michael Ondaatje in "Running in the Family", a memoir of his Burgher grandparents in the Ceylon of the 1920s and '30s.

This year's events planned to mark the 400 years of contact are perhaps more sedate than Ondaatje's relatives might have preferred - a commemorative stamp to be issued late in November, a seminar organised by a local think tank and a Dutch film festival, among others.

But the commemoration keeps the history of the group alive in the island preoccupied with ending 19 years of ethnic conflict fighting for a separate state in the North and East.

"After independence the vast majority left the island because of the Sinhala Only act", said Sanne Kaasjager, an official at the Netherlands Embassy in Sri Lanka.

Where under the British the Burghers had an advantage because of English, Sinhalese became the language necessary for social advancement in the newly independent Sri Lanka of the 1950s.

An exodus of Burghers began, mostly to Canada and Australia, with parents sending their children abroad for education.

Today, Burghers comprise about 38,000, of Sri Lanka's 19 million people, down from around 50,000 six decades ago.

But wander through the streets of Colombo's Pettah market district, past the construction workers shovelling sand, the crows feasting on piles of garbage and the vendors in the narrow lanes, and at the top of the hill stands a white, bell-shaped church, its grounds an oasis from the pace of the street.

The Dutch Reformed Church is still host to an active congregation, though the majority of worshippers are no longer Burgher and the attached mission school is now government run.

Indeed, the church finds itself straddling two worlds, housing the history of its Dutch past in old baptismal and marriage records, but looking to Tamils and Sinhalese for new members.

"The existence in Sri Lanka of a church holding a Dutch name causes some feeling of discomfort among the Sinhalese and Tamils", said Pastor Stanley Nelson, his voice echoing in the cool, stone walls.

"Some relate it to violent conversion. Villages were temple-centred and colonialism disturbed that", Nelson said, adding the church may rename itself the "Christian Reformed Church" to make itself more palatable in today's Sri Lanka.

The Burgher community manages to survive despite political upheavals, but pride in their heritage struggles to compensate for dwindling numbers.

"When I was growing up, it was more or less understood I would marry a Burgher", said the Dutch-Burgher Union's Brohier.

"Boy met girl in the drawing room. The family brought of their own. Now things are more fluid. People move", she said, citing a Burgher family she knows with one child who married a Tamil and a second who married a Sinhalese.

But it may take more than emigration and intermarriage to extinguish the Burghers from the Sri Lankan landscape.

"They are so incredibly proud of their descent", said Kaasjager. "Young and old, it doesn't matter - they are very, very proud of their heritage".