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Sunday Times Plus 18 Aug 2002

The good, the bad and the Dutch

What makes a Burgher becomes a hot topic for debate at a symposium on the 400-year-old relationship between Sri Lanka and the Netherlands. Feizal Samath reports

It may not be only the Sinhalese and the Tamils who are being accused of discrimination in the ethnic conflict debate these days!

In some sections of society, even the Burghers are considered a discriminatory crowd.

Portrait of Wimala Dharma Surya I, the King of Kandy and Joris van Spilbergen

These were some of the lighter asides of an academic discourse on 400 years of relations between Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and the Netherlands held in Colombo last week. Before the issue could grow into a controversial debating point, who better than the unflappable Rodney Vandergert to calm the turbulent waters.

"As chairperson of this session I need to be impartial. Let's move on to the next topic," the retired Foreign Secretary said drawing peals of laughter from an audience of eminent historians, architects, archaeologists, economists, writers, policy-makers and diplomats.

A few minutes earlier, writer Deloraine Brohier had appealed to Vandergert after the Dutch Burgher Union (DBU) was accused of being elitist and discriminatory against less-affluent Burghers. Vandergert and Brohier, also union president, are livewires of the DBU.

"The 'Good Burgher' label arose because of the snobbery of the DBU. They refused membership to Burghers from Batticaloa, those who didn't wear shoes," said architect Ashley de Vos, who added that he did not join the DBU, despite having 'all the qualifications' because of these attitudes.

That aside, the symposium organized by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) in collaboration with the Sri Lanka Netherlands Association to mark this historic event brought forth reams of old and new information on the Dutch colonial past, the events of 400 years ago, the rich culture inherited from our former masters and the excellent cuisine like love cake, kokis and lamprais.

And it was left to the irrepressible Carl Muller, journalist, author and raconteur, to close the interesting two-day meeting with a presentation on language and colourful Dutch words like booruwa, thay, kakkusiya, bakkiya and thurumpu!

IPS Executive Director Dr. Saman Kelegama opened the meeting on a cautionary note saying this event was not a celebration but an academic exercise.

He referred to the controversies raised in the US in 1992 when festivals were organized to commemorate 500 years after the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. The American Indian movement opposed having a Columbus Day.

Kelegama said a similar controversy erupted in India in January 1998 when two universities organized an international symposium to mark 500 years after Vasco Da Gama's voyage to India's Malabar coast. "There were questions raised as to why there is a need to celebrate 500 years when India got a raw deal from European colonial rule," he said, adding that events of this nature could touch a raw nerve among some sections of society.

Some participants expressed the view that what happened is history and should be considered in that light - without worrying too much about whether the invaders were hostile or friendly, or the natives were subjected to ruthless exploitation.

Before the organizers accuse me of being flippant and dealing only with controversy while more serious matters were discussed, the conference I must say raised a range of interesting issues with subjects ranging from cuisine, common practices, furniture, archaeology, mercenaries, the Dutch East India company, religious influences, the legal system, impact on education, shipwrecks, maps, paintings, impact on the economy, etc.

There was Prof. K.M. De Silva, well-known historian, who spoke on colonialism, saying the Dutch was the middle colonial power; successors to the Portuguese and predecessors of the British.

"While religious centres and edifices belonging to the Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims were destroyed by the Portuguese in areas which they controlled, the Dutch for their part, were somewhat more restrained in this, but demonstrated far greater zest in demolishing Roman Catholic churches and institutions constructed by the Portuguese. "There are no Portuguese churches or public buildings in existence in Sri Lanka today from the days of Portuguese rule on the coasts, the result of the anti-Catholic zeal of the Dutch," he said.

Somasiri Devendra, a maritime consultant, referred to Dutch shipwrecks while Denis Fernando, another luminary in the sciences, spoke on Dutch maps.

"Very early artistic impressions of Sri Lanka were produced by Cornelius Jansz Vennop, an artist who accompanied Joris Van Spilbergen, the first Dutchman to set foot on this island in June 1602," said Dr. R.K. de Silva who spoke on paintings.

Veteran archaeologist Roland Silva dealt with Dutch ports, canals, how the term Elephant Pass was coined, coins, lamps and chandeliers, kaolin clay pipes, and spoke of efforts to preserve the colonial heritage.

Dushyantha Mendis presented a paper on the 'Limits of Mercantilism' in which he argued that there was no 'take off' in the new economy under the Dutch as there was under British rule.

"That such a take off did not take place is due to the fact that the Dutch were constrained in their economic policy-making and practice by ideas of monopoly which lingered on for so long," he said.

One of the points that was clearly illustrated and that went unchallenged was that unlike other colonial powers the Portuguese, and later the British and Dutch were only interested in trade rather than bringing large groups of people and colonizing the country.

Who is a Burgher? According to Brohier, daughter of Dr. R. L. Brohier, one of the country's best-known Burghers, the term 'Burgher' is not an ethnographic name and has nothing to do with race.

Quoting from one of her father's books, she said the term was of historic origin and refers to a political community which has a distinctive character.

The arrival of the Dutch East India Company saw the emergence of two classes of people - the company servants who received the company pay, status and privileges and the other class who came out on their own for adventure and to better their prospects and thus settled in the colonies as Burghers.

In 1908, when the 'Hollandische Burgher Vereeniging van Ceylon' or the DBU was formed those accepted for membership were identified from families originating in Europe as well as those with lineage traceable to European genealogies. The Portuguese Burghers and others claiming to be Burghers were not accepted by the DBU, said Brohier.

This prompted Dr. K.D.G. Wimalaratne, Director of the National Archives, to say that he was once asked to trace the lineage of a world-renowned Sri Lankan writer living abroad probably for the purpose of joining the DBU. "I gave him a report after a thorough investigation but I am certain he would not have been satisfied with its contents."

Sri Lankan Burghers of Portuguese descent, shut out by the DBU, recently formed a separate organization under the leadership of popular western singer Maxi Rozairo, who was not among the participants at the conference.

Brohier referred to the many Burghers who served as lawyers, judges, civil servants and other respected professionals saying they were men of letters, culture and wide knowledge.

Dealing with the difference between the Dutch and Portuguese Burghers, Brohier said the latter category were of a lower social and economic status taking to menial occupations, sometimes referred colloquially as a 'shoe-maker' class. They were associated with lively dance forms like the Kaffringa or Baila.

"The profile of the Burgher is of men and women who were cultured, dignified, attractive and always well-mannered and courteous. It is for these personal attributes as well as for their contributions to culture that they have earned an honoured place in this country. They have merged themselves so wonderfully by their courteous and dignified appearance and their flair for making friends with everyone, that they are some of the most loved members of the country," she said.

On a very sentimental note, architect De Vos spoke of how all the Dutch monuments in this country were built by local craftsmen to European designs and ideas.

But there were also Sri Lankan ideas in crafting these masterpieces, he argued and pleaded that this is one of the reasons why forts and ancient buildings should be preserved.

Leave it to Carl Muller to have the last word: "I have seen hotels in Kandy advertising takeaway Lump Rice and wondered who the devil would like his rice in an unseemly lump."