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
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
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,
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
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,"
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."