WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

History of the Dutch in Ceylon (Sri Lanka)  

The Burgher of Ceylon.   

(Written by Marco Ramerini)

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Under the command of Admiral Joris Van Spilbergen, on the 31 May 1602, the first Dutch ships that visited Ceylon anchored off the port of Batticaloa.


The Portuguese were from the beginning (Afonso de Albuquerque) the first to experiment a colonisation based on colonies of Portuguese citizens "casados". Since the Portuguese women were few, mixed marriages were encouraged between the Portuguese and the Asians. Albuquerque tried to create a new Portuguese nation in Asia to make up for the lack of people from Portugal.

This method of settlement was extremely successful. In fact, after a century of this colonisation, in practically every outpost of the empire, there were colonies of mixed Portuguese, that spoke Portuguese, were catholic and were better suited to the tropical climates than the European-born Portuguese. Thanks to this strategy, the Portuguese succeeded in withstanding the siege of the Dutch in Ceylon for nearly 60 years.

After their conquest, the Dutch also attempted to found some colonies of Dutch citizens dubbed "Burgher". This was attempted particularly first under Maetsuyker (governor from 1646 to 1650), but at the end of his government and later under Van Goens (governor from 1662-1663 and 1665-1675), there were only 68 married free-Burghers on the island. Such policy was clearly a failure as only a few Dutch families settled on the island. In the first 30 years of Dutch rule in Ceylon, the Burgher community never exceeded 500 in number and it was mainly composed by sailors, clerks, tavern-keepers and discharged soldiers.

The Dutch East India Company (VOC) to support this emigration facilitated in any case the Burgher:

Burghers alone had the privilege to keep shops, were given liberal grants of land with the right of free trade. Whenever possible they were preferred to natives for appointment to office. Only Burghers had the right of baking bread, butchering and shoemaking. Most of them were civil servants of the Company.

The marriage between a Burgher and a native woman (often an Indo-Portuguese woman) was permitted only if she professed the Christian religion. However, the daughters of this union had to be married to a Dutchman. Like Van Goens said: "… so that our race may degenerate as little as possible".

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The city of Galle, is the best preserved of the VOC fortress in Sri Lanka it has fourteen bastions with fine walls and doorways. Galle was in Dutch hands since 13 March 1640 till January 1796.

In the XVIII century a growing European community (a mixture of Portuguese, Dutch, Sinhalese and Tamil) had developed in Ceylon. They dressed European, were adherents to the Dutch Reformed Church and spoke Dutch or Portuguese.

With the passing of time, the Burgher community developed into two different communities: Dutch Burghers and Portuguese Burghers.

The Dutch Burghers were those who could demonstrate European ancestry (Dutch or Portuguese) through the male line, were white, Dutch reformed and Dutch speaking.

The Portuguese Burghers (called later Mechanics) were those who had a supposed (but not sure) European ancestry, had dark skin, were Catholics and spoke Creole Portuguese.

The European community produced all the priests (Predikants) of the Dutch Reformed Church.

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Galle, in an old Dutch printing

In the last decades of Dutch rule in the island, the Burgher formed a detachment of citizen soldiers. They defended the ramparts of Colombo during the fourth Anglo-Dutch war.

Although there aren’t demographic studies available on the Burgher community in Ceylon, during the Dutch period it is clear that the growth of the community was constant. A small, but steady, influx of newcomers from Europe mixed with the families, which had settled on the island for generations. Thanks to this, the Burgher community was able to retain its open character and the heterogeneous cultural traditions.

At the time of the British conquest, in 1796, there were about 900 families of Dutch Burghers residing in Ceylon, concentrated in Colombo, Galle, Matara and Jaffna.

During the British times the Burghers were employed in the Colonial administration like clerks, lawyers, soldiers, physicians, and were a privileged class on the island.

The Dutch Burghers, now under the British, quickly abandoned the use of the Dutch language and adopted English as their own language. By 1860, the use of Dutch among the Dutch Burghers had disappeared. In 1908, only six or eight Dutch Burghers could make any pretence to knowledge of the Dutch language.

The Creole Portuguese continued to be used amongst the Dutch Burghers families as the colloquial language until the end of XIX century.

In 1899 the Dutch Burgher community formed the "De Hollandsche Vereeninging" and later, in 1907, they founded the Dutch Burgher Union of Ceylon.

The Dutch Burgher community had its own journal from 31 March 1908 to 1968 (58 numbers), the Journal of the Dutch Burgher Union of Ceylon. No volumes were published between 1968 and 1981, mostly due to the exodus of the Dutch Burghers, now the Journal continues to be published annually.

By the end of the British rule the Dutch Burgher community had lost its influence and privileges, and many Burghers emigrated to Australia and to Canada, especially after the declaration of Sinhala as the official language (1961) of the country by Solomon Bandaranaike.

In spite of this, the Dutch Burgher Union of Ceylon is still in existence in Colombo to this day.

The Dutch Reformed Church is now called Presbytery of Ceylon, at present the membership are 5.000, in the whole island are 24 the congregrations and 18 the ministry workers. During the last 40 years the Church has lost much of her leadership and membership due to the mass emigration of the Dutch Burgher community.

At the census of the 1871 the Burghers were 14.817.

At the census of the 1901 there were 23.482 Burghers and 6.300 "other" Europeans.

At the census of the 1921 there were 29.439 Burghers.

At the census of the 1946 there were 41.926 (0,8 %) Burghers.

At the census of the 1963 there were 45.900 (0,43 %) Burghers.

At the census of the 1981 the Burghers (Dutch and Portuguese) were 39.374 (0,3 % of the population).

About 80 % of they could speak English, 72 % could speak Sinhalese, 18 % could speak Tamil.

About 72 % of the Burghers lived in Colombo.

These are some of the usual surnames in the Dutch Burgher community:

Andriesz, Anthonisz, Antonisse, Arndt, Bagot Villiers, Baldesinger, Bartholomeusz, Beekmun, Beven, Brohier, Claasz, Crozier, Da Silva, Daniels, de Hoedt, de Kretser, De Zilwa, Deutrom, Ebert, Engelbrecht, Foenander, Frugtniet, Hepponstall,  Herft,  Jansz,  Joseph,  Keegal, Kelaart, Landsberger, Loos, Lourensz, Martinus, Melder, Meynert, Milhuisen, Neydorff, Passe, Peiris, Philipsz, Prins, Scharenguivel, Scharff, Spittel, van Arkadie, van Cuylenburg (Culenberg), van Dersil, van der Straaten, van Dort, van Hoff, Van Langenberg, Van Rooyen, Vander Gucht, Werkmester, Wille, Willenberg.

The Dutch Governors in Ceylon.

Willem Jacobsz COSTER



1640 – 1646


1646 – 1650


1650 – 1653

Adriaan van der MEIJDEN

1653 – 1662

Rijcklof van GOENS

1662 – 1663


1663 – 1664

Rijcklof van GOENS

1665 – 1675

Rijcklof van GOENS junior

1675 – 1679

Laurens PIJL

1679 – 1692

Thomas van REE

1692 – 1697

Gerrit de HEERE

1697 – 1702

Cornelis Jan SIMONSZ

1703 – 1707

Hendrik BEKKER

1707 – 1716

Isaac Augustijn RUMPH

1716 – 1723


1723 – 1725

Johan Paul SCHAGEN

1725 – 1726

Pieter VUYST

1726 – 1729

Stephanus VERSLUYS

1729 – 1732

Diederik van DOMBURCH

1733 – 1736

Gustaaf Willem Baron van IMHOFF

1736 – 1740

Willelm Maurits BRUININCK

1740 – 1742


1742 – 1743

Julius Valentijn Steijn van GOLLONESSE

1743 – 1751


1751 – 1752

Joan Gideon LOTEN

1752 – 1757


1757 - 1761

Lubbert Jan Baron van ECK

1761 – 1765


1765 – 1785

Willelm Jacob van de GRAAFF

1785 – 1794

Johan Gerard van ANGELBEEK

1794 – 1796

Copyright © 1998, Marco Ramerini, All rights reserved.


WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka