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 Post subject: The Portuguese Cultural Imprint on Sri Lanka
 Post Posted: Sun Feb 06, 2011 3:58 pm 

Joined: Fri Aug 12, 2005 12:54 pm
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The Portuguese Cultural Imprint on Sri Lanka

© Shihan de Silva JAYASURIYA
December of 1998, University of London

Posted LL, Feb 05, 2011

The Portuguese era marked the end of medieval Sri Lanka and the
beginning of modern Sri Lanka. It changed the island's orientation
away from India and gave it a unique identity moulded by almost
450 years of Western influence due to the presence of three successive
European powers : the Portuguese (1505-1658), the Dutch (1658-1796) and
the British (1796-1948). The Portuguese cultural imprint can be analyzed by
examining : (a) those who claim Portuguese descent (the Portuguese
Burghers), (b) those who do not claim Portuguese descent but who follow the
Roman Catholic faith, (c) those who are neither of Portuguese descent nor
follow the Catholic faith but nevertheless underwent a sociocultural transformation.
Language is a necessary element in the set of culture. The other
elements are subjective and could include religion, food, dress, music and

The interaction of the Portuguese and the Sri Lankans led to the
evolution of a new language, Sri Lanka Portuguese Creole, which flourished
as a lingua franca in the island for over three and a half centuries (16th to mid-
19th). Pidgins and Creoles are contact languages ; they evolve when people
who do not speak each other's mother-tongue come into contact. Pidgins
only survive as long as the interlingual contact lasts and are generally
shortlived. The etymon of Pidgin is business. A Creole is a Pidgin which has
become the mother-tongue of a speech community. Sri Lanka Portuguese
Creole, a subset of Indo-Portuguese (the Portuguese Creole that flourished
in coastal India), has been the solution to the inter-communication problems
that arose when the Portuguese and Sri Lankans came into contact. In Sri
Lanka, miscegenation reinforced the Creole as the mestiços (offspring of a
Portuguese father and a Sri Lankan mother) were bilingual – they were
proficient in the Creole and Sinhala or Tamil. Boxer (1961 : 61) comments
that the Eurasians (mestiços), or even slave women, kept alive the use of the
Portuguese language in places like Batavia, Malacca and Ceylon (Sri Lanka),
which were under Dutch control.

In contemporary Sri Lanka, the Creole is limited to the spoken form. The
major groups of speakers are the Burghers (people of Portuguese and Dutch
descent) in the Eastern province (Batticaloa and Trincomalee) and the Kaffirs
(people of African origin) in the North-Western province (Puttalam) (see
map for geographic locations). The Creole speakers do not belong to the
higher echelons of Sri Lankan society and have been marginalized due to the
sociopolitical changes that occurred since the Portuguese era ended.
During the Portuguese era, the mestiços or topazes (etymon Sanskrit
dvibash, « one who speaks two languages ») were in demand because they
served as interpreters. When the Dutch took over the coastal areas and
maltreated the Catholics, the Portuguese descendants took refuge in the
central hills of the Kandyan kingdom under Sinhalese rule. Tennent (1850 :
72) observes that the Portuguese Burghers had been suppressed by the Dutch
penal laws and that even under the more liberal British regime they had not
aspired to rise above the status that their forefathers had been reduced to.
Despite their disadvantaged socioeconomic position, the Burghers have
maintained their Portuguese cultural identity. In Batticaloa the Catholic
Burgher Union has played a pivotal role in reinforcing this. The Union is
however struggling to finance the in-house English newsletter with Portuguese

As the Creole was losing ground in the island, many Burghers substituted
one prestige language (Sri Lanka Portuguese Creole) for another (English).
Most of the affluent Burghers, whose mother-tongue became English, have
emigrated to economically strong English-speaking countries, mainly to
Canada and Australia. The World Bank classifies Sri Lanka as a low income
country1. Emigration was inevitable, given the fluency in English of the
affluent Burghers.

The Dutch Burghers and Portuguese Burghers contracted intermarriages.
Today, many Burghers in Batticaloa have Dutch names, but are Roman
Catholics and follow Portuguese cultural traditions. Even though the Dutch
were more powerful from the outset, they were not able to entrench their
cultural traditions in Sri Lanka. Dutch was used for administrative purposes
during the Dutch era, but attempts to spread the language proved futile.
Instead the Dutch had to learn the Portuguese Creole for home conversation
due to their Creole-speaking wives and nannies.

The Kaffirs, on the other hand, were brought to Sri Lanka by the Portuguese,
Dutch and British, as a part of the naval force and for domestic work.
Whatever their African origins, the Kaffirs were exposed to and have
assumed Portuguese culture. Not surprisingly, there was intermarriage
between the Portuguese Burghers and Kaffirs who belonged to the same
culture set ; they spoke Sri Lanka Portuguese Creole and were Roman
Catholics. The Kaffirs are mainly chena cultivators but a few have found
employment in the Puttalam Salt Pans, the Puttalam hospital and in local
government offices as peons and labourers. Although they have withstood
cultural pressures from the other ethnic groups for a long period, they are
now blending into multiethnic Sri Lanka due to cross-cultural marriages.
The Creole is fast losing ground as a spoken language but the community
retain their Portuguese linguistic legacy by singing Portuguese Creole songs
on social occasions (Jayasuriya 1995, 1996, 1997). Some Kaffirs are emigrating
for economic reasons, a phenomenon common to all ethnic groups. The
18,5 million population of multiethnic Sri Lanka consists of 73,95 % Sinhalese,
12,7 % Sri Lankan Tamils, 7,05 % Moors2, 5,52 % Indian Tamils,
0,32 % Malays, 0,26 % Europeans, Eurasians and Burghers, 0,20 % Others
(Chinese, Kaffirs, Veddhas, Indian Moors, Europeans).

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