history/The Dutch Burghers
Burghers in the 20th Century
The contribution of the Burgher community to the national life was in the 20th century impressive. In the professions, at the bench and bar the Burghers continued as reputed judges and leading lawyers and in the medical field as skilled surgeons and proficient physicians. The first half of the century saw also in the public sector Burghers in top positions. In the technical services as well, like those of irrigation, land survey or railways, Burghers rose to the top echelons. In the Army, Navy and Police, Burghers distinguished themselves, while they were also very active in business.
In the 1940s senior civil servants were L.L. Hunter, A.E. Christoffelsz, R.S.V. Poulier, Noel Ernest, R.Y. Daniel and younger men like Bert Van Langenberg, Vedric Oorloff and Neville Jansz.
The Burgher community has known many writers, painters, artists, musicians and academics, some of them having acquired a worldwide audience such as Michael Ondaatje (Running in the Family), Carl Muller (Colombo), Michelle de Kretser (the Hamilton Case) and Lionel Wendt (photographs). They were represented in the media such as Hilaire Jansz, Jan Modder, Pearl Ondaatje, Mil Sansoni and Deloraine Brohier. In the arts Irene Vanderwall and Jean White as concert pianists. Known painters were the Belings, George Beven, George Keyt and Barbara Sansoni. Maureen Hingert (daughter of the Director of the Bank of Ceylon) became a first runner-up in the Miss World contest of 1955 and a film star in the USA.
Many academics after independence were Burghers. Well known names are: Andreas Nell, C.W. Nicolas, R.L. Spittel and Richard Brohier. Active in education were E.F.C. Lodewyke, W.J. La Brooy, L.E. Blaze and Cyril Jansz.
Some of them deserve special mention here.
Spittel, a celebrated surgeon found the time to tramp the jungle to study pre-historical Veddahs. Nell, the island’s earliest ophthalmologist, is also well known as an historian and left invaluable memoirs about the ruins of Anurhadapura and Kurunegala. C.W. Nicholas, Excise Commissioner was an authority on stone monuments while Richard Brohier, researched ancient irrigation systems and published numerous popular works such as “Ancient irrigation Works of Ceylon” and his monumental work “Links between Sri Lanka and The Netherlands”. A well known labour leader was Pieter Keuneman who was active in the communist party and became Minister of Housing and Construction from 1970 to 1976.
The former Minister of Foreign Affairs Lakshman Kadirgamar (assassinated in 2005 by Tamil Tigers) had this to say when he hosted an outgoing Dutch Ambassador at a private gathering:
“In literally every walk of life in Sri Lanka, the Dutch Burghers made an outstanding contribution. In doing so, they showed that our national life could be enriched, that there is a contribution to be made, by all the citizens of our diverse society, if only they took beyond the narrow constraints of ethnicity”.