history/The Dutch Burghers

The Early Years

The Burghers, a practical and adaptable people, soon secured occupations in various services and public departments of the British Colonial Administration. They also took to the professions and rose to positions of significance in public and social life. They had the advantage of, unlike most of the communities in the social structure of Ceylon, not being bound to the agrarian economy or caste system. Many Burghers went into the legal profession and in business.

At the early stages of the new colonial power, the former VOC officials and Burghers easily changed from Dutch to the English language. Gradually they became an indispensable element of the British Administration.

The Supreme Court did away with its Dutch interpreter as far back as 1833. The last Dutch tombstone in the Dutch language can be found in the Wolvendaal church with the following text: “Hier onder rust ’t leyk van Jacob Anthon Muller in zyn leven chirurgyn te Tutucoryn, Geboren 28 May, 1743, overleeden 4 Feb., 1831, oud 87 jaaren 8 maanden en 8 dagen.” (Below rests the body of Jacob Anton Muller, in his life-time Surgeon of Tutucorin, Born 28 May, 1743, died 4 Feb., 1831, aged 87 years 8 months 8 days). Apparently, Muller remained in the British times stubbornly Dutch!
In the course of time English became the mother tongue of the Burghers and Dutch was finally forgotten.

By the second half of the 19th century, the Burgher community and reached an unprecedented high level of standing in official positions and social circles. It became the “Golden Age” of the Burghers, which continued till the fist half of the 20th century. Many leading professionals – lawyers, doctors, engineers – were Burghers. Charles Ambrose Lorenz was the most outstanding member of the Burgher community during the 19th century and a member of the Legislative Council. He published, together with young Burghers such as Leopold Ludovici, Francis Bevan, Samuel Grenier and James Stuard Drieberg, the leading literary journal “Young Ceylon” (styled after Giuseppe Mazzini’s Young Italy movement). He criticized courageously the British colonial Government and can be considered one of the first in Ceylon to call for independence.

There also were many luminaries in the legal profession like Alan Drieberg and F.H. de Vos. In fact, in the legal profession around 1868 it is recorded that of the 225 lawyers on the island, 140 were Burgher. In the medical profession many Burghers excelled. Famous names are: James Loos, Andree Koch, J.L. Van der Straaten. In later times T.F. Carvin, Andreas Nell, Lucien de Zilwa, Vivian Schokman, Frank Grenier, Garvin Mack, L. Noel Bartolomeusz, Professor John Blaze, R.L. Spittel, Elsley Koch and L.D.C. Austin. The first woman graduating from the Ceylon Medical College was Alice de Boer, later followed by Henrietta Keyt, Winifred Nell, Claribel van Dort-Spittel, Ursula van Rooyen and Rachel Christoffelsz.

The Ceylon Civil Service found many Burghers holding top positions, like J.R. Toussaint. In the private sector there were pioneers like P.D. Siebel – the first florist in Ceylon and A.R. Koch, a leading photographer in society. Last but not least, the famous John Leonard Kalenberg van Dort should be mentioned here. Van Dort spent the whole of his period as a public servant working for the Surveyor-General’s office. He produced around 1888 a charming set of 49 watercolours depicting Dutch period buildings, forts and canals (including the Wolvendaal church). Some of these have been reproduced in this web-site. 

Dutch houses in Pettah

Captain Jean Brohier
- changed allegiance to the British

Dutch house as seen by Barbara Sansoni