The origin of the Burghers and from where they came

Excerpts from the Keynote Address of J. B. Müller at the Second AGM of the Burgher Association of Sri Lanka Saturday, 13th. September 2003 held at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall Colombo

The Burghers are not an ethnic minority. The Burghers are an ethno-socio-cultural group of people of European descent, of dual parentage, European and Asian, even perhaps some African, virile hybrids as all hybrids are and exotic and of rootstock definitely from the continent of Europe since 1500.

Our ancestors were humble, God-fearing peasants and towns-folk, who possessed extraordinary courage to venture out on perilous seas and to come thousands of kilometres to an unknown land.

My own ancestors came from Mosel in the Rhineland, Western Germany, along with several other families: The Christoffelsz, Kochs, Eberts, Zimmermanns, Försters, and Langenbergs. They fled religious intolerance and persecution to seek refuge in Groningen and Hoorn in the Netherlands from where they then joined the Duke of Württemberg's Regiment of Germans formed to protect the mercantile interests of the United East India Company in South Africa, Java, Sri Lanka and South India and reached in Sri Lanka.

We are best described as an exotic ethnic and cultural cocktail and a very potent one at that because the Burgher influence from that pivotal date began an irreversible process of change on this Island home of ours.

The Burgher Association is not a racist organization. It has been formed to promote and protect the wider interests of the entire community of persons of European origin, of mixed ancestry, and of dual parentage born, nurtured and domiciled on this Island.

I am sure most Burghers would like to know what their origins were whether they came here through Portugal, the Netherlands or Britain.

The Rozários, Da Silvas, Menezes, Pieres, Ferreiras, and Moreiras were Portuguese families;

The Fernandos, Ferrers, Rodrigoes, Correiras were definitely Spanish. Many of the Pereiras, Diaz, Gomes, and Garira, Ferdinand, Carvalho, and Paiva families were Iberian Jews who were forcibly converted as 'New Christians,' and shipped out. Many Iberian Jewish names are to be found amongst the Sinhalese and Tamils in a corrupted form where Nunez became Nonis, Mendez became Mendis, D'Alves became De Alwis, Souza became Soysa and De Mello became De Mel.

We have the descendants of German Protestants with such names as Koch, Ebert, Christoffel, and Förster.

French Huguenots named Brohier, La Franais, Raux, and De Neise.

Those who came from Neuchatel in Switzerland with the De Meuron Regiment with such names as Toussaint, Mortier, Bolling, Raymond, Rôdet, and Thomét.

Milanese such as Sansoni, Raffa, Ludovici, Conradi and Pappilli.

Flemings named Auwardt, Vanderputt, and De Vos. Walloons named De L'Isle, Melot, and Anjou.

Dutch named Leembruggen, Simmons, Verwyk, Krikenbeek, and Juuriansz.

Luxembourgians named Rabôt. Swedes like Foenander, Danes like Overlunde and Anderson.

Scots like Brodie, Campbell, McLeod, and Balfour. English like Austin, Beven, Cooke, Darling, Eaton, Gray, Marshall and Wright.

Welsh such as Jones, Morgan, and Evans. Irish such as Kennedy and Meloney.

Prussians named Altendorff and Neydorff, Poles such as Cadenski.

Therefore, it would be desirable for us to understand and accept the fact that we are the distilled product of many and varied bloodlines and a remote ancestry that gives us a unique versatility. It also puts paid to any notions of so-called quote/unquote purity of genealogy that some people fondly like to believe in.

Indeed, the modernization of Sri Lanka as a Nation can be ascribed to the Burghers. They produced modern Sri Lanka's first physicians and surgeons, attorneys, magistrates and judges. Its first journalists and editorialists to which tribe I proudly claim affiliation. The country's first political leaders came from this community. This City of Colombo even had a Burgher Mayor.

The Burghers have done great things that they could be proud of for their Motherland—Sri Lanka. Just yesterday around this time the Institution I work for commemorated the 96thy. Birth anniversary of a great Burgher: Professor E.O.E. Pereira, the Father of modern engineering education in Sri Lanka. He created this country's first faculty of engineering and for over 20 years produced this country's homegrown engineers.

He obtained two Bachelor's degrees with first class honours from London and Cambridge universities, where, incidentally, he also won the Mechanical Sciences Tripos with first class honours. He followed Sir Ivor Jennings to become the fifth vice chancellor of the University of Ceylon in 1969. He was chairman of the National Science Council and of a dozen more government boards and commissions. He was honoured with the title Vidya Jyothi in 1986 and passed away in 1988.

He joins a galaxy of Burghers who served Sri Lanka with integrity and loyalty. Let me just reel off a few names in order to encourage you:

There were honourable justices of the Supreme Court--- Jacobus Petrus de Wet. Names like M. C. Sansoni, Percy Colin Thomé, and Sir Francis Soertsz, justices Swan, Gratiaen, Keuneman and De Kretser.

Leading lawyers like Sir Richard Morgan and Charles Ambrose Lorenz.

Artists like J. L. C. Van Dort, Aubrey Collette, and George Keyt.

A photographer like Lionel Wendt and a host of writers: Christine Wilson, Dr. R. L. Spittle, Dr. R. L. Brohier and his daughter, Dame Deloraine Brohier; Dr. Bernard Swan, Christopher and Michael Ondaatje, Maureen Seneviratne née Milhuisen, Jean Arasanayagam née Solomons and Carl Müller.

Education had A.E. Buultjens who was the first Sri Lankan principal of Ananda College; the university had professors Lyn Ludowyke, E.F. Bartholomeusz and H.A. Passé. Ludowyke specialized in English; Bartholomeusz was the first professor of Engineering Mathematics and Passé, of European Classics.

Agriculture has been advanced by Dr. A. W. R. Joachim and there's Wester Modder still at it at the Tea Research Institute up at St. Coombs.

Dr. Alice de Boer was this country's first woman doctor. My own family had a number of leading physicians and surgeons, the Drs. Müller; the cinema and stage had Arthur Van Langenberg.

The Police had an army---Van Sanden, Leembruggen, Altendorff, Van Twest, Muller, Van Cuylenberg, Wambeek and others unnamed of the same caliber.

When Burghers like the people I just mentioned staffed the Civil Service and worked in almost every government department — the Police, Customs, Excise, Prisons, the Railway, the Harbour, the Survey Department, the PWD, Health, Education, and so on, tell me, did any one of you of the older generation present here today ever hear the words "Bribery and Corruption?" No! Never!

The Public Services were as clean as a whistle! Justice and equity prevailed. Promotion was strictly on the basis of merit, not on the basis of race or caste or religious affiliation!

We had a superb public administration staffed by able, even eminent public servants that took both duty and responsibility very seriously. We had the best judicial system in Asia. We had a model Police Service and the Treasury was full. We had people coming here from Malaysia, Singapore and even African countries to study the set up and replicate it in their countries. We were a model country, the former 'Jewel in the Crown' of the worldwide British Empire that had not lost its lusture.

We must examine what happened to bring this once proud community to a position of insignificance and marginalization, of poverty, helplessness and hopelessness.

When the British Government granted internal self-government and universal suffrage or 'one man, one vote' in 1931, the leaders of the Burgher Community should have taken notice that great changes were on the way. During World War II, actually in 1944, when the Soulbury Commission was appointed to study the constitutional change precedent to the granting of Dominion Status, the Burgher leaders should have taken notice. When independence was granted in 1948, the leaders of our Community sat back complacently in their comfortable Middle Class cocoons and did not proactively represent the vital interests of the Community. When 1956 happened, they were thunderstruck by the events that followed even though they had prior warning ever since 1931!

Yes! A lack of vision, an inability to accept ground realities, a refusal to acknowledge inevitable change eroded the leading position of the Burghers. The option they sought was to emigrate, to Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and even Brazil. Really, that was no solution. We had to adapt — that is the Law of Nature — adapt or perish! Those who left were compelled to adapt to newer and harsher environments, not only climatically, but also socially and culturally as any Burgher who has returned from abroad will tell you.

Darwin once said: "It is not the strongest species that survives, not the most intelligent but the one most responsive to change." The Burghers must become dynamically proactive in leading change and building up an irreversible momentum of change that will transform Sri Lanka once again into a land of peace and tranquility, a land flowing with milk and honey.

Indeed, the Burghers, those people of European descent who were on this Island at the capitulation of the Dutch to the British in 1796 transformed themselves from 'nobodies' to 'somebodies' between 1800 and 1900 and risen to greater heights from 1900 to 1950. During this time, the Burghers came to represent QUALITY and CLASS in the life of this country. Did you know that this was Britain's premier Crown Colony, that is, the first, the best Crown Colony? Because it had a peculiar people — the Burghers — to give it an unsurpassed quality and class out of all the then British Empire!

They have lived peacefully and in harmony on this Island home of theirs for nearly 500 years now as the most law-abiding, loyal citizens of the land.

Indeed, our forefathers made a wise choice in settling here amongst the friendliest people on the globe bar none.

It redounds to the eternal credit of the indigenous people that they accepted these aliens with equanimity, and took them to their bosoms in enduring friendship, so much so that the Burghers are now part of the Sri Lankan family, not metaphorically, but very, very literally. As a community we should never forget this. We should thank our God that we are not mistreated and spat upon as outcastes as happens in some other countries where there are communities of people like us.

Their European heritage bequeathed upon them and the indigenous people the enlightenment of the Renaissance, that great flowering of the human intellect and the spirit of free inquiry. It also imparted the knowledge and the understanding of science and technology and the skills that flowed there from in abundant measure. In the indigenous people, they discovered keen and intelligent minds able to grasp these new concepts and ideas and further develop them with brilliance. Certainly, the inheritance from Europe that began at the beginning almost of the 16th Century changed Sri Lanka forever as it climbed out of its own Dark Ages. The dynamic momentum generated by European modernism changed the face of the country and the benefits have been innumerable.

Unfortunately, in this day and age, it is the negative aspects that receive media attention and coverage. But, by and large, the great mass of law abiding citizens who uphold the Rule of Law and live by the codes and norms of civilized society owe that to the European heritage—the living heritage of the Burghers one and all.

That European heritage also gave us the timeless inheritance of Judeo-Christian values that have shaped the law under which we all live. It has given us morality and a code of ethics that permeates every aspect of life and those do in no way contradict the priceless heritage bequeathed on this Island by Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, for all restate, in different terminology, universal truths common to the human family.

The diversity and variety to be found on this Island is our greatest strength because it endows us with superior intellects and the dynamism to achieve rare brilliance in any field of human endeavour. If we have failed it is because of a lack of vision and leadership, nothing else.

Today, a revitalized Burgher Community bids once again to play a significant role in shaping the future of this country in the 21st. Century, in the Third Millennium and this not with any ambition to dominate but to make this a 'Land like no other' on the face of the Planet, our homeland, or rather, our common homeland from sea to shining sea. Indeed, I strongly believe that 'the heritage of the past is the seed that brings forth the harvest of the future,' and, therefore, we must know where we came from and why if we are to finds out where we want to go.

We call upon our most distinguished guest, the representative of the Netherlands from which our forefathers set sail on perilous seas, to hearken to our cry. We need support for education and higher education, for technical, scientific and business education. We need to train trainers to teach teachers to go forth and teach English to the large mass of children marginalized by the ignorance of that global language. The Burgher Association needs to establish a Language Laboratory and Training Institute in Information & Communications Technology where Burgher children could be taught and trained in the skills of a rapidly globalizing and modernizing world. It could then provide the trained personnel demanded by Sri Lanka's developing and expanding mercantile, banking and industrial sectors.

That also means and implies the whittling down of welfare hand-outs or charity to those who could be gainfully employed. Help us, your Excellencies because, to use a figure of speech, "if you can help teach the Burghers to catch fish, they needn't have to come to you for cans of donated fish!"

The greatest single technological input of the decade of the Nineties absorbed by Sri Lanka has been information and communications technology. Everything else pales into insignificance in the face of the digital electronic revolution sweeping the country, and I might add, the world. And, you know what? This entire revolution is on a platform of English.

The Gospel according to John in the King James Version begins with the profoundly majestic phrase: "In the beginning was the Word…" As much as those words and that book shaped our values and gave us sustenance through good times and bad, today, the world is being shaped by another Word: Microsoft Word---and its applications—in the English language.

A knowledge of and mastery of that language which we wisely adopted in 1796, that is after the capitulation on 19th. February 1796, as our Mother Tongue, opens doors to advancement, to a career that has a sustainable future and which ensures economic sustainability fore each and every one of us. As natural English speakers, the Burghers have a head start in the great race that has begun. You must take advantage of your intrinsic strengths to move forwards, upwards and outwards from your current circumstances. English is the key!

Let me quote what Richard Lederer wrote in 'The Toastmaster:' "English is the most widely used language in the history of our planet, understood in some way by at least one out of every seven human beings around the globe. Half of the world's books are written in English, and the majority of international telephone calls are made in English. Sixty per cent of the world's radio programmes are beamed in English, and more than 70 per cent of international mail is written and addressed in English. Eighty per cent of all computer texts, including all web sites, are stored in English. English has acquired the largest vocabulary of all the world's languages, perhaps as many as two million words, and has generated one of the noblest bodies of literature in the annals of the human race." There, I rest my case for, indeed, English is the key.

To be continued

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