The Dutch Burghers of Ceylon:
The Quest to retain a forgotten heritage



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By Maheen Senanayake


On the 4th of December, 2011 the Dutch Burgher union held its annual Christmas sale. Many a hereditary Dutch-Burgher following weeks of preparation brought their results to be sold at the fair held at theDBU premises on Reid Avenue. This annual event is a tradition. Yet unbeknown to many lies the sustainability of its greatest effort: The promotion of the moral, intellectual and social well being of theDutch and Dutch Burgher descendants in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka)..point 2.1 enshrined in theConstitution of the Dutch Burgher Union of Ceylon.


The Dutch Burghers of Ceylon as they prefer to be claimed have very little tradition left. Heirs to a European conqueror who sowed little more than their own seed this is a group of people who are trying very hard to hold together the last vestiges of an identity without tradition. With Eurasian features slowly diminishing over generations, the physical differentiation of the Burgher is fast disappearing, yet, these proud descendant of the Eurasian conquerors of old are doing everything and anything possible to ensure a better social condition for their own.


Academically, the Burghers are a hybrid ethnic group claiming male lineage to European colonists of Portuguese, Dutch, German and British, and sometimes, Swedish, Norwegian, French and Irish colonists of the 16th -20th Centuries.


Quintessential Signature


Yet, encapsulated in what the Dutch conquerors called the ‘Lamprist’ lies the quintessential signature of the Dutch burghers of Ceylon; Perhaps the only remnants of a turely DUTCH Bhurghers of Ceylon tradition. Ms Lorraine Bartholomeusz, the current keeper of the recipe cracked open a few micro millimeters of that age old hybrid recipe of the colonists in Ceylon to give us a brief peek at the essence of that mouthwatering Dutch Burgher speciality; the Lamprais.


Herself a proud Dutch burgher was quick to note that her produce is only available at the DBU before any intricacies could be discussed. Having been handed this recipe through her mother who herself received it from the hands of her mother, Lorraine’s grandmother, she honed her skills for close to 50 years before her creation debuted commercially at the Dutch Burgher Union.


‘The Lamprist’ was basically a parcel of rice, made palatable to the Dutch she says. The rice is always suduru samba, the elongated thin and white grain she says whilst cautioning me in forceful tone that ‘everything in a banana leaf is not necessarily a Lamprais’. She is bubbly, knowledgeable and very much an artist. For her the detail counts. The grains amounting to what is called a breakfast cup of rice is cooked in stock and then placed on a banana leaf, washed well and heated slightly over a open flame for pliability. The parcel needs to be wrapped without tearing the banana leaf she cautions.


‘The rice has to be accompanied according to tradition’ she says. The fricadel which in the olden day used to be a small ball of minced beef, deep fried today has been replaced by a cutlet. Brinjal pahi, a seeni sambol with lots of Maldive fish; not be confused with a sambal of tempered onions, add to the spiciness of the flavours of the parcel. Then comes the ‘blachan’ or in some instances the ‘belachan’ a word of Indonesian etymology, which is made of ground and powdered prawn, lime, ginger, sugar mixed into a paste. The ash plantain, dried and fried is an option with the final piece, a mixed meat curry which is generally made with beef, pork and lamb or chicken diced together in a dry curry. However, this dish would later evolve into a dried chicken curry.


Lorraine seems inexhaustible and again raises her voice in demonic fashion to caution me from the substitutions. "Anything in a banana leaf is not a lamprais’ , she repeats, adding that rice with a piece of chicken and a hard boiled egg is not one either; The keeper’s task is a colossal one, I realize. One addition or substitution could change the course of the future of the Lamprais. I sighed at the thought of the burden of the keeper. On the other hand, I had harder questions.


Being a vegetarian was not easy and on many an occasion I had tasted the veggie option. Now doubts began to coerce my mind: so is there room for a vegetarian option? The question virtually escaped my lips to which she retorted a ‘No’ dashing my question in mid air. It did not take much for the reality of my last few Lamprais meals to sink in. The Lamprais as Dutch Burgher as it may be is very much a delicacy in Sri Lanka. It is also commendable that keepers such as Lorraine, maintain the purity of its formula for future generations to savour. Perhaps she is not just the keeper of a recipe. Perhaps she is the true keeper of the essence of whatever hers and the tribe’s ancestors left behind - the taste… the true spice of her ancestry.


Viva la lamprist


 


Founder


The Dutch Burgher union’s first seeds were planted in 1907 by its founder , Rigchard Gerald Anthonisz, Ceylon’s Archivist and Librarian beginning with a preliminary meeting on the 12 th of November, 1907 at the Lindsay School Hall; a meeting where the first seeds of the Dutch Burgher Union were planted. On the 18th of January 1908 the DBU began its official existence with the adoption of its first draft constitution that was based on a few principles which stand relevant today amongst which the highest enshrined in the constitution according to this writ includes the will to ‘.. promote the moral, intellectual and social well-being of the Dutch and Dutch Burgher descendants in Ceylon Sri Lanka.. and among many others .. the promotion of fellowship, self-help, self-reliance and thrift’. A much underused word today. The vision of the founder and the principles upon which the idea has been founded upon is evident from the founding vision of its founders.


 


Fund raising


The Dutch Burgher Union through fund raising activities and donations from its patrons carry out many social welfare programmes for its members. Silently and regularly the DBU supports under-privileged members financially through aid and works to assist these families regain economic stability. Only recently the fruits of their efforts culminated in a few children from under-privileged families graduating as professionals including a medical doctor. Furthermore, the elder’s home at Dehiwela in premises gifted by Dr. R.L. Spittel provides care for around 40 inmates.


The vision of a founder determines the importance of a union. The constitution establishes a visionary policies; among which social welfare and thrift are much wanted today. It is a pity that today’s leaders have hardly noticed the importance of these elements, in particular thrift, the currency which could have avoided the credit calamity in 2008 that sent tremors across markets across the world turning boom towns into ghost towns and rendering millions homeless and unemployed. It would be opportune for today.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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