Old Dutch Church

Dutch Reformed Church Galle

East meets West in Sri Lanka

The Burghers are a Eurasian ethnic group, the result of the European colonisation of the island from the 16th to 20th centuries. As colonial power passed from the Portuguese to the Dutch and finally to the British, the Europeans and Eurasians who were born in the country now known as Sri Lanka, were known collectively as Burghers.

The term ‘Burgher’ may have been first used during the time of the Dutch colonisation. It comes from the Dutch/German word burger, meaning citizen or town dweller and is equivalent to the French and English word bourgeois. Town-dwelling free citizens, Burghers were largely clerks, administrators, traders and businessmen. Burghers are mostly male-line descendants of European colonists who married local Sinhalese or Tamil women. Consequently, they have Portuguese, Dutch and British surnames – with others of German, French, Russian and Flemish origin. They speak mainly English, though in parts of the island they still speak a Portuguese-based creole.

Truly cross-cultural ancestry

The Burghers developed as a distinct community, with English as their first language and Christianity as their religion. Reflecting this mixed ancestry, Burgher culture is a rich and unique blend of East and West. They share a common culture rather than a common ethnicity and are not physically homogeneous. There are Burghers with blond hair and fair skin and others with a dark complexion and black hair, sometimes in the same family. While some of the older generations of Burghers tried to dismiss their Asian ancestry, many younger Burghers today value highly this aspect of their heritage.

Many Burghers migrated overseas when post-independence changes favoured the local language at the expense of English. Very few remain on the island. Many went to Australia and today there are more Burghers in Australia than there are in Sri Lanka. It is estimated that the total number of Burghers worldwide is no more than about two hundred thousand. Burghers have had a profound effect on many aspects of Sri Lankan life and culture. Over time they have occupied senior positions in government, the military and the railway. Many became prominent in medicine and the law. Their influence on the legal system, architecture and cuisine of the island continues to this day.