The Sri Lankan Burghers
The Dutch Burger Union of Ceylon - its founding and growth
by Deloraine Brohier
Many Sri Lankans pass and re-pass the round-about from where several roads radiate, which has given to the junction the colloquial term - thun mulla. Few though, in their motor vehicles or as pedestrians, in their hurry, pause to look up at a tall building of unique architectural design which stands at this point. It is conspicuous and has remained so, for many years. Fortunately it has not yet been hidden away or crowded in by structures more modern of style and unimaginative in shape, as trends have developed in the passing years.
Significant of façade, it stands deep in a lawn front and a triangle of garden. From the porch it rises to an upper storey, with glass-fronted windows. But the most striking feature of the facade and one which stands out to the eye, is the step-gabled ends of its two wings. This feature is what makes it unique and identifies with many buildings in Holland's old towns and quarters, which date back to the periods of the 17th and 18th centuries.
The building at the intersection of Havelock Road, Reid Avenue and Bullers Road, now Baudhaloka Mawatha - and which has led to the name thun mulla, does not go back so far in the centuries. It came up only in the early years of the present century. The prominent building we have so high-lighted is the Dutch Burgher Union Hall - library and social meeting place of a small community who are identified in the polyglottal mix of peoples in Sri Lanka as - Burghers.
From many a pen of an older generation, as also by this writer, have flowed explanations of - who are the Burghers. It is not therefore my intention to elucidate on the subject here, be it to say that the term came to be associated with a group of people who originally came out to Sri Lanka, under the flag of Holland and who chose to settle in the island over the period from the mid-seventeenth century to the closing of the eighteenth century.
Largely of Dutch and Flemish origin, some were also from the more northern European countries, and quite a few others who called themselves Huguenots - French Protestants. Collectively, this was the "Hollandsche Natie" who served officially under the United Dutch East Indies Company - the Veerinde Oost Indische Compagnie (VOC) in the years known in Sri Lanka's history as the Dutch period.
The year 1802 which marked the signing of the treaty of Amiens, saw a change of colonial occupation of the island when Ceylon was made a Crown Colony of Great Britain. With the switch of power there emerged a new life and status for those who officially had served under the Dutch Company, in their varying capacities and others, private emigres who had come out as merchants and traders. For reasons personal and those determined by the terms of the hand-over of power, it has been estimated that about 900 families of the Hollandsche Natie opted to remain in Ceylon. They took an oath of allegiance to George III of England and accommodated themselves to changes that developed under the British.
This small overflow of people who had moved with the history of Ceylon from one colonial regime to another were now designated "the Dutch and Burgher inhabitants of Ceylon." With time the term came to be abbreviated to - Burghers. Let me now digress briefly to qualify the term Burgher. In this we have no better authority than Mr. R.L. Brohier, who has stated:
"Burgher is not an ethnographic name and has nothing to do with race. The term is of historic origin and refers to a political community which had a distinctive character when it entered under the sway of the British Government." (R. L. Brohier: footnote in Changing Face of Colombo)
Brohier elucidates that the community known as the Burghers, came to be so designated on a "generic basis" - the term signifying a conferment of citizenship on a group of peoples. And some have retained the identity of their origin to this day.
The Burghers, like many other groups of peoples who came to live under the British colonial system did so by a common community of interests. As an eminent writer of the past has described: "...they passed their days in peaceful co-existence and purposefully linked by common interests, blended freely on terms of racial amity with neighbour and friend" - moving freely on occasions of sadness and gladness -" in the common object of promoting the most easy and friendly terms of inter-communal fellowship."
After roughly one hundred years of British colonial rule if was however felt that the time had come when the Dutch Burgher descendants associate together - for a recognition of themselves, as having "an origin, history and character of their own." R. G. Anthonisz, a leading member of the community at the time however voiced the sentiment that "a union among the Dutch Burghers was not going to disturb any of the existing friendly relations they had with members of other communities."
An informal meeting was first held at the Lindsay hall, Bambalapitiya on November 12, 1907 men and women of the Dutch Burgher community, distinguished each in their own right , by professional achievement and of social standing ment to air opinion. In the outcome, a resolution was carried unanimously which read: "That this meeting is of opinion that a union of the Dutch Burghers of Ceylon, with the object of promoting the moral, social and intellectual well-being of the community is very desirable."
Hector van Cuylenburg, called to the chair on the occasion, said in his inaugural address that he felt the time had come for them, as a community to "coalesce". If there was an association of the kind proposed the members of it would frequently meet and there would be a bond amongst all the Dutch Burghers in Colombo and the outstations."
To the present generation of readers the names of those who were then appointed as a Committee, to frame rules, enrol members and carry out the preliminary, arrangements for the formation of such a union, will signify little relevance. There was F.C. Loos (member of the legislative Council) R. G. Anthonisz who rose to be head of the Archives Department, J. R. Toussaint of the Ceylon Civil service. There were medical men, surgeons and physicians like Drs. W. A. van Dort, L. A. Prins and Andreas Nell, legal luminaries like Allan Drieberg and F. H. de Vos; senior officers in the government's technical departments, engineers and surveyors. P. D. Siebel was a successful businessman and the first florist in Ceylon, A. R. Koch a leading photographer in society and there was, Ceylon's first woman doctor, Dr. Alice de Boer. In the months that followed discussions and informal meetings of the core group took place and the burning of much midnight oil in formulating drafts of the Rules and Registrations of the union.
The first meeting of the Dutch Burgher union took place on Saturday January 18, 1908, at the Pettah library Hall. A large gathering was present, for 267 persons had already enroled as members. Elected as the first president was Frederick Charles Loos M. L. C; honorary secretary was R. G. Anthonisz and a committee of 45 members, of which 15 were residing in the outstations. The draft Constitution having been passed the Dutch Burgher union could be said to have been established. The records of this first meeting and the early meetings of the union can be found well-documented in a worthy publication which, from March 31, 1908, came out on a regular basis. This is known as the Journal of the Dutch Burgher of Ceylon.
The DBU journals are a rich source of information - archival chronicle and memoir - which scholars and academicians, writers and journalists of the present generation may well be advised to consult.
Committees were formed for purposes ethical and literary, for genealogical research, for social services, entertainment and sport. The feast of St. Nikolaas, December 5, beloved by Dutch children was introduced to the Union in its first year and was held in the Public Hall, Colombo. The tradition of this festival continues to this day.
The need of an office and committee rooms was felt as urgent for in its initial months Dr. Andreas Nell sublet to the DBU, two rooms at Sea View, Kollupitiya, also used as a Reading Room for members. Thus we soon find in the DBU's records that a "Building Committee" is mentioned for the raising of funds for a permanent house.
There can be seen to this day set into the wall in the foyer of the hall, a copper plaque inscribed, which gives acknowledgement to:
"William Edward Vandersmagt de Rooy through whose exemplary zeal and unswerving persistency, the erection of this hall, in the year 1913 became possible."
A building company was formed and shares were made available to members. Planners and architects, engineers and designers then went into industry as a block of land was found in an area in the city which was opening out at the time - pre First World War.
More salubrious was Colombo as it reached out beyond the Fort and Pettah in the early years of this century.
The Borella burial site or Kanatte and the Havelock race course in the Cinnamon plantations, had come into use shortly before the turn into the 20th century and Buller's Road cut through scrub jungle and was a gravel road.
The populace of the older city of Colombo were moving to the littoral strip along the Galle Road, the inlets of the Beira Lake or to the Cinnamon Gardens. Today's city zones - three, seven, five and four reflected quite a different geographic picture. Airy residential homes encircled by large gardens were linked by sandy tracks and foot-paths lined with spreading flowering trees. Buller's Road, now the Bauddhaloka Mawatha was lonely and little used, made more forbidding by the fact that half-way along it was the Asylum for those mentally disturbed.
My mother, when a timid teenager, described in later years her fear to take a carriage ride along this stretch, while my father recalled boyhood rambles with his uncle in koombi kalle where they hunted hare and thalagoya in what is known today as Jawatte Road. Reid Avenue was then named Serpentine Road and there was no broad thoroughfare to connect Buller's Road with the Galle Road.
The Dutch Burgher Union Buildings Company purchased an extensive extent of land in the area we have described - and a building soon reared up, at the junction of Buller's Road and Serpentine Road. The hall, as it was to be called was in elegant setting, handsome in style. From the two gates, a drive swung round a carpet of lawn, bordered in flowers, to a front porch. There was provision of ample, space at the rear of building for horses and carriages, which gave way in a later era to the motor car. Tennis courts and a netball court provided activity for the younger members - and gives the reader an idea of the extent of land originally owned. A vestibule on the ground floor led on to a spacious public room for lectures and for dancing in that it had well-sprung teak flooring. A beautifully carved, wooden staircase led to the upper floor - to billiard and card rooms, a drawing room arranged with comfortable chairs for informal entertaining, a bar and a reading room lined with a well-chosen collection of books; residential quarters for outstation members with a rear staircase for their convenience, had also been thought of.
The years went by and the Dutch Burgher Union took on a character of its own. It was inevitable that there were changes in the surroundings in which it stood. Blocks of residential buildings came up all around and a link with the Galle Road, which came to be known as New Buller's Road, found that the DBU lost large strips of garden in acquisition, whilst escalating property rates saw the Buildings Company selling off its outer peripheries.
Through the war years, the First and Second World Wars, and especially in the conflict 1939 to 1945, troops of Dutch forces serving in the Asian war zones, sailors and airmen, found release in festive events in the Hall. The lovely mosaic floor in the foyer, depicting a Dutch sailing ship riding the waves, is a token of their appreciation.
Down the years men who made outstanding contribution to the country and to the community took office as Presidents. Their names, inscribed on polished brass, is a record, as also early paintings and portrait photographs in a later era which keep them in memory.
The generation who saw the birth of the Dutch Burgher Union and the building of the Hall have, with time, faded away - their names forgotten by the present younger generation. But the traditions and standards they set live on with their sons and daughters. To these, such as the writer, and with a few others, old scenes of happier days surface in memory. The laughter of children at play every December 5th; St. Nikolaas, dressed in Bishop's regalia, riding in on a tall white horse, black pete by his side who dispensed sweets and toys. A young girl's "coming out" dance, the band playing the old-waltz or fox-trot as she stepped out with her first beaux watched by fond "mamas" who sat through the night stiff-backed chairs arranged around the ball room. Then there were those grand occasions when Ceylon attained Independence and our first Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake was honoured, or Lord Soulbury, Governor General graced a reception.
Unforgettable too were those afternoons when special Dutch Teas were served. The Hall was arranged with little square tables covered in crisp white linen: poffertjest hot off the pan came served with cooled sugar syrup, bolo-fiadho oozing treacle and fogutte filled with minced cashew and pumpkin preserve, while not forgetting the thick slices of broeder spread with butter and a slice of Edam cheese with its deep red rind.
As a school girl the writer with other Dutch Burgher friends, enjoyed the novelty and importance, dressed as traditional Dutch girls in bright skirts and starched organdy aprons, wearing quaint lace-edged pointed bonnets and wooden clogs. Yes, days gone away are ever sweet to linger upon - as we contemplate that the Dutch Burgher Union has notched ninety years of history.