history/The Dutch Burghers


In 1796 the British occupied the Maritime Provinces of Ceylon with minimal show of resistance by the Dutch forces. A year earlier, the French had invaded Holland and established there the so called Batavian Republic. The Dutch administration on the island had become internally divided; Governor Van Angelbeek and the some members of the Political Council supported the new regime in Holland which had become a vassal state of the French. The rank and file together with many of authority were supporting the Stadholder Prince William V, who had fled to England. Moreover, the English had send a representative to Colombo showing a formal letter signed by Prince William by which he ordered to surrender all Dutch colonies to the English as protectorates, to be restored to Dutch rule “at the conclusion of general peace”. 

Initially, when Dutch Colombo capitulated, the British East India Company assumed authority. Most of the Dutch military were removed to Batavia and a fair number of civilians also left the island for the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia).

Many former company servants of the VOC as well as private citizens, however, remained on the island under difficult circumstances, hoping that Dutch authority would be restored after the end of the English-French war.

But the English authorities had no intension of doing so. Ceylon became definitively a British Crown Colony in 1802, after the Peace of Amiens between England and France, where the French did nothing to protect Dutch interests in Ceylon. Finally, some 3000 former VOC officials and “Burghers” (which also included citizens of Portuguese, German, French, English and Polish ancestry) opted to remain on the island while accepting the political changes and took the Oath of Allegiance to King George III of England.

It now became apparent that under the new colonial government the earlier distinction between Company Servants and Burghers as two civic classes had lost its significance. Finally, those descending from the citizens who took the Oath of Allegiance were then called “Burghers”. It should be noted, however, that there is no general consensus about the issue of who exactly can be considered a “Burgher”. Carl Muller once said: “It did strike me then, that be they good Burghers or bad, first-class or second or no class at all, the maverick Burgher is not tolerated by any of them. And yet, the Burghers, whether of the no-shoes Batticaloa type, or occupying seats at the high table of the Dutch Burgher Union, will find a most common link when they go to the nearest vegetable market and ask for bonchi and minchi!”.