A glimpse into our history and future aspirations
There are two histories to narrate here – one of the Burghers in the Batticaloa region, and the other of The Burgher Union – Batticaloa, an organisation born in 1927.
Burghers of the Eastern Coastal Region
Those were the days when the lingua-franca amongst the Burghers in the eastern coastal region (like Batticaloa, Kalmunai, Akkaraipattu and Trincomalee) was Creole Portuguese. The Burgher Union – Batticaloa came together in response to a community Consciousness need and was led by such people as the Late Mr F.R. Ragel. In the early decades, The Burgher Union owned no premises, so the members met informally at various large households such as the Late Mr Peter Ragel’s residence in Lady Manning Drive, Batticaloa.
The Burghers in Sri Lanka are of European descent where the male line, depicted by their surnames, signifies they are Burghers. In the eastern coastal region, the European ancestry is acknowledged as being predominately Portuguese.
The Portuguese captains and their crews who came to our tear-drop shaped island in the Indian Ocean during the period 1505 – 1658 initially married locals from the island. Thus the ancestry of the Burghers makes us a mixed race of people. Today the encouragement is to marry within the Burgher community. What make us unique are our European ancestry and the preservation of that culture in the midst of our very Sri Lankan lifestyle.
In Batticaloa, that preservation is best seen in our customs and rituals which are frequently observed at the time of birth (when we take on the Christian faith), weddings (with our dress, Kaffringha dance and music and our tasty cuisine) and funerals (where the final prayers, as one walks to the graveside, are conducted in Portuguese Creole).
The older members of our community also have the distinct advantage of speaking (but not written) Portuguese Creole. Whilst this is a dying language in Sri Lanka today, there are still some Burgher families who continue speaking Portuguese Creole at home, so their children learn that language.
In 1638 the Portuguese in Ceylon, attempted to break the contract of alliance between the Dutch and King Raja Singa of Ceylon.
On 4 February 1638 a battle took place for the control of the Indico Sea, between the Portuguese Fleet under the command of Admiral Don Antonio TellesMeneses and the Dutch Fleet under the command of Admiral Adam van Westerwold.
Arising from the naval defeat of the Portuguese, in March 1638 General Geral Diego de Melo set out with his army from the Fortress of Colombo to destroy the kingdom of Kandy. The objective once again was to break the contract of alliance between Kandy and the Dutch.
However, nearing the King’s place, the Portuguese army came under the attack of the Kandyan army. They troops of Raja inflicted a painful defeat, making the Portuguese army retire in a disorderly manner towards Colombo.
The alliance between Kandy and the Dutch was formalised on 14 April 1638.
With a 100 Dutch soldiers, a few sailors and two batteries under the command of Commodore Coster and 2,000 soldiers of the army of Raja Singha putting set siege on the Portuguese Fort of Batticaloa. However, there was no real battle as “Commodore Coster” had news that the Dutch fleet with the victorious “Admiral Adam van Westerwold”, was sailing towards Batticaloa.
The Dutch fleet arrived in Batticaloa on May 10, 1638 with Admiral Adam van Westerwold. Many men,and cannons were placed in the circle of the day of siege. On May 18 the battle began and was resolved after four hours of shelling. The Portuguese surrendered the fort.
Batticaloa was the first stronghold lost by the Portuguese in the island of Ceylon.
In terms of yield, there wass a lifesaving provision for the Portuguese troops. Later they distanced from Batticaloa. ?
And they were expelled from Batticaloa
So not, for the descendants relationships to overcoming life that the Portuguese had with the local population, which has remained in Batticaloa.
The King of Kandy, did not consider the Burghers Portuguese as his subjects, thus the Burghers Portuguese therefore became an ethnic enclave, not too well seen by the Dutch given their Catholic religion.
In 1668, the Dutch decided to build a new Forte in Batticaloa.
This decision was not at all accepted by the King of Kandy, who protested vigorously because he wanted to maintain free trade in this area. However, work began and the King of Kandy retaliated by going into war with the Dutch and ordered the Sinhalese to abandon all economic activity with the Dutch – namely agriculture fishing and manpower in Batticaloa.
Thus in Batticaloa remained only the Portuguese Burghers. Their numbers being small meant they could not support all the necessities of life and the expansion of the Dutch Colony.
The Dutch, to overcome the lack of manpower in different sectors inBatticaloa and not trusting the Sinhalese, transferred a huge number of Tamils from Jaffna area, as these Tamils did not suffer from the influence of the King of Kandy.
This caused a further isolation of Portuguese Burghers who were excluded given the arrival of the new Tamil labour. The Portuguese Burghers maintained spiritual unity, thanks to the arrival of the Portuguese friar Joseph Vaz (1695) who revitalized the Catholic faith. After him came other missionaries from the Portuguese Viceroy of Goa in India, though not regularly.
It is ‘clear that in the ages to come something good changed, but basically the Portuguese Burghers community has been very isolated. However, bound to its traditions of Portuguese origin and Sinhalese, they still sing and dance to Portuguese tunes. For centuries there’s been little contact with the Portuguese. After the loss of Portuguese in India in December 1961, contacts with the Portuguese community in Batticaloa ceased.
In the old colonial days the language of administration was the language of the ruling colonial power. During the British era that language was English. As the Burghers attended the Christian schools, where the instruction was in English, the Burghers found it easy to gain employment as clerks in the public service so long as they had passed their Junior School Certificate examination (JSC). In Batticaloa these Catholic schools were St Michael’s College and St Cecilia Convent, and the Methodist schools – Central College and St Vincent’s Girls School.
In the past, and indeed even today, the profession of many Burghers in the eastern coastal region is as craftsmen – such as carpenters, blacksmiths, mechanics, and seamstresses. They are well known for their inventiveness, particularly when it came to repairing clocks, guns and repairing the mechanisms of the passenger and cargo carts drawn by animals.
Unlike monthly salaried staff who worked in the government service, or businessmen with savings, these craftsmen who are daily wage earners inevitably suffered more when affected by disasters e.g. the 1957 floods (when the Unnichchai tank bund was breached), the 1978 cyclone, the 2004 tsunami and more recently the 2011 Batticaloa floods.
Today there are some noticeable changes in our community. Historically we were a community known for its master printers and some of the notable Burgher businesses ran printing presses. Today, these printers are a rarity and are prized employees of the Christian Brothers Printing Press.
The lingua franca has moved to the vernacular languages, which is largely influenced by instruction in government schools being in Tamil or Sinhala. Burgher Union from the beginning did much to nurture the revival of the Portuguese language amongst the young and old Burghers in Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Ampara Districts. Children were encouraged to attend classes so that they could speak Portuguese.
Employment-wise we are seeing a sprinkling of white-collar Burgher workers with university degrees who are today dentist, and an urban planner, teachers, bankers, accountants and managers working for finance and NGO type organizations. There’s even a medical doctor in the making.
The Burgher Union – Batticaloa
In the early years of the Burgher Union – Batticaloa, the gatherings were held in the households of the upper–middle class Burghers and the meetings were conducted in Creole In 1962 The Burgher Union – Batticaloa was formalized, a Constitution drawn up, and run under the leadership of the President and his executive officers. In 1970 land was purchased and the Burgher Union Hall was built in 1974 during the Presidency of Mr Ronald Rosario. After the tsunami and with the kindness of donations by various benefactors, especially Rev. Fr. Miller, SJ, an additional storey was built.
The Presidents of the Burgher Union – Batticaloa have included Messrs Barthelot, Peters, Cecil Ockersz, Ronald Rosario, Claver Ragel, Regis Ragel, Sonny Ockersz , Bonny Vincent and Terrence Sellar.
Over the years we have had the good fortune of thoughtful donors. The magnanimous support over many years of the late Mrs. Marcella Andrado meant we were able to help the needy, provide flood relief and provide immediate help to those affected by the devastating 2004 tsunami. Marcella was a staunch supporter of the betterment of Burghers and constantly kept the needs of her people in the minds of Burghers who lived in Australia. Marcella was a lady who led by example and inspired many other Burghers to join her – sending money, clothes and books. Today this benefactor role is led by Ms Mignon Hardie, particularly in taking Dr Quintus’ health clinics (AUSLMAT) to the Burghers in the eastern region and keeping a gentle eye on the 80 Club Sponsorship programme which is coordinated by Mr Trevor Collette.
No story is without its sadness. For us, the more recent was the devastation of the 2004 tsunami where the lives of 99 Burghers from the Dutch Bar were lost. In their memory we erected a monument along the beach front at the Dutch Bar.
For those who survived the tsunami and whose houses were affected, in collaboration with the Government of Sri Lanka who donated the land in Panichchaiyadi and Thannamunai area, and Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation and a civilian donation campaign led by Captain Lester Weinman and Mr Stephen Labrooy, houses and infrastructure, was built. 150 families benefited from this programme which came together under the guidance of our then President Mr S. T (Sonny) Ockersz and his executive team.
We salute all these people and those who joined them for their generosity of heart in our time of need. In different ways there is an on-going need, such as provided by the 80 Club who since 2005 has been sponsoring students in the Eastern Region.
With the initiation of Mr. Earl Barthelot, Secretary (2010, 2012-2014) area committees formed in areas where Burghers are living in villages in the Eastern Province which now counts to 13 including of those from Trincomalee and Akkaraipattu. Over time the membership of The Burgher Union – Batticaloa has grown to include Burghers living on the East Coast, from as far Trincomalee, Batticaloa and south as Akkaraipattu. Our aim is to extend our Burgher membership to those living in what is known as ‘outstation’ areas of Sri Lanka. We would especially like to welcome those living in Jaffna, Mannar, Matara, Kandy, Hambantota etc.
We extend a warm welcome to join us in preserving and nurturing the Burgher community, to proffer the goodwill of our community across other communities and join hands with others to help those in need, especially those with ailing health, and the young, with education and employment opportunities.