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Forgotten Batticaloa Burghers
Burgher communities in the east were hit hard by the waves
For over 500 years they have spent their time as masons, carpenters, barbers, and fishermen,living life to its fullest. For centuries they practiced their very unique customs,celebrated Christmas in their own indomitable style, danced the Kafringa and mingled with the Tamils of the area learning their language and marrying their people. In spite of the 20 year civil war that gripped the country like an iron claw, these people were able to make their living and live dignified lives. They still have very European names like Jacob, Stevens, Harrington, Vincent, De Lima, Hendricks, Ragel, Barthelot, Baltharza,Outschoorn, Andrado, Sela, Symmons and Betterbrown. Although many have intermarried and speak only Tamil they still keep to their Burgher traditions and customs which have been passed down through the ages. Marriage and intermingling with the Tamils of the area has also led to the gradual extinction of the Creole Portuguese that was spoken by them. According to some experts, Creole Portuguese that some older Burghers still spoke until about 1984 is very similar to the Portuguese spoken in medieval times. (Source: Equal Ground)
BBC / Sunday Observer

Tsunami unites Sri Lanka Burghers

By Ethirajan Anbarasan
BBC News, Batticaloa

The tsunami that devastated Sri Lanka in December has had the effect of bringing together the country's Burgher community.

Burgher communities in the east were hit hard by the waves

The Burghers are descendants of the Dutch and Portuguese who colonised Sri Lanka in the 16th Century.

Before the tsunami they preferred to remain in their own enclaves - hardly making any contacts with their brethren in others parts of Sri Lanka and abroad.

But the situation has changed since December.

The tsunami was a terrible disaster for the nearly 4,000 Burghers living in the eastern town of Batticaloa.

More than 150 people perished and many others lost their properties and livelihood, mainly in and around the Dutch Bar area.

Overseas help

Three months on, Burghers in Batticaloa are now slowly trying to rebuild their lives.

"Every day, we were getting 30 to 40 e-mails from Burghers living abroad offering help
Sunny Ockersz
Community leader

Soon after the tsunami struck, news spread that the Burgher community on the east coast was one of the worst affected in Sri Lanka.

Burghers in Colombo immediately rushed essential supplies to help victims in Batticaloa.

It was the first time in decades that the two groups came in contact and the sudden solidarity is slowly evolving into a bond.

Soon, more help started to come in from those who had migrated years ago to countries like Australia, Canada and the UK.

"Every day, we were getting 30 to 40 e-mails from Burghers living abroad offering help. Suddenly, we feel that we are a bigger community," says Sunny Ockersz, president of the Burgher union in Batticaloa.

Social history

Earlier, the community was divided as Burghers in Batticaloa, Dutch Burghers and the "affluent" English-speaking Burghers in Colombo.

The Burgher community has strong Portuguese roots

The Batticaloa Burghers for centuries were mostly manual labourers - carpenters, mechanics and masons - and were at the bottom of the Burgher social ladder.

"There was hardly any contact with each other. Burghers in Batticaloa were looked down on by others in the community," says Maxi Rozairo, president of the Burgher association in Colombo.

Community members say the emphasis was on making a decent living rather than trying to find out about their roots.

Schools or universities in Sri Lanka do not offer any courses on the history of the community.

When the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka in 1505 they brought soldiers and other supporting staff.

Those who settled down got married to local women and a new ethnic group was born.

Soon, the Dutch and the British followed. The descendants of the union between the colonisers and the locals came to be known as Burghers.

Portuguese roots

Despite the arrival of the Dutch and the British, most Burghers preferred to retain their Portuguese cultural roots.

Community leaders hope the newfound closeness will stay

The interaction also led to the evolution of a new language, Sri Lanka Portuguese Creole which was the lingua franca for more than three centuries.

"For centuries we have been following Portuguese customs and traditions. Some elders still speak Creole Portuguese. Portuguese music and dance are common in our get-togethers," says Mr Ockersz.

But the community also thrived under British rule as most Burghers were educated and fluent in English.

Burgher engineers, doctors and other professionals played a key role in managing Sri Lankan railways.

But the situation changed after Sri Lanka's independence in 1948.

The new government gave prominence to the Sinhala language.

As the Burghers did not speak that, there were few job opportunities for them and many of them went abroad.

"The mass migration split families. Due to the subsequent socio-political changes Burghers were slowly marginalised in Sri Lanka," says Mr Rozairo.

New bond

Today only about 34,000 Burghers are left in the Sri Lanka - down from a high of 100,000.

Before the tsunami, the community had planned to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Portuguese arrival in Sri Lanka. For now, the plans have been shelved.

Nevertheless, membership of Burgher associations in Sri Lanka has gone up in recent months.

Community leaders want to capitalise on the new found camaraderie. They say it is time to bring the scattered community together.

"No doubt the tsunami caused havoc. But it has brought a new identity for the Burghers," says Mr Rozairo.

Forgotten Batticaloa Burghers
by Elmo Leonard as related by Maxi Rozairo
@ Sunday Observer
This is the story of the destruction caused by the tsunami of December 26 on a small community called the Batticaloa Burghers living in the eastern coast and their gallant attempt to rehabilitate themselves.

Batticaloa Burghers community

For the first time in their history, since the 16th century when these descendants of European colonists came together in Batticaloa, these people have become unemployed, for the tsunami took away the tools of their labour.

Their carpenters just want carpentry tools so that they could sell their labour needed in rebuilding Batticaloa and in the process, rehabilitate themselves. In like strain, their blacksmiths want the hammer and anvil, the welders, welding equipment and the mechanics, handtools.

Manual tools would suffice, they say. The Batticaloa Burghers, are strong physically and in character, and are hard working. Of 290 Burgher families whose houses were destroyed, 120 lost their lives, while ten died in a single family. Hundred-and-ninety-one houses lying on the Dutch Bar were wiped out, together with another 99 of their houses built near the sea.

In this single blow of anguish on Boxing Day, many were buried under the brick and mortar of their houses, which earlier afforded them protection from the elements. Many of those who died were young girls, who worked in offices and banks in the establishments around Batticaloa. Others were injured and were taken to hospital, but are ready for work.

The Batticaloa Burghers are loved, for they live in a South Asian culture, unyielding to the shame of being engaged in work involving manual labour.

The Dutch Bar

Among them were also, motor mechanics, computer technicians, car and lorry drivers, three-wheel drivers and the like, on the day the mighty waters struck.

As in any society, the Batticaloa Burghers of the day belong to different classes, for there are the educated among them who are doctors, academics, bank managers, clerical workers and such other, most of whom move out of Batticaloa.

In the 16th century the Portuguese brought along their masons, shoemakers, carpenters, bakers, blacksmiths and the like because such skilled crafts were not known here, or the numbers of such craftsmen were insignificant. And, the indigenous people, often learned the occupation of these `pioneers.'

The love and attention of outsiders, for the Batticaloa Burghers is focused on those who followed the life of craft as their ancestors who came here.

When the Burgher Association from Colombo answered the distress call of the Burgher Union (Batticaloa) - established in 1927, it was the first time these people who were treated as outcastes by their cousins, were visited by another group of Burghers living outside the East. Sunny Ockersz 73, the President of the Burgher Union is retired from the Sri Lanka Administrative Service and prominent among them. It was his distress call, we heeded, taking a van-load of what we thought was useful, like clothes and food, but our supply which cost us Rs. 70,000 was grossly inadequate.

We found the survivors living in pathetic conditions, some seized with emotional trauma, housed at St. Cecilia's Convent. Others were living with friends and relations nearby. They, like all other tsunami survivors had lost everything, other than the clothes they had on.

These people fear that they will soon be shifted to refugee camps, because the school they are housed in has to be opened for student studies.

These hard-working, self-supporting people of centuries long, are in short supply of mats, pillows, cooking utensils, hurricane lamps and other basic necessities. Their students, up to the advanced level grades, need exercise books, uniforms and simple stationery, not to speak of textbooks.

The Burgher Association in Colombo, formed a few years ago appeal to the Burghers living in Sri Lanka, in Australia, UK, Canada and the rest of the English speaking world to assist these people in their hour of need. These people are not just descendants of the Portuguese, as is commonly assumed, for the Portuguese brought with them young people from all parts of Europe. Many of the names they bear are Dutch in origin, because the Dutch who arrived later, married their women.

They have names like Barthelot (French), Baltharza (German) then there are names of Spanish, Italian, English, Scandinavian and from other European origin. Among other better names are, De Lima, Ragel, Outschoorn, Sela, Andrado, Symmons and Betterbrown.

The ancestors of these people who came with the Portuguese from all over Europe, learned the Portuguese tongue and thus were referred to as Portuguese descendants. They bear no written Portuguese literature and the Croale Portuguese that some senior citizens speak is very similar to the Portuguese spoken in medieval times, according to some experts.

It is time that cultural anthropologists study these people, before it is too late. The Association also appeals to the European people and the 25-member European Union to help put the lives of these people who branched off from Europe centuries ago, into perspective that they may continue to live self-dependent lives.



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