Many of the tombstones which cover the floor and fill the small churchyard of the Dutch Reformed Church bear Dutch names – Jansz, De Kretser, Van Langenberg and the like – dating from the colonial period right up to modern times. These commemorate the families of Sri Lanka’s smallest, and oddest, minority: the Dutch Burghers – Sri Lankans of Dutch or Portuguese descent.

At the time of Independence the Burgher community numbered around fifty thousand, based mainly in Colombo. Burghers had held major government posts under the British as well as running many of the island’s trading companies, although their numbers declined significantly in the 1950s, when as many as half the country’s Burgher families, disillusioned by Sinhalese nationalist laws based on language and religion, left for Australia, Canada or Britain.

Despite their Dutch (or Portuguese) ancestry, the Burghers have for centuries spoken English as their first language. Burgher culture preserves strong Dutch elements, however, and they would be horrified to be confused with the British, despite a certain amount of intermarriage over the years (not only with the British, but also with the Sinhalese and Tamils). Not that there is really such a thing as a single Burgher culture or community. Many of the wealthier Burghers arrived in Ceylon as employees of the Dutch East India Company, while working-class Burghers, more often from Portugal, came to help build the railways and settled largely on the coast between Colombo and Negombo. And to make things a little more confused, there are thousands of Sri Lankans with Dutch or Portuguese names, adopted during the years of occupation, yet who have no connection at all with Europe.

Over the past five decades, the Burghers have particularly made their mark in the arts, both in Sri Lanka and beyond. Geoffrey Bawa, arguably Asia’s greatest twentieth-century architect, belonged to the community (though his family, in typical Burgher style, also claimed Malay descent). George Keyt (1901–93), Sri Lanka’s foremost modern painter, was also a Burgher, as are two of Sri Lanka’s leading contemporary artists, Barbara Sansoni, founder of the Barefoot company in Colombo, and designer Ena de Silva. Overseas, the best-known Burgher is Canada-based novelist Michael Ondaatje, whose memoir of island life, Running in the Family, gives a wonderful picture of Burgher life in the years before Independence.

Book through Rough Guides’ trusted travel partners

Sri Lanka features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

Video: 5 reasons to visit Sri Lanka

Video: 5 reasons to visit Sri Lanka

From remote, palm-dotted beaches to ancient temples and some of Asia's best wildlife-watching opportunities, Sri Lanka has something to offer every kind of trav…

19 Jan 2018 • Olivia Rawes videocam Video
Your Sri Lanka itinerary: 5 trip ideas to explore the country

Your Sri Lanka itinerary: 5 trip ideas to explore the country

Sri Lanka is deceptive. On a map of the world it appears to be tiny, but the moment you arrive you’ll realise that within its diminutive borders it packs in a…

18 Jan 2018 • Stuart Butler insert_drive_file Article
10 Sri Lankan foods you need to try

10 Sri Lankan foods you need to try

The tear-shaped Indian Ocean island of Sri Lanka is a true culinary treat. Through years of colonisation and trade, many cultures have influenced its cuisine, c…

17 Jan 2018 • Sarah Gilbert insert_drive_file Article
View more featureschevron_right