A Burgher in Sri Lanka, formerly called Ceylon, used to refer to someone descended from employees of The Dutch East India Company ('Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or The V.O.C.) the 17th and 18th century colonial rulers of the coastal regions of the island. There was, and still is, an organisation called 'the Dutch Burgher Union of Ceylon' where the genealogies of some 200 of these families are maintained. However, over the last century, the term 'Burgher' came to include Ceylonese/Sri-Lankans of British ancestry.
In the late 1800s nearly the British Colonists in Ceylon faced protests from other European settlers associated with the previous Dutch Colonists arising from their refusal to continue registering the births of their new born in their respective countries of origin. Registering such births in Ceylon, resulting in those children being classified as 'natives', caused embarrassment to the British because to classify such children of European parents as natives was against the accepted belief of white supremacy which prevailed in Europe.
Consequently the British set up a Royal Commission with Sir Richard Ottley the Chief Justice of Ceylon at the time, as Royal Commissioner and in 1883 he resurrected the Dutch word 'Burgher' which had been cast aside by the Dutch because its usage was no longer relevant as the progressive Dutch had abandoned the Feudal system and there was no longer a need in Dutch Society to distinguish between Townspeople (that is the meaning of Burgher) and the rest. The Royal Commissioner defined Burghers to include those persons of European descent so that it distinguished them from the 'natives' and thus saved the British from the embarrassment that the previous protest action had caused.
The community that remained in the island when the VOC left mounted to about 900 families which, in the following years, developed its own hybrid culture and cuisine. English-speaking, Christian and imbued with Western ideas of freedom and civic responsibility, they became indispensable to the British government. They entered every sphere of activity including administration, medicine, the judiciary, scientific and technical fields, surveying, irrigation, engineering, archaeology and made enduring contributions; in literature, music and painting, and in sport.
The Burghers were leaders of the freedom movement, through their association with the Legislative and Municipal Councils.
The Burgher intelligentsia in the 1860s was led by a young man who hailed from Matara - Charles Ambrose Lorensz. Together with a group of young Burghers like Leopold Ludovici, Francis Bevan, Samuel Grenier and James Stewart Drieberg they purchased the Ceylon Examiner, the first Ceylonese newspaper. Until his death in 1871, at the age of forty two, Lorensz wielded the powerful influence of his pen for social reform, championing democratic causes and courageously criticizing the British colonial government, the Governor and his Executive Council. Another Burgher who agitated for greater freedom for the island was George Alfred Henry Wille, well-known for his knowledge in constitutional matters and member of the Ceylon Congress, J.L.K. Van Dort, whose 19th Century paintings are displayed in the Leyden (Netherlands) Art Gallery, Supreme Court judges Noel Gratiaen, Sir Richard Morgan and J.G. Hildebrand, Surgeon and anthropologist R.L. Spittel, Surveyor and historian R.L. Brohier and too many others to mention. Burghers prominent in Sri Lanka today include poet Jean Arasanayagam and campaigner against child abuse Maureen Seneviratne.
Following Ceylon 'independence' in 1948, and more gravely, the discriminatory 'Sinhala Only' policy introduced by the government in 1956, the Burgher community found themselves disadvantaged. English had been adopted by the Burgher community and had since evolved into the only language that they were adept at from a professional standpoint at any rate. For many, this prospect alone determined their fate and the vast majority, many of whom enjoyed a lifestyle in Ceylon that they would have found hard to replicate anywhere else, nevertheless sought the shores of predominantly English-speaking Australia for the sake of their children and future generations. Other families moved to Canada, the U.K. and New Zealand.
Burghers who have emigrated to, largely Western, countries include Professor David de Kretser, Governor of Victoria; the late Fred van Buren, long-serving member of the Victorian Legislative Council; philanthropist Sir Christopher Ondaatje and his author-brother Michael Ondaatje; member of 'The Seekers' singing group Keith Potger; Test cricketer and coach Dav Whatmore; Roger Herft, Archbishop of Perth; W.A. and Volunteer Social Worker Lorna Wright O.A.M.
The emblem of the Burgher Association (Australia) Inc., as depicted on this website, has been constructed to reflect the origin of the Burgher Community and its present place in Society. It shows our Community name and below it is a Tulip which is the National flower of the Dutch and from where the word 'Burgher' was resurrected by Sir Richard Ottley which resulted in 'Peace' as signified in the emblem by both the usage of the word and the shaking of hands between a Female and a Male of different coloured attire indicating the racial mix that was taking place at the time and has continued to date with tolerance and harmony.
The acknowledged fact that Australia has the largest Burgher Community in the world is manifest in two sheafs of wattle the Australian National Flower safeguarding the core characteristics of the Burgher Community which is Peace through tolerance and harmony encouraged by racial mix which will and can only enhance and increase the intensity of Multicultural Australia.