How The Burghers Came To Be

The term ‘Burgher’ comes from the Dutch word 'Burgher' meaning “citizen” or “town dweller”.

In 1505 the Portuguese arrived in ‘Ceylon’ (now Sri Lanka).  In 1612 King Senarat Adahasin (reigned 1604-1635) concluded a treaty with the Dutch envoy Marcelis Boschouwer granting the Dutch extensive commercial concessions in return for assistance against the Portuguese.

However over time the Sinhalese became displeased with the brutality of the Portuguese.   (For more information see  

 Finally on 23rd May 1638 King Rajasimha II (reigned 1635-1687) signed a treaty approving the Dutch to wage war against the Portuguese.  A battle took place on 4th January 1638 between the Dutch and Portuguese and the latter were defeated.

During the Dutch period, all Dutch colonial operations were overseen by the (‘Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie’ (VOC) or United East India Company). Virtually all Burghers from this period were employees of the VOC.

In 1794 the Scottish antiquary Alexander Adam (1741-1809) in his writings “Geography and History, Ancient and Modern” (1794) said  “Ceylon .. is thought to be the richest island in the world”. It was at about this time the British were making plans to take Ceylon from the Dutch.

The Burghers were legally defined in 1883 by the Chief Justice of Ceylon, Sir Richard Ottley, who was appointed in connection with the establishment of a legislative council in Ceylon.

Burghers were defined as those whose father was born in Ceylon, with at least one European ancestor on one’s direct paternal side, regardless of the ethnic origin of one’s mother, or what other ethnic groups may be found on the father’s side.


Because of this definition, Burghers almost always have European surnames (mostly of Portuguese, Dutch and British origin, but some are of German, French or Russian origin).

PHOTO 2 TO BE USED WITHIN TEXTBurgher culture is therefore a rich mixture of East and West, reflecting their ancestry. Today Sri Lankan music is characterised by the ‘Baila’ (Portuguese for ‘dance’) and, it is said, over 200 words are of Portuguese origin.

Burghers are not physically homogeneous.  It is possible to have a blonde, fair-skinned Burgher, as well as a Burgher with a very dark complexion and black hair; a Burgher with a complexion from brown to light brown with black to light brown hair; and a Burgher of fair complexion with black hair.  They also possess the full spectrum of eye colours.  Fair-skinned and dark-skinned children can even appear as siblings in the same family of the same parents.

Some commentators believe that the mixed backgrounds of Burghers have made their culture more tolerant and open.

Burghers organically developed PHOTO 1 TO BE USED WITHIN TEXTtheir own unique culture and traits.  We are very fortunate and privileged to host on this website the memoirs of older Burghers who once lived within a cohesive and supportive society.  We hope you enjoy their recollections which provide a firsthand insight into this people.


Sources: A Complete Illustrated History of Sri Lanka, Robert Anton, 2012; Wikipedia