Dutch Burghers’ identity crisis under British rule


In 1796, the British took over Ceylon from the Dutch after a brief military operation launched from Madras.The change in regime put the White Dutch and people of mixed Dutch-Ceylonese blood (called Dutch Burghers) in a quandary. The latter wondered what their future would be under the British.

Questions for which they were groping for answers were: Would Ceylon remain permanently under the British or would it be handed back to the Dutch perhaps as part of a settlement in Europe? The return of the Cape (in South Africa) to the Dutch in 1803 strengthened such hopes. Should they transfer their allegiance to the Britishand carry on as usual, or should they migrate to Batavia (modern-day Jakarta which was the headquarters of Dutch possessions in the East), or should they move to some other part of Dutch-ruled Asia?

Alicia Schrikker’s Caught Between Empires. VOC Families in Sri Lanka after the British Take-over, 1806-1808 (Dans Annales de démographiehistorique 2011) tells the story of the Dutch-Ceylonese dilemma.

The Dutch Burghers’ dilemma reflected the close links that existed between them and the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC (the Dutch East India Company which ruled Ceylon and many pockets in Asia and Africa in the 17th and 18th Centuries). The VOC’s tentacles had stretched from Deshima in Japan to Cape Town in South Africa across Ceylon and Cochin in Kerala.

The areas controlled by the VOC were highly organised and run by permanently staffed civil and military personnel comprising White Dutch as well as Dutch-Asians. All of them belonged to the ‘VOC-world’, a trans-oceanic network of business and kinship networks. People moved from one Dutch settlement to another to earn a living, making a career or fortune.

According to Schrikker, in the 18th century,the VOC had some 3,000 to 4,000 employees in Ceylon. The majority of them lived and worked in Jaffna, Galle and Colombo. A great variety of functions for the VOC were performed by the Eurasianor mestizo population either directly and indirectly. Some of these people separated from the VOC and became the middle-class backbone of the Ceylonese urban economy. Others retained a direct bond with the VOC. The majority of clerks had been locally born mestizo boys, Schrikker points out.

The British takeover of Ceylon in 1796 cruelly snapped the link between the community and the VOC. While many White Dutch left for Batavia, the captured military officers were shipped to India. Some White Dutch and most Dutch Asians were left behind. Those left behind had the option of transferring their allegiance to the British. But their loyalty to the Dutch State or attachment to the VOC was so strong, that they would not take the required oath.

However, the British needed their services as they preferred to follow the Dutch system of administration after the Madras system they brought along failed to get the locals’ support. Eventually, after a generation, the Dutch-Ceylonese joined the British bandwagon but not before undergoing extreme privation with no salaries or pensionscoming in for years. Barring the upper crust, most were forced to live in squalid conditions. Lethargy, Drunkenness and licentiousness marked the lives of many.

Their representations to the Dutch headquarters in Batavia for help drew no response. It was only in 1806, after a 10 year gap, that the Batavian authorities sent out a mission to Ceylon to pick up the stranded VOC employees and to look after needy members of the community who had to stay put. Rudolph Prediger was appointed Commissioner of the repatriation and rehabilitation. Prediger’s visit resulted in little over a thousand being repatriated. Pensions were granted to some needy cases. Many wanted pensions rather than repatriation. Ceylon had Dutch pensioners till the early 1830s.

Composition of the VOC Community

The VOC community in Ceylon was highly mixed. In the 17th Century, mercantile and military settlements of the VOC were found around the Indian Ocean and white Dutch women were extremely scarce. Schrikker says that despite some attempts to transport Dutch girls and women to the East, marriage and unofficial alliances with local women and slaves were the order of the day. The slaves were both local Ceylonese and girls from South India, Bengal and East and South Africa.

“The offspring of these alliances, people of various degrees of mixed decent, formed the backbone of the VOC world in Asia. The Asian influence on VOC households was reinforced by the intimate relations with slave women within the household, who apart from being housekeepers, they functioned as wet-nurses, raised the children and were kept as concubines,” she notes. Some concubines were business partners too.

But a constant influx of new Dutch Company servants reinforced the Dutch element in these Asian societies. Furthermore, sons of high-ranking Company officials were sent home to the Netherlands from the age of seven to receive a Dutch education and upbringing and to prepare them for a career in Asia or in the Netherlands. This enabled Dutch culture to get reinforced constantly in Dutch Burgher households in Ceylon and other parts of the VOC world.

Schrikker points out that the VOC wedding market transcended the local VOC stations. “Wedding arrangements were made both locally and across the Indian Ocean. In turn, the intra-Asian family ties could provide sons and cousins with job and business opportunities across the ocean.” The Dutch Burghers were therefore open to the wide world outside from the earliest days.

However, as in the other Dutch communities in Asia, people were very much aware of the degree to which mestizo-families had mixed blood. Pure, white, Dutchness remained the ideal. But besides ancestry, education and networking determined a person’s status, and from this status derived one’s career perspectives. This resulted in many Dutch Burghers acquiring an education and moving up in the professions.

However, in his study of careers within the Ceylonese VOC establishment, Albert van den Belt showed that civil servants coming from the Netherlands got ahead more quickly and ended up higher on the social ladder than people who worked their way up locally. But under the supervision of the VOC social institutions, like the orphan chamber, were set up in the coastal towns, to guarantee some degree of welfare and security forneedy members, Schrikker points out.

Upper Class Objection

Schikker points out that from the start, to the annoyance of the upper class of Dutch Burghers, the British used the term ‘Dutch Burgher’ for the entire Dutch-Eurasian urban community. Eighty-four prominent Dutch Burgher residents of Colombo submitted an appeal “which stated in no uncertain terms that they could not simply be equated with the mixed urban citizenry and certainly did not appreciate the umbrella term Dutch burghers. They were a class of their own, one that had governed the VOC and produced its governors. They distanced themselves from the lower staff of mixed descent and the ‘common man’ who in the VOC years had been granted ‘burgher’ status and was mainly active in the urban economy and local administration.”

Schrikker noted that it took more than a generation before the Dutch Burghers emotionally detached themselves from the VOC world and started to see themselves as members of the British Empire. It was only in the mid- 19th.Century,that they internalised the nomenclature Dutch Burgher.

“They continued to emphasise their VOC-ties and used it to represent themselves as an elite division among the Dutch Burghers, but paradoxically, used the English language media and cultural frameworks to express themselves.” Their mother tongue became English. Dutch and Portuguese patois (used by the hoi polloi) disappeared without a trace.

By P.K. Balachandran