Burgher people, also known simply as Burghers, are a Eurasian ethnic group in Sri Lanka descended from Portuguese, Dutch, British and other Europeans who settled in the island. However, Portuguese and Dutch had held the maritime provinces of the island for centuries before the advent of the British Empire. With the establishment of Ceylon as a crown colony those who retained close ties with the Netherlands departed. However, a significant community of Burghers remained and largely adopted the English language. During the nineteenth century they occupied a highly important place in Sri Lankan social and economic life.
Portuguese settlers on Ceylon were essentially traders, but wished to form colonies, and Lisbon did nothing to discourage European settlement—even to the extent of advocating intermarriage with the Sinhalese. It was not the policy of the Dutch East India Company to endorse similar unions, although a number of unofficial liaisons between its employees and local females occurred in the late eighteenth century.
Most Burgher people have preserved Western customs; especially among those of Portuguese ancestry their European religion, language, and surnames are retained with pride.
Burghers were defined as those whose father was born in Sri Lanka, 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 sometimes German, French or Russian)
The term ‘Burgher’ comes from the Dutch word burger, meaning “citizen” or “town dweller”, and is cognate with the French and English word “bourgeois”. At this time in Europe, there had emerged a middle class, consisting of people who were neither aristocrats nor serfs. These were the traders and businessmen, who lived in towns and were considered free citizens.
Until the early 20th century, many Burghers spoke English and a form of Portuguese Creole, even those of Dutch descent. Portuguese Creole had been the language of trade and communication with indigenous peoples. It is now only spoken in parts of the coastal towns of Trincomalee and Batticaloa. While much vocabulary is from Portuguese, its grammar is based on that of Tamil and Sinhalese.
Burgher culture is a rich mixture of East and West, reflecting their ancestry. They are the most Westernised of the ethnic groups in Sri Lanka. Most of them wear Western clothing, although it is not uncommon for a man to be seen wearing a sarong, or for a woman to wear a sari.0