Sri Lanka Genealogy Website

Some Burgher personalities of the past in the arenas of public debate and politics

by Ms. Deloraine Brohier

Viewing the history of the Burgher community in Sri Lanka, in retrospect one can say that theirs is a remarkable and epic record which is rare in history.

The Dutch Burghers entered Ceylon less than four centuries ago, when the maritime regions of the island came under the Dutch East India Company - Vereenigde Oost Indische Compagnie V.O.C. Ceylon was then handed over to the English East India Company and subsequently the whole country was unified and ruled as a crown colony of Great Britain.

The community that was left behind in the island when the Dutch wound up their activities here, at the end of the 18th century were about 900 families it is estimated, in Colombo and other townships. This Dutch community known by the Dutch term Hollandische, came to be known, in the early records of the British as "The Dutch and Burgher inhabitants of Ceylon". In course of time, with the death of those who in 1802 first took the Oath of Allegiance to king George III of England and were permitted to remain in Ceylon, the appellation resolved itself to - Burghers.

Displaced as they found themselves to be by political circumstances which they had enjoyed under the Dutch Company, under British colonial rule the Burghers were able to acquit themselves so remarkably that they became indispensable to the British government.

Not only as administrators did this community excel, but noticeably in the second half of the 19th century, they entered every sphere of activity in the country. In medicine and the judiciary, in scientific and technical fields, surveying, irrigation, engineering, archaeology they made enduring contributions; in literature, music and painting, and in sport, the Burghers distinguished themselves.

Equally noteworthy was their political role, where the Burghers, became leaders of the freedom movement, through their association with the Legislative and Municipal Councils.

A great historian of our island, Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, in his 1901 census report wrote: "The Dutch descendants are the most educated and useful members of this island's population and form the upper stratum of the Burgher community."

The Burgher intelligentsia in the 1860s was led by a young man who hailed from Matara - Charles Ambrose Lorensz. Being a brilliant lawyer he was popularly known as the "morning star of Hulftsdorp". Together with a group of young Burghers like Leopold Ludovici, Francis Bevan, Samuel Grenier and James Stewart Drieberg they produced a leading local literary journal called Young Ceylon.

In 1859 Lorensz and a syndicate purchased the Ceylon Examiner which became the first Ceylonese newspaper. Until his death in 1871, at the age of forty two, Ambrose Lorensz wielded the powerful influence of his pen for social reform, championing democratic causes and courageously criticising the British colonial government, the Governor and his Executive Council.

In the true traditions of 19th century Burgher leaders, like C. A. Lorensz there came a few years later - George Alfred Henry Wille, who was also of the legal fraternity in that he was a proctor by profession. A keen student of history and politics from his young days, Wille was alive to his responsibilities as a citizen.

His interest in public affairs was such that there was hardly a public movement in the early 20th century in which he did not play a part. He was well-known for his knowledge in constitutional matters and when the Ceylon Congress came into existence, Wille had the sagacity to foresee the political reform in Ceylon which could not be postponed. Alone among minority men, George Wille joined the Congress and took a prominent part in its affairs side by side with its foremost leaders from the other communities.

George Wille came into prominence by his association with the Colombo Pettah Library - an institution started by the Burghers in the early days of British rule. As secretary of the institution for a great many years, it was said that Wille's annual reports were masterpieces of literature.

George Wille was a publicist and when barely twenty five years old he was a regular contributor to the Ceylon Examiner the lawyers' paper. When that paper was discontinued after a half a century's outstanding existence, Wille turned to the Ceylon Independent, as a frequent and dependable writer whose views were much appreciated by the reading public.

The Ceylon Independent at its zenith won a victory by taking up the battle against the Paddy Tax, under the leadership of its editor, George Wall. The proprietor of the paper was Sir Hector Van Cuylenburg, one time Burgher Member in Council.

One of the greatest contributions made by George Wille, to the public of Ceylon, was in building a solid bridge between the Burghers and the other Ceylonese communities. He was a far-seeing man and living as he did into the years prior to independence, he was convinced that the Burghers, as a community, could not remain aloof. He knew intimately and admired the integrity of men like Sir James Peiris, Sir D. B. Jayatilleke and Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan.

The general confidence in Wille from within is own community, for his ability and sincerity was when the Burgher seat in the national legislature was being contested on the retirement of Allan Drieberg, when the latter became a Puisne judge. Wille was returned by the Burghers as the 'First Member' there being two members allowed for that Council. Wille won that seat of unique conduct and asked not even a friend for their vote on his behalf, though he addressed meetings to educate the electorate.

It is said that George Wille's work as a Member of the Legislature Council was outstanding. When the first State Council had to be constituted in 1931, George Wille was nominated a Burgher member. He was however prevented from taking up the office due to professional problems in the legal firm he was working in. When the Burgher deputation to the Donoughmore Commission was selected, George Wille was an undisputed representative.

Other achievements of the man, to name a few were as Chairman, Municipal Education Committee, Colombo, president Ceylon Workers Federation, president Ceylon Social Service League, Provident Association, Member in the Council of Legal Education, Member Local Government Board, Member Labour Advisory Board, Member University College Council. Turning to the arena of Municipal politics we find many a Burgher name in the councils, in Colombo and other townships.

As early as in 1865 when the Colombo Municipal Council was set up by proclamation, together with leaders of other communities, like James d'Alwis, A. M. Ferguson, Ossen Lebbe, Abdul Cader Marikar we find also the names of many a distinguished Burgher of that era. C. A. Lorensz attended the first meeting to prepare lists of resident householders in Colombo and persons eligible for the office of counsellors.

From the diary of Sir Richard Morgan we read the entry: "The Burghers are predominantly in the Pettah and should be duly represented". Six of the members eventually elected to the council were Burghers, which led Morgan to comment subsequently that, "there are too many lawyers and too many Burghers!"

Of those elected to the first Colombo Municipal Council there were - C. L. Ferdinands (Colpetty), Dr. J. W. Van Geyzel (Pettah), C. A. Lorensz (Cotta-China) and F. C. Loos (Marandahn) (Early spellings of names of the Colombo wards have been retained). Samuel Grenir was secretary when the council met for the first time, on January 16, 1866.

As in the Colombo Municipal Council, likewise in the other major Town Councils such as in Kandy and Galle, leading Burgher citizens took an active role. Dr. Peter Daniel Anthonisz who was the first president of the Ceylon Branch of the British Medical Association, after his retirement from the Medical Department settled down to a lucrative practice in Galle, which was his hometown.

He served as a member of the Galle Municipal Council, Fort Ward, for several years. By special permission of the Governor, he was also a member of the Colombo Municipal Council and represented the Burgher community in the legislative council, 1886 to 1895. The clock tower which commands the front view of Galle's ramparts was built by public subscription to perpetuate his name.

Making history for the Burgher community in the Colombo Municipal Council was Dr. V. R. Schokman when he was elected Mayor of Colombo in May 1937. His excellent powers of organisation were put to usefulness in this office, as were his schemes notably in education and social service. A medical man by profession, Dr. V. R. Schokman also absorbed himself in a wide variety of sports activities.

In the period from 1833, many were the Burghers who engaged in politics and represented their community in the several constituted political and public institutions set up in Ceylon. Though just a few men from the Burgher community have been here highlighted for their involvement and the dynamic role they played in the arenas of public debate and politics, we conclude by listing other names, as of interest to readers, of those who served in the National and Local Government Assemblies in Ceylon till the dawn of independence.

It is not my intention, though relevant to go into the history of the constitutional developments in Ceylon in the British period. Briefly to explain - in 1833 when the Colebrooke recommendations were implemented from the old constitution where the Governor had complete executive and legislative power - two councils, an executive council and a separate legislative council, was instituted. Governor Horton nominated in 1835 the first Ceylon unofficial members - J. G. Hillebrand, a senior Burgher proctor, J. Phillipsz Panditaratne, a Sinhalese and A. Coomaraswamy, a Tamil.

Over the years modifications to the numbers and composition of Ceylonese represented in the legislative council of the colony can be traced. The Donoughmore Commission, adult franchise, the setting up of the State Council with elected members, were the changes which, step by step, brought an end to British Colonial rule and to independence in 1948.

Hillebrand the first Ceylonese Burgher in politics, when he rose to be a Judge of the Supreme Court was succeeded by J. F. Giffening, also a proctor and who James d'Alwis described as "an old narrow-minded austere, but clever Dutch lawyer". Richard Morgan was the next member. He was raised to knighthood and acted as chief justice.

Charles Ambrose Lorensz, of whom it was said, "the most versatile and gifted member the community ever produced," followed James Martensz succeeded him and then came C. L. Ferdinands. When the latter accepted government office as District Judge, Colombo, Advocate James van Langenberg Sr. was appointed to fill his place. On his death, Dr. P. D. Anthonisz of Galle, was appointed breaking the tradition of lawyer members. The appointment again of H. L. Wendt revived the legal link.

He was followed by F. L. Loos, with James van Langenberg the younger, Francis Bevan and Dr. W. G. van Dort acting at different times in his absence. James van Langenberg Jr. succeeded F. C. Loos on his death.

Then came the era of elected members - Sir Hector van Cuylenberg, being the first. Sir Hector was followed by Charles Vander Wall, Allan Drieberg and N. J. Martin as elected members, while Arthur Alvis (after whom the street much used by traffic today, leading off the Beira Lake, is named), H. A Loos and C. E. de Vos, a famous lawyer from Galle, secured their seats at different times as nominated members. Then again came a break in lawyer members with the appointment of George A. Wille and Dr. V. R. Schokman. It is interesting to note that in 1924 when the council consisted of 37 unofficial members, there were no fewer than three Burgher members - N. J. Martin, G. A. Wille (elected) and H. A. Loos (nominated).

From the list of names, as above, a curious fact emerges - that or more than one hundred years the Burgher representatives in succeeding legislative councils and in the State Council, nominated or elected, came to be drawn from the fraternities of the legal or medical professions.