Portuguese Burghers

Portuguese Burghers
Total population
Regions with significant populations
Sri Lanka, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA
Sri Lankan Portuguese Creole, Portuguese, English, Sinhala and Tamil
Roman Catholic and other Christian denomination
Related ethnic groups
Burgher people, Portuguese, Dutch Burghers, Sinhalese, Kaffirs, Sri Lankan Tamil

The Portuguese Burghers[1][2][3] are an ethnic group in Sri Lanka, of mixed Portuguese and Sri Lankan descent.[4] They are Roman Catholic and spoke the Sri Lanka Indo-Portuguese language, a creole based on Portuguese. In modern times, English has become the common language while Sinhalese is taught in school as a second language. Many Portuguese Burghers living on the east coast of Sri Lanka are of Portuguese descent; this is evident in the Sri Lanka-Indo Portuguese language, which has many affiliations to Sinhalese and Portuguese.[5] They are mixed with other Burgher people, including Dutch Burghers. However, Portuguese Burghers are not Dutch Burghers.[6]


The Portuguese Burghers are largely descendants of the Sri Lanka Mestiços, the people of mixed Portuguese and Sri Lankan descent (commonly of a Portuguese father and a Sri Lankan mother) who appeared in the 16th century, after the Portuguese explorers found the sea route to the Indian Ocean.[7]

When the Dutch took over Coastal Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), the descendants of the Portuguese took refuge in the central hills of Kandyan Kingdom under Sinhalese rule.

In time, the Dutch and Portuguese descendants intermarried. Under Dutch rule Portuguese was banned, but the Portuguese speaking community was so widespread that even the Dutch started to speak Portuguese.

In the 18th century, the Eurasian community (a mixture of Portuguese, Dutch, and Sinhalese as well as Tamil, known as the Burgher) grew, speaking Portuguese or Dutch.

The Portuguese Burghers were more mixed, following Catholicism and speaking a Portuguese creole language. Despite the socio-economic disadvantage, the Burghers maintained their Portuguese cultural identity. In Batticaloa, the Catholic Burgher Union reinforced this. The Portuguese Creole continued to be used amongst the Dutch Burghers families as the informal language until the end of the 19th century.

In today's Sri Lanka, the Creole is limited to the spoken form. Most of the speakers are the Burghers in the Eastern province (Batticaloa and Trincomalee). But there are also the Kaffirs (people of African origin) in the Northwestern province (Puttalam). The Portuguese, Dutch and British brought the Kaffirs to Sri Lanka, for labour purposes. They have assumed Portuguese culture and religion.


Phenotypically Burghers can be either light skinned or dark skinned, depending on their ancestral history it is common to find Burghers with dark to light brown skin (usually Portuguese Burghers or Kaffirs) and possess European facial features common to the Mediterranean basin (see Mediterraneans). In some Portuguese Burgher families it is common to have both, very dark children and children with fair skin. Most light skinned Burghers are usually of Dutch or British descent.[8]

Current status

At the 1981 Census, the Burghers (Dutch and Portuguese) were almost 40,000 (0.3% of the population of Sri Lanka). Many Burghers emigrated to other countries. There are still 100 families in Batticaloa and Trincomalee and 80 Kaffir families in Puttalam that still speak the Portuguese Creole; they have been out of contact with Portugal since 1656. The Burgher population worldwide is approximated to be around 100,000, concentrated mostly in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.


  1. ^ DeVotta, Neil (2004). Blowback: Linguistic Nationalism, Institutional Decay, and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka. Stanford University Press. p. 276. ISBN 9780804749244.
  2. ^ "The Portuguese Burghers" (PDF). Retrieved 25 April 2019.
  3. ^ Müller, J.B. "One Nation : diversity and multiculturalism". Retrieved 24 January 2016.
  4. ^ West, Barbara A. (2009). Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Asia and Oceania. Infobase Publishing. p. 1025. ISBN 9781438119137.
  5. ^ McGilvray, Dennis B. (1982). Dutch Burghers and Portuguese Mechanics: Eurasian Ethnicity in Sri Lanka. Cambridge University Press.
  6. ^ "History of the Dutch in Ceylon (Sri Lanka)". Retrieved 24 January 2016.
  7. ^ "The Sri Lankan Portuguese Burghers". Ceylontoday. 7 December 2014. Retrieved 30 March 2015.
  8. ^ "About Sri Lankan Burghers". Retrieved 30 March 2015.

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