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The Burghers of Ceylon/Sri Lanka- Reminiscences and Anecdotes by J. Godwin Perera

Source:-island

“The Burghers were a riotous lot With song and dance and many a ‘shot’ Were drivers, guards in the Cee Gee Ar For higher jobs were below par”

This is only partly true. It was a small segment of Burghers who worked in the CGR and as they would have said ‘did a bloody, damn good job.’ But, there were Burghers and Burghers. Let’s give credit where credit is due. Higher in the social hierarchy were the Planters. Many, having been ruggerites in their colleges, it was an easy jump to the central hills where they were appointed as ‘Sinna Dorays’ (SDs) and later Periya Dorays (PDs) in the tea plantations. They had the endurance and intelligence to rule their kingdoms (‘Thottams’), very, very, successfully. Some ended up as CEOs in the head offices of the agency houses which managed the estates in which they worked.

There were other Burghers who adorned the pages of our nation’s history with outstanding contributions in areas ranging from the academic to sports. In what follows there may be errors and there will be omissions. For both a sincere apology is given.

On February 4, 1948, our Lion flag fluttered proudly in the freedom of newly won Independence. On July 31 of that year the Lion flag fluttered proudly at the London Olympic Stadium when Duncan White skimmed over the hurdles (400M) to claim the Silver medal. It was only 52 years later in 2000, at the Sydney Olympics, that our country won another medal – But that is another story. In fact it’s a story within a story. It was also at the London Olympics that Eddie Gray, the first head of the Ceylon Mounted Police, boxed in the Lightweight Class.

But Eddie Gray has to be remembered with a very sad incident four years later. Early morning on March 21, 1952 our first Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake suffered a stroke and fell off his horse while riding on Galle Face Green. Eddie Gray who was also riding on Galle Face Green, was quickly at the PM’s side. He took him to Central Hospital where the ‘Father of the Nation’ passed away on March 22.

In the academic field there are two names which will always be remembered by generations, past, present and future. The first was Edmund Blaze, founder of Kingswood College Kandy, which started as Boy’s High School in 1891 with just 11 pupils. It was Blaze who introduced rugby to schools. The first ever inter-school rugby match was between Kingswood and Trinity on August 11, 1906. Fittingly it ended in a six- all draw. Kingswood was also the first school to introduce rowing. On the Kandy lake? And one of the first to have a cadet platoon.

The second name is that of Prof. E.O.E. Pereira. He was the Founder Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Ceylon and quite appropriately referred to as the ‘Father of Modern Engineering Education in Sri Lanka’. He was later appointed Vice- Chancellor of the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya. It was Prof E.O.E. who was responsible for moving the Faculty of Engineering from its cramped space in Colombo to a more spacious and salubrious place within the Peradeniya Campus.

Think of authors. Think of Carl Muller. Dismissed from three schools, he ended up at Royal College, barely avoiding dismissal. In later life he blossomed to become a prolific and award winning author. His writings were exuberant, witty, sarcastic with a prominent vein of sexuality. He was best known for his trilogy – Jam Fruit Tree, Yakada Yakka and Once Upon a Tender Time. The first was published by Penguin Books and won for him the Gratiaen Memorial Prize in 1993.The State bestowed on him the title ‘Kala Keerthi’.

More famous is the Sri Lankan born, Canadian domiciled, multiple award winning, editor, essayist, novelist and filmmaker, Michael Ondaatje. His best known work ‘the English Patient,(1992)’ won him the prestigious Booker Prize. It was out of this prize money that Michael Ondaatje founded the Gratiaen Trust named after his mother Dorris Gratiaen and from this Trust came into being the Annual Gratiaen Award for the best English literary work written by a resident Sri Lankan. And now the curtain rises for that vivacious, attractive, actress, Jacqueline Fernandez, much in demand in Bollywood. She together with another Burgher- Alston Koch starred in the controversial movie ‘According to Matthew’ which was based on the life story of an Anglican priest (his first name was Matthew) who was convicted of murder. Army Commander from November 1966 to September 1967 was Major General B. R. Heyn. He represented Ceylon in cricket and can best be remembered for the One-Day match against the Australians.

The Burghers…

The scoreboard read Donald Bradman caught R. L.. de Kretser bowled B. R. Heyn – 20 runs. A perfect Burgher combination ! Col. F. C. de Saram was the doyen of cricket both as player and coach. Playing for Oxford University he scored 128 against the Australians of which 96 came in boundaries. He captained the Ceylon team from 1949 to 1954. But alas! Like another all time cricketing great, better known as ‘Satha’ ‘FC’ too had a spell in the Welikada jail. This was because he led a coup in 1962. He and his co-conspirators were sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. But on appeal to the Privy Council the sentence was overruled. ‘FC’ will be always remembered for cricket. Not the coup. On the subject of cricket mention must be made of another record. The Reid brothers who played for St. Thomas’s College in the 1960s. There were five of them – Claude, Ronnie, Buddie, Barney and Johaan.

Commissioner General of Prisons – C. T. (Cutty ) Jansz was Deputy Commissioner General when the notorious massacre of Tamil political prisoners took place in Welikade on July 1983. He valiantly tried, but could not prevent it. Many years later after retirement as Commissioner General in an interview about execution of prisoners sentenced to death, he stated about the ‘gut wrenching’ experience of having to witness a prisoner being hanged. ‘The whole prison mourns. It becomes a funeral house.’ Moving on to Doctors. There was Dr P. D. Anthonisz the first Ceylonese to obtain both the MRCP and FRCS qualifications. As a member of the Legislative Council he was mainly responsible for the construction of the railway line from Colombo to Matara. The land-mark clock tower in Galle Fort was erected in his memory by a grateful public. Then there was Dr Noel Bartholomeusz who very graciously gifted his Colombo 07 residence to the College of Surgeons of Sri Lanka. In the late 1960s Dr Noel became a surgeon by day and a patient by night. He had to undergo a dialysis procedure for 12 hours, three days a week in his home. This was done by his wife Nora. Next we come to Dr R .L. Spittel – often misspelt as Spittle. He can best be described as a city surgeon, jungle doctor and author. His knowledge of the of the Veddha community about whom he wrote, is unrivalled to this day. Wycherley International School along Bauddhaloka Mawatha was originally Wycherley Nursing home in which Dr R. L. Spittel had his practice. Justices of the Supreme Court – In the post-independence era alone there were six of them. But let’s refer to two. Oswald Leslie de Kretser III has another claim to fame. A species of fish- the mulpulutta kretseri was named after him. The other is Noel Gratien. It was due to his inspiration that the Warden of St Thomas’s – Cannon R. S. de Saram introduced Rugger into the sports curriculum.

Photographers- Dedicated to wild-life photography, Eric Swan while on a photographic safari in Thamankaduwa in the Polonnaruwa district observed a single elephant detached from the herd. The elephant turned and curled its trunk. Eric Swan clicked. It was his last photograph. It was the last moment of his life. The elephant charged killing him on the spot. But let’s not end on a melancholy note. Let’s consider the tasty, savoury, Burgher contribution to our cuisine. There’s Lamprais, and Rich Cake also called Christmas Cake, and Love Cake and Patties and Frickadel (meat balls, similar to cutlets) and Breudher and Milk Wine and yes indeed there’s that delicious sweetmeat served during Sinhala Avuruddha called Kokkis. The Burghers alas ! have left our shores. There are more Burghers in Australia than in Sri Lanka. And yet we know that in every Burgher heart there is a place which will forever be Sri Lanka. Once the vicious tentacles of Covid 19 have been untangled and the second wave has been calmed, they will come. In droves. Let’s greet them and say ‘Ayubowan.’



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