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Human of the north

Portuguese Burghers in Sri Lanka


1. “We have only a few hundred families in our population. I think across both Batticaloa and Trincomalee, we’d number about 13000 people – the Portuguese Burghers.

Very few in our community went abroad during the war. Despite all the difficulties, we wanted to stay back. For nearly 500 years, we have preserved a unique way of life. We are proud to be descended from our Portuguese ancestors. But at the end of the day we also identify as proud Sri Lankans and Batticaloans. We don’t want to be anywhere else.”

2. “We have both dark and light-skinned members in our community. A few people even have light coloured hair or eyes. We tease them for having cat-eyes.

My wife for example has light skin and brown hair. Mostly however we look like any other Sri Lankan with black hair and black eyes.

We differ from our Tamil and Muslim neighbours only in our unique traditions, culture and language. For centuries, we have kept the Portuguese language alive in our midst among some families (not all) amidst much difficulty. In school, we study in the Tamil medium. We also learn Sinhala and English to be able to communicate with others across the country. All the other three languages are exercised daily in various situations so we become proficient in them. Only Portuguese is not exercised daily unless we take care to do so by speaking it consciously within our own homes and with other community members.

Over time we have lost the ability to read and write Portuguese. We can only speak it and even this is a struggle to keep alive in our community currently. Some people have let it go and have become completely Sinhalized or Tamilized, at least in terms of their language usage.

Recently some native Portuguese from Portugal visited us. They told us that they couldn’t completely understand our language. We appeared to be speaking an ancient form of Portuguese. I guess the language had evolved in their own country while we had been at pains to keep it unchanged over here.”

‘3. Are there any similarities between the Portuguese you speak and Sinhala or Tamil? “It’s actually a very different language but some words are the same. I think that’s probably because some words were introduced to native languages by the Portuguese – for example Kadira for chair or Mesa for Table in Tamil. It’s the same with a slight difference in pronunciation in our Portuguese. Then for shorts, we say Kalsa, while the Sinhalese call it Kalisam. There are similarities like these.”‘

‘4. “Ours is a Jolly community, very happy-go-lucky. We are constantly singling, dancing and merrymaking. Our grandparents used to say that our burgher homes’ cement floors wore out much faster than our staid neighbours’ because we would have music, wine and dance every weekend, at each others’ homes.”‘

5. “My fingers are permanently bruised by playing the violin so much. We are the originators of the Baila music form in Sri Lanka.

We still retain our unique forms of music and dancing with songs in Portuguese, which get played for days at every wedding.”

6. “According to folklore passed down to us, we lost the country to the Dutch due to our carelessness and merrymaking. Our elders used to exclaim every time they saw us being lazy ,’This is why we lost the country, thanks to this attitude of devil may care, we ne’er do wells.’

We had forts and sentries in place to guard the country – but the story goes that there was a Tamil Koothu (musical play) happening one day and our ancestors wanted to attend. So they left a few sentries in place and went to see the play. The sentries wanted to see the play too, so they snuck away one by one – so when the Dutch came sailing round, they found only a very few sentries on guard and easily took over.”

7. “I often visit the fort in the evenings, originally built by my ancestors, then demolished and rebuilt by the Dutch.

I imagine them walking about on the same ramparts some five hundred years earlier, that I walk about on now, and wonder what their thoughts and feelings were.

Some University students at the Eastern University have studied us from time to time – but we never received any documentation from them on all that they recorded from us, or learnt about us.

We have not yet had our community researched in depth from a sociological or anthropological perspective. I wish we could afford to hire professionals to do that for ourselves as a community.

We need some kind of documentation on our roots, heritage and history, to pass on to our children. I am learning and documenting what I can, in my own small way now. We need our culture, identity and way of life preserved.

Our people are musically gifted. 75% of previous generations could all play the violin, harmonium or rabbana (drum) in our own unique style. Now however, the art is dying out and only a few of us are taking the trouble to learn. We have never been professionally recorded either but I saw that someone had uploaded a youtube clip of our music, claiming it to be their original work.

In this video, you can see one of our community uncles singing in Portuguese. This is called Vatha Baila which has caught on amongst the Sinhala community too. Basically at weddings, we are allowed to talk, sing and toast the bride and groom only in Portuguese. As a measure of our fluency in the language, in vatha baila, one person will sing witty repartees at another person and that person would then have to respond – all in sing-song, in Portuguese.

Its one of the methods we use to keep our language alive in our community.”
Image Courtesy: Magin Balthazaar

– form the face book Humans of Northern Sri Lanka

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