Earl Barthelot loves a good Portuguese Burgher wedding. There is always feasting – keep an eye out for that wild pork curry – and singing and dancing. The women in their flowing, silken gowns, and the men, all trussed up in formal suits, mirror each other’s movements as they dance the Kaffringha, their quick steps matching the keening violins.

The toasts are in Portuguese creole, which blends Portuguese with Sinhala and Tamil to produce a distinctive language. It is a language in decline – fewer families speak it at home each year, and the written form is almost unknown. “Our dance and music always brings the community together,” said Barthelot, who lives in Batticaloa in Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province, where he is a founding member of the band Burgher Folks.

Barthelot is a descendant of the Portuguese who first arrived here in 1505, when one of their fleets was blown off course near the Maldives and ended up in Galle. They would stay there till they were forcibly outed by the Dutch in 1658. In the Sinhalese chronicle Rajavaliya, the newcomers were described as “exceedingly fair of skin and beautiful”, and as being in constant motion while wearing “boots and hats of iron”.

The Portuguese Burgher music captures some of this history. “Our music is about the old times,” said Barthelot. “We sing about Portuguese soldiers here, what it was like to go to war, and also to parties.” At times, it is profoundly romantic with lyrics that describe the lovers as rudderless boats, adrift on the waves, awaiting the time when they will come together. “Especially we sing about Batticaloa, how rich it is with nature and green pastures, and lagoons all over the place,” he said. “We sing about how Batticaloa people are fun loving and peaceful.”

Jeyasankar Sivagnanam/YouTube.

But these old songs such as Foya Sathi Foya Verdi or Seven Green Leaves have become increasingly dated, says Terrance Sellar, who plays the violin for Batticaloa’s other Portuguese Burgher band, the Burgher Cultural Union. Terrance Sellar feels the absence of new songs has created a void. To fill it, new generations will have to first become fluent in the language of their ancestors, he says, “otherwise when we are speaking or singing a song, the words don’t come”.

Fading traditions

Barthelot estimates that his small community consists of some 3,000 people in Batticaloa. He has no way of being certain because the national census simply counts them among them among the tiny percentage of Others, that is, people not falling into the majority groups such as Sinhalese or Sri Lankan or Indian Tamils.

Barthelot learned much of what he knows of their history from his uncle Newton Sellar. “My great grandfather and grandfather and also my uncles were musicians and singers,” said Newton Sellar. According to him, what makes Portuguese Burghers “unique is our European ancestry and the preservation of that culture in the midst of our very Sri Lankan lifestyle”. Specific customs and rituals are observed by the community at the time of birth, at weddings and at funerals, where the final prayers are said in Portuguese creole. Like his nephew, Newton Sellar sees it all at risk of disappearing in front of his eyes. “We are also on the brink of losing our language as we have been facing lots of challenges from external factors,” he said.

Orthography brochure. Photo credit: Hugo Cardoso.

Terrance Sellar points to the shrinking space for people who do not conform to the majority cultures on the island. While previous generations grew up speaking Portuguese creole at home, tensions between communities during Sri Lanka’s long civil war meant the Burghers were discouraged from speaking in a language their neighbours could not understand. Today, he says, the schools their youngsters attend are often Tamil medium, and when women go to work, their employers mandate their traditional dress must be replaced with a sari. Now, their music and dance forms seem like one of the last remaining bastions of their culture.

Hugo Cardoso, a researcher at the Faculdade de Letras da Universidade de Lisboa (Faculty of Arts and Humanities of the University of Lisbon), was introduced to Terrance Sellar and others when his work documenting Portuguese-based creole languages of India in Kerala and Diu eventually led him to Sri Lanka. Since 2017, he and his team have been working on an audio-visual digital repository of Portuguese Burgher language, music and dance.

Cardoso says their music and dance are among the most recognisable traits of Portuguese Burgher culture in Sri Lanka. “Since the inter-generational transmission of the language is declining, there is an increasing number of young Burghers who no longer speak Sri Lanka Portuguese,” said Cardoso, adding that at least when it comes to music and dance, young people are still interested in learning from their elders.

Newton Sellar (on the left). Photo credit: Earl Barthelot.

For his part, Newton Sellar feels the struggle is for respect for their distinctive identity. “Sri Lanka has a history, a history which cannot be forgotten and erased,” he said. “If we fail to preserve our culture than everything and everyone will be the same.”

Search for identity

In February, Barthelot decided to see if he could get Burgher Folks to Portugal, so that they could play in a music festival in July. They have been trying to get to the FOLK Cantanhede – Semana Internacional de Folclore for three years now, but have never been able to raise the funds. He has set up a crowdfunding page, and hopes to take a band of 20 people over. He has been to Portugal twice, and was disappointed to find that very few people had heard about the Sri Lankan community. “It is not enough for us to call ourselves Portuguese Burghers, the Portuguese also have to recognise us,” he said.

While noting that academic interest has always been there in Portugal, Cardoso confirms that the general public are largely unaware of their Sri Lankan cousins. “It is hard to predict the impact of such a visit,” he said, explaining that experience suggests that such contact could prove a double-edged sword.

Hugo Cardoso (behind the camera) during the 'Documentation of Sri Lanka Portuguese Project'. Photo credit: Mahesh Radhakrishnan.

While, on the one hand, this promotes among all those involved a sense of belonging to a global, transnational and cosmopolitan community, on the other hand, it may come with pressure to assimilate (linguistically, culturally, and otherwise) to the models of the communities which are more numerous, have more institutional support or political agency,” Cardoso said, noting that the Asian-Portuguese communities will have to walk a fine line that does not compromise their uniqueness in the process.

In recent years, Barthelot has dedicated himself to trying to protect and revive his community’s identity with a kind of dogged determination. He ensures Burgher Folks perform not just at community weddings and events, but at cultural festivals organised in other parts of the island.

Photo credit: Earl Barthelot.

During his time as the head of the Burgher Union, he travelled around the region and established 15 area councils. He is lobbying for Portuguese to be included in the syllabus at local schools. Convinced that young people are the future, he has been campaigning endlessly to draw them in and educate them about their history. “If we don’t involve youngsters we can’t preserve anything, and we will lose everything,” he said.

I ask him why this work seems to have become his life’s effort, and he pauses, finally confessing he does not have a clear answer. “My parent say I am crazy, but every day I try to do something to preserve our language and our culture,” he said. To him it feels like a profound calling, one he is compelled to take up. “Maybe, like the music, it is in my blood.”

Photo credit: Earl Barthelot.