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Jews in Sri Lanka
by Dr. Fiona Kumari Campbell

A Historical Appraisal of Jewish Presence in Sri Lanka

Dr Fiona Kumari Campbell *


(Draft : version March 2007)

… the fate and destiny of Indian Jews, their coming and going, their rise and decline, the progress and disappearance, remain indissolubility linked with the history of the Jewish diaspora in general. Walter Fischel [1]

The remarks by renowned Indo-Judaic scholar Walter Fischel provide a pertinent reminder of the complexities and interconnections that govern and restrain Diaspora research particularly in the South Asian context. Any research production will also be affected by the broader climate in which it is conducted. The island of Sri Lanka (also known as Ceylon and Taprobanê) with a mass area of 1,340 kilometers (832 miles) lies 6° 55 N′, 79° 52′ E on the far southern edge of the Indian sub-continent. Its strategic position throughout the ancient and colonial times meant that it became a convergence point for trade among kingdoms and the intermingling of various civilizations and cultures. In terms of religious proclivities hegemonic discourses present Sri Lanka as an Island populated by the four main world religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. Judaism and the Jew is absent from official discourses to the extent that it is a commonly held belief that “there have never been any Jews in Sri Lanka”. Although somewhat erroneous and imprecise, the view articulated is that unlike India, there have not been any Jewish communities in Sri Lanka. This paper challenges that view by providing a preliminary historical foray into Jewish life in Sri Lanka. First is a discussion about the methods of research and climatic difficulties. The discussion moves onto consider the relationship between Jewish pogroms in the 1500s – 1700s and the conquest of the Ceylon by the Portuguese (1505 – 1656), Dutch (1656 – 1796) and finally the British (1796 – 1948). There is a brief consideration of the Jewish presence in Sri Lanka before the Portuguese conquest, shifting to a more nuanced articulation of Jewish relations under Portuguese and Dutch occupation. The later part of the paper is concerned with identifying Jewish communal life under the British until Ceylonese independence in 1948.

Matters of Scoping

There is no shortage of literature about the processes of and reception of colonialism of the peoples of Ceylon by the Portuguese, Dutch and finally the British[2]. However the existence of Jewish communities and societal engagements in Sri Lanka has been understudied[3]. In truth, the specter of the Jewish community, is not entirely absent in the literature but scattered in the fragments of mainly inaccessible and ageing texts. In this sense this paper acts as a preliminary literature review, contained and routed through a genealogical study of Jewish life in colonial Ceylon, complete with contradictions and discontinuities. The genealogical method as understood by Foucault[4] rejects the orientation of Western historicism’s search for coherency narratives and instead directs it’s attention to ambivalences and contradictions alongside coherency narratives. Whilst official records maybe seen as more reliable than an oral tradition, these sources can at the same time be distortive given that many Jews wished wish to live more or less closeted covert “public” lives. How they lived in their homes, in the private realm is a matter of conjecture that maybe able to be captured through the transmission of oral memory, especially family stories. Another public source is the examination of Jewish Internal records such as Ketuboth (marriage contracts), Mazaboth (Tombstone inscriptions) and Zevaoth (Last Wills). Fischel when undertaking his own searches indicates that examining marriage contracts have not been that fruitful as most merchants were either lifelong bachelors or 'intermarried' with local (indigenous) women and thus erased from official records.

The sources of this paper are the official records of the colonial and imperial governments and ancient historical accounts. These sources are supplemented through the diarized accounts of traveling explorers, materials from an internet discussion page[5] and English language newspapers. As with much historical sourcing there are limitations as to what can be known about the colonial era due to the fact that the majority of records emanate from the colonial and Christian viewpoint. In is difficult to locate the missing masses, especially outside of the city of Colombo whose languages of Sinhala and Tamil are sidelined in the colonial archives. Whilst the Dutch administration kept solid records which were preserved by the British, the Portuguese records remain sparse because many of the documents of governance were destroyed before the surrender to the Dutch. Because of the limitations of official sources the paper has also drawn upon, albeit selectively, on family narratives or folklaw. Of course there are problems with this kind of sourcing, namely confused details, patchy information, generalized claims which are speculative in nature. However the subaltern memory can also be a strength – because despite some superficial errors, at the core, is a memory of presence that has survived during the course of time despite prescriptions against Jews through the generations.

Jewish Exile and Diaspora

During the inquisition in Portugal and Spain around 1500, many Jews fled to Holland and the Dutch colonies to escape torture and condemnation to the stake. Those who were converted to Catholicism were called “Marranos”. One of the consequences of these disturbances was the massive conversion of Jews. From the 15th century, a new social group appeared: converses (New Christians), who were distrusted by Jews and Christians alike for their religious beliefs. By converting, Jews could not only escape eventual persecution, but also obtain entry into many offices and posts that were being prohibited to Jews through new, more severe regulations but converting was a hard long process involving many crucial steps and could not be done just overnight. The stadtholder of the King of Portugal gave those who wanted to depart some time to settle their business and supplied them with sixteen ships and safe-conduct to leave for Holland. The most prominent amongst them were Rabbi Izak Aboab and members of the Nassi, the Meza and the Pereira families. Once in the Dutch Republic, however, they resumed their Jewish customs. Estimated at 350 in 1610, Amsterdam’s Jewish population there had increased to 6,200 by 1700 and exceeded 20,000 in 1795. Fleeing the persecution in their homeland, they came to the Dutch Republic because of the affluence and relative tolerance here during the seventeenth century. Many of the Jews who went to Holland departed later for the Dutch colonies under the control of the VOC because of the climate and problems with their co-religionists in Amsterdam.

Muller traces the lineage of several Sri Lankan Burgher families to Sephardic or Iberian (specifically Portuguese) Jews. According to this perspective the Portuguese Jews, referred to as crypto – Jews only changed their external identity: “The immense majority of them rejected assimilation and desired to survive given the circumstances, as Jews in Christian garb”[6]. Therein lies the scholastic problem if whether the study of Jews in Sri Lanka is really a study of Jewish Christian converts who are subsumed into the masses of Portuguese and Dutch burgher cultures in colonial Ceylon? No doubt some Jewish scholars would suggest that the study is halakhically compromised in the sense that the only “legal” Jew (Mihu Yehudi, “?מיהו יהודי”, “Who is a Jew?”) according to Jewish law (Halakhah) is one who is the child of a Jewish mother, e.g. “matrilineal descent”. This tradition is derived from Deuteronomy 7:4[7]. This is an enduring problem for many “lost communities” in gathering their credentials to demonstrate their Jewish status to Jewish religious authorities. These communities often do not meet halakhic standards and therefore are required to undergo a process of conversion. Added to this problem, is the ongoing ideological struggle of the Dutch burgher community to demonstrate its connections to a pure, unbroken European heritage rather than accept their existence as hybridity of cultural intermingling[8]. Muller’s comments give a glimpse of the mood: “Some Sri Lankans in general and Burghers in particular might be astonished, fascinated (or even outraged) by the fact that some of their ancestors may or might have been Sephardic Jews or Iberian Moriscos”[9]. The medium used by Muller for building an associative link and argument between Portuguese and Dutch Jews and Sri Lankan burghers is through the use of Iberian and later Ashkenazi surnames. However there can be problems with an over reliance on surnames to delineate religious origin and this factor will be discussed later on in the paper.

Figure 1 is an attempt to map out the origins and gateways of Jewish migration to Sri Lanka. 

Route 1 (Pre- Portuguese Occupation):

                             Traveled to India

Sephardic Jews from Africa, Palestine, Afghanistan  Ø Trading Boats  È       ô

                                                        Ê Traveled to Ceylon


Route 2 (Portuguese Occupation):


       Traveled to IndiaØ to Ceylon  

Portuguese Sephardic Jews  Ø Portuguese Company  È       ô

Ê                                                                                                                 Ê Traveled to Ceylon

Flee to Holland




Route 3 (Dutch Occupation):

                 Traveled to Ceylon

Dutch Ashkenazi Jews  Ø Dutch East India Company (VOC) È                                           


                   Traveled to Batavia (Indonesia) Ø to VOC Ceylon 


Figure 1: Origins and gateways of Jewish migration to Sri Lanka



Early Jewish Encounters

The city of Galle, in the Southern Province is more commonly known as an important historical site (having UNESCO World Heritage listing) of Dutch occupation of the Island in the 1700’s. In terms of folk law, Galle is also the place identified as the Tarshish in the Torah. The period was 1,000BCE and the ships of Hiram and King Solomon were rumored to have visited the shores to trade[10]. Solomon’s ship was built at Ezion-Geber[11], near the Red Sea and took three years to make the round trip[12]. Vamadevan argues based on early manuscripts that Solomon’s ships sailed to the land of Ophir, the land of the Nagas, early descendants of the Island of Sri Lanka[13]. In support of this claim Tennant provides an extensive review of Hebrew and Persian literature[14]. Recent research by Tampoe (1995), whilst not addressing the issue of Jewish travel and trade speculates that the Indian Ocean was divided by the great civilizations into three distinct trading zones with points of intersection and exchange[15]. Although Boperachchi[16] disputes the claim that Red Sea traders came to Ceylon (known as Taprobanê) as well as India, on the basis that the long sea voyage restricted return travel to the monsoon winds, eminent classical studies scholar D.P.M. Weerakkody begs to differ. In his study of 6 century Greek writer

Cosmas Indicopleustes, known as the “Indian Navigator”, points to the existence of Sri Lanka being an important site of international commerce in the eastern trade route[17]. From other manuscripts we can discern a somewhat later, but still ancient presence of Jews and their participation, if not integration into civic life. Islamic geographic Abdullah el Idris (1099 – 1166) (sometimes known as Edrisi) in Scriptorum Arabum de Rebus Indicis Loci [18] notes that in the ninth century, the Sinhala King [likely to be Kasyapa IV ruled 858 - 891] who advocated an integrated society built around religious tolerance established a council of sixteen officials to advise him: “… four were Buddhists, four Mussulums [sic], four Christians and four Jews”[19].

According to Gilbert (1990) in the year 1170C.E. there were 3,000 Jews living in the Island today know as Sri Lanka[20]. This assertion is based on the writings of Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela, Spain, whose manuscript Sefer Hamasot (Book of Travel) documents his travels to Jewish communities during the period 1154 – 1174 and records the size and economic conditions of the communities, including a community in Ceylon. This period in Sri Lanka predates the Portuguese occupation although it was a time of when the Moors of the Islamic tradition settled and traded in the Island.[21] In a piece on trade, using materials found in a geniza[22] in Old Cairo, Goiten[23] refers to a number of Indo[24]- Hebraic trade letters and notes that during the eleventh/twelfth centuries the ‘Indian’ merchants who originated from North Africa and Spain were expected to “…read Hebrew as well as Arabic but not everybody was fluent in writing”.

Ceylon is explicitly mentioned as part of a hub of Jewish activities and settlement from 16th century onwards. This is significant as usually India stands in for all South Asian countries and the settlement of Indian Jewish communities and their engagement with others nations is quite different from the Sri Lankan experience. Fischel (1956) reiterates that the study of Jews in South Asia needs to be correlated with world Jewish history. Despite the fact that the Portuguese used Goa (India) as the base for the launching of the Jesuit missionary activity and the Inquisition - that Jews nonetheless were valued for their intercultural and linguistics skills, especially in negotiating conflicts between Muslims and the Portuguese over trade and as a consequence gained prominence in public life[25]. Fischel in another work[26] mentions that the Jewish communities of Cochin, Bombay etc are actually the remnants of survivors of a once much wider extent of the Jewish Diaspora. During the Portuguese era traders from the Red Sea region frequently visited the ports of Colombo and Galle to ply their trade[27]. Fischel also notes that in the 16th century Jews were employed by the Portuguese as letter carriers, translators, agents. More than likely these people traveled to Ceylon or indeed were employed by the Portuguese in Ceylon in a similar capacity. The Portuguese experience in Sri Lanka can be characterized as a series of garrison towns. Aside from the contact with of Jesuit missionaries, trade did not result in significant contact with the local population[28]. As a nineteen year old, Joao Riberiro[29] came to Ceylon after joining the Portuguese Company and was promoted to the rank of Captain. In his travel writings he describes a trade and food fair where Jews participated that ran for fifty days, which I have extracted in full to impart a sense of the market activity:
Half a league to windward on the same shore all the businessmen who come there assemble and a free Fair is held, laid out like some gallant city with streets and rows of shops; where they collect every kind of merchandise which our discoveries trade in with the nations of Europe and the whole of Asia. Foe this purpose they bring their gold, silver in bars and wrought, all kinds of precious stones, amber, perfumes, carpets, meleques, money with the rarities of all provinces of the world, in such a fashion that if there is anything anywhere of which one can spend time and money seeing it, it is this great Fair. From the surroundings is brought every variety of food, and though the people are numerous and of various races and religions – Christians, Jews, Moors and gentiles – they can all obtain the food to which they are accustomed.
Furthermore, the Portuguese unlike the Dutch did not discourage intermarriage between themselves and the local population (usually women). There is an interesting and humorous story recorded in the early days of the Dutch occupation by Christopher Schweitzer, a German mercenary with the VOC who was the Paymaster and Master of Stores at Sitawaka. He recounts the story of a Jewish man who in a state of serious illness promises marriage to the Sinhalese daughter of a noble headman. When he returned to health, this woman made sure he kept his promise and he married her in Colombo on a Sunday. Schweitzer says “A little while after he fell lame, both in his hands and his feet, and nothing but misfortune befell him. The cause of this he imputed wholly to being turnd [sic] a Christian. Another Jew, a convert likewise, marry’d at the same time a black young gentlewoman of the Malabar, very rich; but this marriage proved more happy than the other”[30].

In contrast to Portuguese zealotry, the Dutch, in the form of the Dutch East India Company (hereafter referred to as “VOC”) Charter, did not make provision for the promotion and maintenance of religious bodies. As Paranavitana states “The Company Directors were not obliged to spread the Light of the “True Christian Reformed Religion” at the cost of the companies profits. For the Dutch East India Company the State was more important than religion”[31]. Merchants working under the various companies, the VOC and the East India Company “EIC” required registration of religious background, ethnic and national affiliation. Common names to look for were “joodsche coopman”, “judeo”, “a jew”, “a Hebrew”, “de raca judaica” etc. A number of Jews can be identified as servants of the VOC in 1796: Jan David Goldstein of Galle, Justines C. Goldstein of Colombo, Lodewyk Singer of Colombo, Frans Phillip Fretz[32] from Kirckheim, arrived in 1787 on the De Leviathan; (1785 – 1821) was the sitting magistrate at Calpentyn, died at Colombo and G’orge Samuel Hesler of Jaffna. The Dutch Burgher Union also records the settlement of Daniel Goldstein[33] of Trepto (1743 – 1754), Joseph Abraham[34] born Lichding (Lotringen) (1790 – 1817) and Johannes Casparus Oppenheimer[35] of Groswinterheim (1771 – 1784) during the Dutch occupation. Of course there are many burgher settler surnames that have a “Jewish ring” to them, but the veracity of their Jewish status requires more work and until there are developed and authenticated genealogies, the extent of Jewish origins among Burghers is a matter of conjecture.

One famous Jew lost in the pages of history was Leopold Immanuel Jacob van Dort. Van Dort was born in Doordregt, in the province of Gulich (Julkiers), Holland[36]. Van Dort studied at the University of Leipzig in 1744 majoring in Hebrew and oriental languages. Described as a converted Jew (he converted to Christianity) he was still interested in his Jewish background. In 1758 van Dort was appointed professor of Hebrew at the Christian Theological Seminary at Colombo and remained in that capacity until 1760 when the Dutch Governor removed Hebrew from the curriculum. He had a relationship with the Jewish community of Cochin in India and copied some scrolls from the patriarch there, unknown to European Jews.

Van Dort was specifically visiting Cochin to undertake research on ancient manuscripts of the Cochin Jews. One work he is known for is “Cochin 1757”, a document of extracts from an ancient Hebrew Chronicle containing stories and facts about the Malabar Jews[37]. He translated them and gave them in 1757 to Marcellus Bless who worked as a clerk for the VOC in Malabar and Bless brought these documents to the attention of Dutch scholars. Van Dort also translated one of three existing Hebrew language editions of the Islamic Qur′an. According to Myron M. Weinstein, in "A Hebrew Qur'an Manuscript"[38] this Hebrew version is a translation from a Dutch copy which is itself a translation from the French translation of the original Arabic. Weinstein also argues that the translator is Leopold Immanuel Jacob van Dort, and that the scribe was David Cohen, a native of Berlin then residing in Cochin, a city on the southwest coast of India. Weinstein postures that the manuscript was written in Cochin in the 1750s or 1760s, probably in 1757, when van Dort was visiting that city. Certainly the tale in the volume of the missionary Joseph Wolff when visiting Meshed, Persia, on 5 December 1831, when he encountered a group of Jewish Sufis supports Van Dort’s (or the misspelt Medart’s) involvement. In Researches and Missionary Labours Jews, Mohammedans and Other Sects (1837), Joseph Wolff writes:
I met here in the house of Mullah Meshiakh with an Hebrew translation of the Koran, with the following title: "The Law of the Ishmaelites, called Koran, translated from the Arabic into French by Durier, and from the French into Dutch by Glosenmachor, and I, Immanuel Jacob Medart, [sic] have now translated it into the holy language, written here at Kogen, by David, the son of Isaac Cohen of Berlin[39].
Aside from a small reference to van Dort’s attendance at the funeral of Robertus Cramer, a senior official at of the Dutch administration in October 1760[40], Leopold van Dort has literally disappeared from historical records. It is unclear whether he returned to Amsterdam, or met up other Jewish conversio’s in Livorno[41], Italy or if he just quietly slipped back into the community of Cochin to be among his beloved friends.

What’s in a name?
Every human being has a name … and behind each name exists a whole world .. Ada Holtzman[42]
As mentioned earlier in this paper, Muller has relied significantly on the identification of Jewish surnames to assert a mapping of Jewish ancestry. There is a need to guard against assuming that persons bearing certain names of Jewish resemblance as actually Jewish. This is a complex area which needs to be negotiated before this approach is easily dismissed. Naming in the Western tradition is patrilineal, that is any offspring are named after the father, whilst in the Jewish naming is still patrilineal but one’s Jewish status halakhically, is determined through the female line. There are potentially two classes of people with Jewish sounding names located in the Portuguese and Dutch occupations. The first group is those of clear Portuguese or Dutch descent whose family lineages can be traced back to Europe. It is from this group that we maybe able to identify possible Jewish individuals and families where there has been a conversion to Christianity carried through the generations. The following email correspondence is an example of this first group:
… [I] do have one Jewish surname that I happen to know of and may help you add to your rich research - and that is the name HARMON or perhaps later changed to HERMON. I used to know a lady by the name of [first name removed for confidentiality reasons]….. (Nee Harmon) … (later married {……}) and they went as Dutch Burghers, who told me that they were from a Jewish family and went on to explain briefly about the Harmon name being changed to Hermon[43].
The second group has a different history. This group is made up of native Tamil or Sinhalese whose family naming reveals that one of their ancestors was “given” a Portuguese (an unknowingly Jewish originated) name as part of the conversion process. This group has no claims to actual European ancestry. The extract below is from the De Fonseka family web site:
The ‘de Fonseka’ surname (spelled da Fonseca in Portuguese) is a Jewish (Sephardic) name. The name is listed in a well researched website as a Sephardic name and was confirmed by the creator/researcher of the site Harry Stein as such… [The piece then explains the name in the Sri Lankan context]: The arrival of the Portuguese in the island and the subsequent events led to the spread of Christianity in the island. Members of the clan (now known as the Varnakula Additiya Arasanilayitta) embraced the religion and took on different names of Portuguese origins. The name most probably would have been the name of the 'sponsor' who took part in the baptism ceremony, or would have been a name assigned by the Portuguese Authorities…..Who lent the name ‘de Fonseka’. Was he a military officer, a Priest or some other. It remains a mystery to date. The genealogical history we have traced so far has brought us much closer to the Progenitor, but the question remains unanswered. How and why the name ‘de Fonseka’ was chosen, is lost in history, but it can be said with certainty that the name was adopted on conversion to Christianity.[44]
Another consideration relates to the question of family memory and lack of family memory of Jewish ancestry although this also has pitfalls. Some family traditions can clearly articulate Jewish ancestry even though the family has adopted another religion such as Christianity or Buddhism. On the other hand a family may have not knowledge of Jewish bloodlines and could still be feasibly regarded halakhically as Jewish. There are no quick fixes to this conundrum. Sometimes additional supporting information from another source can assist in the archeological search. The work of Dr. John de Bye[45] on the history of Jews in Suriname, South America contains a verified list of Jewish family names between 1666 and 1997 that correspond with many of the surnames of those of the burgher community of Ceylon, one of which is Van Dort.

In the next section of the paper, I move forward in time to the Jewish presence in Sri Lanka under British rule. Again much of the material is provisional as it is difficult to access material on the “ordinary” Jew who has settled in the Island. What the scholar is left with are the narratives of “successful” Jewish expatriates from Europe who stayed and contributed to Sri Lankan life, but ultimately left to return to their homelands.

Jewish Personalities and Jewish Life under the British?

According to Walter Fischel, Jews whose civic life made it into the public records of the East India Company did so by virtue of their contribution to the company at an economic and public level when undertaking their tasks as merchants, agents, negotiators and diplomats[46]. What is not clear is to what extent was it possible under the British administration for Jews to be public about their Judaism and establish a sense of community. Muller asserts that after 1803 when the British administrators relaxed religious prohibitions that Iberians Jews in Ceylon reverted to their original faith[47]. This statement without looking at the broader context of religious policy during that period can give a false impression. Whilst the British may have appeared benign to proselytization allowing a degree of religious freedom, they also actively supported the campaigns of American evangelical missionaries from 1812 onwards[48]. Wickremaratne argues that although the British were not as fervent as the Portuguese and Dutch in the arena of conversion to Christianity, they nevertheless did not remove the structures of law put in place by the Dutch to promote conversion. Dutch law insisted that headman should be Christian was retained and Christian clergy were salaried officers of the British administration[49]. To be appointed to all judicial and administrative posts Christian baptism was required. The limits of tolerance can also be seen the confiscation of Buddhist lands and neglect of Buddhist institutions during 1813 – 1853[50]. It was only possible in the late 1800’s to have a marriage outside the Christian tradition registered and therefore legal recognized.

Tensions between the majority Buddhist population over the privileging of Christianity by the administration and the activities of missionaries escalated to the extent that in August 1873 there was the now famous Pānadurā Vādaya debates which debated the merits of each religion’s truths over three days. As to the Muslim minority pollution,, evidence suggests that for various reasons they were not subjected to conversion, on the contrary Governor North was interested in the application of Muslim law in the Colonies. The status of Jews is unclear, however it is possible to conclude that caution was necessary and a degree of tolerance existed as long as individual’s did not draw attention to their ‘jewishness” and communally organize. In other words, public engagement meant that one adopt a stance of “don’t ask, don’t tell”.

One family that contributed to colonial life during the early days of British rule, which has faded from public memory, was the de Worms brothers, cousins of the famous Rothschild family. Baron Solomon Benedict De Worms, an English Financier (1801 - 1882) and his brothers Maurice and Gabriel purchased a large estate at Pussellawa used for the plantation of coffee (and later tea) known as the Rothschild Estate in 1841. The brothers established two companies, the Eastern Produce and Estates Co Ltd[51] and another by the name of G. and M.B. Worms which had an office at 19 Baille Street (now Mudalige Mawatha) in the Fort[52]. At the Condegalla Estate, near Ramboda Pass they planted the first tea trees with seed derived from China. When they sold their estate in 1865 they had no less than 7,000 acres, spread over twelve properties under cultivation. Both brothers are recognized as major contributors to the Ceylonese economy at the time and as generous benefactors to Jewish Charities. Sir Emerson Tennant, Colonial Secretary 1845 – 1850 records regular visits to their estate at Pussellawa. His comments made in 1841 provide and insight into the de Worm brother’s contribution:
…Their practical knowledge of planting was therefore acquired during its experimental stages; and no capitalists in the colony have contributed more to its advancement by judgment, and firmness and perseverance in period of difficulty. Hereafter, when the great project to which they have devoted their lives, shall have attained its full development, Ceylon, in the plentitude of commercial success, will remember with gratitude the names of men like these, who were the earliest pioneers of its prosperity[53].
Whilst it would be easy to view this story as another tale of a colonialist wanting to extort as much out of the Island’s resources and then leave, the records indicate that the de Worms, in particular Gabriel, wished to play a greater role in civic and political life. Despite being successful at campaigning in 1847 to be a member of the Legislative Council and being elected to that office, this opportunity to serve the colony was denied to him because he refused, as a Jew, to take an Oath on a Christian bible. Gray and Raheem point out the bitter irony of discrimination experienced by the brothers who sought refuge from the anti-semitism of Europe:
…The brothers … found themselves in a curious parallel with their Rothschild cousins at home in England, faced with barriers against their Jewish background … While Lionel [Rothschild] was able, with the help of his friends and connections, to join battle successfully over the issue, Gabriel seems to have quietly accepted the rebuttal and retired from the fray. Lionel and his political friends eventually (after eleven years) won the battle; Gabriel, now in his 57th year, chose not to stand again[54].
Gray and Raheem’s comments not withstanding, the matter of oath taking needs to be appreciated within a broader context of ongoing resistance by Dutch administrators who stayed on after the British capitulation in 1776 to swear an Oath of Loyalty to the British Crown[55]. Leonard Woolfe, husband of writer Virginia Woolfe became a cadet with the Ceylon Civil Service in 1904 and was appointed government agent at Hambantota and returned to England in 1912. The Kanatte general cemetery (Colombo) has a small number of Hebrew and Yiddish inscribed tombstones: seven year old Lizzy Feinstein, who died in July 1848, twenty two year old Bernard Levin, who died in August 1866 and Joseph bin Boim who died 30th April 1899 provide a touchstone into Jewish lives in the Island. In this cemetery there is also the grave on Helene Susanne Fischer of Hamburg wife of Gustav Fischer of the small Jewish community of Tianjin in China, who died at sea in 1885. During the time of the Boer War (1899 – 1902), fourteen (14) Jews were held as prisoners of war in Sri Lanka. Three Jews, Simon Gettleson, ‘Sunday’ (possible ‘Sender’ or ‘Zundel’) Davidson and E Cohen, died in captivity. Gettleson left a number of painted seashells, made during his last days on Ceylon, and these are now housed, in the Museum of the Boer Republics in Bloemfontein.[56] A number of Jews came to Sri Lanka to escape the ravages of Nazism. Sigmund Feniger[57], (Ven.Nyanaponika Maha Thera) born in Hanau Germany in 1901, converted to Buddhism before leaving Germany left for Sri Lanka in 1936 to join a monastery and later in 1939 brought his mother and other relatives to Sri Lanka to escape the Nazi concentration camps. 1936 also was the year that Sidney Solomon Abrahams (1885 – 1957) was sworn in as Ceylon’s Chief Justice and was jovially referred to by other justices of the court as the “wandering Jew”, in contrast to the “flying Dutchmen” of burgher descent! According to Cecil V. Wikramanayake[58] the Jews had a thriving community in Sri Lanka till the beginning of World War II. Reflecting upon his childhood, Wikramanayake remarks:
I remember, as a child, seeing many Jews in this country, always dressed in the customary long white robe, head covered and kept in place with a phylactery tied round the head. Also, till recent times, there was a Jewish Synagogue at Steuart Place, Kollupitiya (as that part of the Galle Road was called). The low parapet wall of the synagogue, almost opposite where the Hotel Oberoi [now called The Cinnamon Grand] now stands, had a stone built into the wall with the words “THE SYNAGOGUE” carved on it. … Then came World War II and I lost sight and trace of the Jews. Perhaps they returned to Israel with the formation of that country in 1948.
The “house” known as “The Synagogue” was occupied for many years by Peter de Saram, a Retired Korale Mudaliyar[59]. This building is also referenced in a 2004 publication, Colonial Kollupitiya and Its Environs.[60] The stone inscription according to Gunaratne[61] vanished in the 1960’s either due to the widening of Galle Road or the renovation of the brick wall. Was the building named The Synagogue because its style was believed to resemble such a building? Was it previously used for religious purposes? Walter Fischel again suggests in the Indian situation only very large Jewish communities had synagogues – most did not. It follows then that the non-existence of a religious building does not mean that there was not an observant community in Sri Lanka. Anne Ranasinghe also mentions that there was a building known as synagogue house used by Jewish members of the armed forces as a prayer house, but by 1952 “… there was nothing to indicate that the building had ever been a Synagogue, and soon after it was demolished”[62].

Muller[63] recently described the existence of another site of Jewish presence in Kollupitiya (Colpetty, Col 3). He says that Jews established a synagogue known as the Rotunda, located off Galle Rd, on the shores of the Indian Ocean at No 4, 22nd Lane, the site of where the Sassakawa Hall (Japanese cultural Centre) stands. In addition an adjacent street (next to Temple Trees), Rotunda Gardens commemorates the shul. The veracity of claims to the sighting of a shul is still the subject of ongoing research. The specter of Nazism in Europe, though miles away was always close at hand, in India for instance, anti-colonial agitated in some quarters was linked to Nazi propaganda which allied itself with Muslim struggles and was expressed in the form of anti-Jewish speeches[64].On the cusp of Ceylon’s independence in 1948, Jews especially those in the judiciary and British administration, like Alan Rose, Legal Secretary to the Donoughmore Commission played a role in the transfer of power the indigenous peoples of Ceylon as an independent sovereign nation. After the war and independence it seems that many Jews migrated either to Israel or as rumor has it, to Singapore, but that is a story for another chapter.

* Socio-Legal Research Centre, Griffith Law & the School of Human Services, Griffith University, Australia
[1] Fischel, Walter. (1956). Leading Jews in the Service of Portuguese India, The Jewish Quarterly Review, 47(1), pp197 -198.
[2] Nihal Perera Society and Space: Colonialism, Nationalism and Postcolonial Identity in Sri Lanka Boulder: Westview Press 1998 at 186; Roberts Michael Ismeth Raheem & Percy Colin-Thome People in Between: The Burghers and the Middle Class in the transformations within Sri Lanka 1790s - 1980s Volume 1 Ratmalana Sarvodaya Book Publishing Services Sri Lanka 1989; Silva Neluka (ed) The Hybrid Island: Culture crossings and the Invention of Identity in Sri Lanka Zed Books London 2002.
[3] This paper builds upon, but was undertaken independently of, the work of Anne Ranasinghe. (2002). “Our beginnings never know our ends”, in Robuchon , Gérard (ed). Honouring Martin Quéré, Viator Publications, Negombo, pp 171 – 180.
[4] Foucault, M. 1984. 'The Order of Discourse' in Shapiro, M. (ed.) Language & Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp.108-115; Foucault, M. 1984. 'Nietzsche, Genealogy, History' in Rabinow, P. (ed.) The Foucault Reader. London: Penguin. pp.76-100; Foucault, M. 1994 orig. 1970. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage.
[5] Blog site: Jews in Sri Lanka ( ) and email correspondence to the author.
[6] Muller, John. B. (2006). The Burghers, Wimal Enterprises, Colombo, p. 73 – 74.
[7] Question 10.11: What is the origin of Matrilineal Descent?", Shamash,, accessed March 06, 2007.
[8] Campbell, Fiona Kumari. (2005). Long Reigneth the Otterly Test: Genealogy and Sri Lankan Burghers in a 'postcolonial' world. The Australian Feminist Law Journal, 22: 89 – 105.
[9] Muller, The Burghers p. 71
[10] According to Tennant the Hebrew terms for Ivory, Apes, and Peacocks, c.f. 1 King, 10:22, is identical with the Tamil names for these objects. The errors in the work of Tennant have been corrected to the extent to which they have been identified. Tennent, James Emerson. 1859. Ceylon: An Account of the Island Physical, Historical and Topographical with Notices of its Natural History, Antiquities and Productions, Vol II, London: Longman, Green & Roberts (Reprinted 1999, Asian Educational Services, New Delhi).
[11] Ezion-Geber or Asiongaber (Hebrew: עֶצְיֹן גָּבֶר,) was a city of Idumea, a biblical seaport on the northern extremity of the Gulf of Aqaba, in the area of modern Aqaba and Eilat.
[12] 1 Kings 9: 26 ; 10 : 22.
[13] Vama Vamadevan. (2000). Were There Jews in Medieval Ceylon?” The Ceylankan, Vol 11, I, No. 2, May, pp 19 -20.
[14] Tennant, Ceylon: An Account of the Island vol II, Chap I. p.100 – 103.
[15] Tampoe, Moira. (1995). The Spice Island Route: Sri Lanka’s Participation in Maritime Trade and the Archaeological Evidences from Mantai and Galle Harbour, in G.P.S.H. De Silve & C. G. Uragoda (eds). Sesquicentennial Commemorative Volume of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka 1845 – 1995, Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, Colombo, pp.159 – 210.
[16] Bopearachchi, Osmund. (1996).Codrington’s Studies on Sri Lankan Numismatics: Past and Present, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, Sesquicentennial Memorial Lectures, New series, Vol XLI, Special Number, , pp 39 - 64, esp. p 49 disputing Roman trade to Sri Lanka.
[17] Weerakkody, DPM, 1981, Ancient Sri Lanka as Described by Cosmas, in Sri Lankan Journal of Humanities, Vol VII, No. 1 & 2, pp, 107 – 127, 112; Weerakkody, DPM. 1997. Indicopleustoi Archaelogies of the Indian Ocean, Taprobanê: Ancient Sri Lanka as known to Greeks and Romans, Brespols, Turnhourt. Bopearachchi, Codrington’s Studies, does acknowledge that in the fifth century Sri Lanka became a main centre of trade (p.53), which incorporates the period of the late Roman empire.
[18] Scriptorum Arabum de Rebus Indicis Loci, 1838. (Translated by Johannes Gildemesister), p. 53, I Climate, section 6, quoted Tennant, Ceylon: An Account of the Island, Vol 1 , pp561 – 562, footnote 2..
[19] This observation is also repeated in the work of ninth century scholars See also accounts by Abou-Zeyd-Hassan (d.976) in The Two Mahometans, Part II (written around 911) draws on the accounts of Ibn Wahab mentions “Jews and Manicheans in the service of the king who was tolerant to all religions”, (Weerakkody, DPM, 1981, Ancient Sri Lanka as Described by Cosmas, in Sri Lankan Journal of Humanities, Vol VII, No. 1 & 2, pp, 107 – 127, 112.)
[20] Gilbert, Martin (1990). The Illustrated Atlas of Jewish Civilization: 4,000 Years of Jewish History. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. pg. 73.
[21] Internet source:; also
[22] A sealed storage unit attached to a synagogue to store “sacred” papers.
[23] Goitein, S. D. (1954). From the Mediterranean to India: Documents on the Trade to India, South Arabia, and East Africa from the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries, Speculum, Vol. 29, No. 2, Part 1: 181-197.
[24] In this sense India is not confined to the nation state of today, but extends to include the Island of Sri Lanka and beyond.
[25] Fischel, Walter. (1956). Leading Jews in the Service of Portuguese India, The Jewish Quarterly Review, 47(1), 37 – 57. See also Lorna Dewaraja, on these trade tensions: The Indigenization of the Muslims of Sri Lanka, in G.P.S.H. De Silva & C. G. Uragoda (eds). Sesquicentennial Commemorative Volume of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka 1845 – 1995, Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, Colombo, (pp.427 – 440.
[26] Fischel, Walter. (1967).The Indian Archives: at p. 195.
[27] Tennant, Ceylon: An Account of the Island, Vol II, Chap. 1, p.27.
[28] Uragoda, C. G. (1987). A History of Medicine – from the Earliest Times to 1948, Sri Lanka Medical Association, Colombo, p. 50
[29] Quoted in H.A.J. Hulugalle. (2000). Ceylon of the early Traveller, 5th edition, Arjuna Hulugalle Dictionaries, Colombo, p. 110 – 111. Original source: Ribeirom J. (1909). Ceilao, trans Paul. E. Pieris, Colombo.
[30] Fryke, Christopher & Christopher Schweitzer. (1760). Voyages of the East Indies, Deafarers Library, Trans, into English, 1929, Cassell. Also cited in Hulugalle, Ceylon of the early Traveller, p. 143 – 144.
[31] Paranavitana, K. D. Suppression of Buddhism and Aspects of Indigenous Culture under the Portuguese and the Dutch, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, Special Number of the Pānadurā Vādaya, Vol. XLIX, pp 1 – 14.
[32] Lewis, J. Penry. (1913). List of Inscriptions on Tombstones and Monuments in Ceylon of Historical or Local Interest, with An Obituary of Persons Uncommemorated, Colombo Government Printer, reprinted 1994, Navrang, New Delhi, p. 444. It would appear from Lewis that Fretz married a Christian and subsequent offspring were associated with the Predicament at Wolvendaal Dutch Reform Church. He also became the Agent of revenue for Chilaw and Puttlam. To hold public office Frenz would have needed to be converted. The Journal of the Dutch Burgher Union (Vol. 1, March 1908 – 1, p.40) gives different dates to be noted: arrived 1785 and lived till 1820.
[33] JDBU, Vol. I, June, 1908 -2, p 82.
[34] JDBU,Vol. I, June, 1908, p 158
[35] JDBU, Vol. I, September, 1908 - 3, p 158; Lewis, List of Inscriptions, p. 382, also notes his daughter Johanna Elizabeth undertook a Christian marriage to Johan Baptise Houlin in 1790.
[36] Genealogical information on Van Dort is sparse. This information is from Walter Fischel. The Exploration of the Jewish Antiquities of Cochin on the Malabar Coast, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 87, No. 3. (Jul. - Sep., 1967), pp. 230-248.
[37] For more this period in Cochin see J. E. Eichorn, Allegemeine Bibliothek der Biblischen Literatur, Leipzig, Vol 1, 1788, p 929 and Vol 2, 1790, II p. 569, 583.
[38] Myron M. Weinstein, in "A Hebrew Qur'an Manuscript “ , in Jews in India, edited by Thomas A. Timberg, 1986, Vikas, New Delhi.
[39] Joseph Wolffe, (1837). Researches and Missionary Labours Jews, Mohammedans and Other Sects, Orrin Rogers, Philadelphia, p. 94.
[40] Listing with the Centraal Bureau Voor Genealogie, # 119 as “Leopold Eman van Dorth, Lector”, also there is a # 147, Gerrit Elias van Dorth (of unknown relationship) transcribed at, See also Nederlandsche Mercurius, Vol X (1761), pp 208 – 212.
[41] Livorno, was the other centre aside from Amsterdam that provided a refugee for Jews and indeed encouraged conversio’s to return to Judaism. It was also a important centre of Jewish learning and printing where many different rabbis discussed and published their work. See Mattias Lehmann. (2005). A Livornese “Port Jew” and the Sephardim of the Ottoman Empire, Jewish Social Studies, 11(2): 51 – 76.
[42] Holtzman, Ada (1997). “Introduction”, Gabin List of Jewish surnames, from a Polish Bussines [sic] Directory (Warsaw – Bydgoszcz 1925), Online at, accessed 9/3/2007.
[44] SOURCE:
[45] See, Accessed 27/2/07.
[46] Fischel, 1967, p. 198.
[48] Desilva, M.U. (2004). Suppression of Buddhism and Aspects of Indigenous Culture under the British, in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, Special Number on the Pānadurā Vādaya , Vol XLIX, pp 15 – 52, p 23.
[49] Wickremeratne, U.C. 91996). The Conservative Nature of The British Rule if Sri Lanka, Navrang, New Delhi, pp. 168 – 175.
[50] Karunatilake, H.N. S. The Pānadurā Vādaya : the Local and foreign Impact, in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, Special Number on the Pānadurā Vādaya , Vol XLIX, pp. 67 – 86, p.67
[51] Viller, Thomas (Sir), (1940). Mercantile Lore, Colombo Apothecaries Press, pp 127 – 128.
[52] Today’s postage zone of Colombo 1.
[53] Tennant, 250 – 251.
[54] Gray, Victor & Ismeth Raheem. (2004). Cousins in Ceylon, pp. 54 – 55. Chapter extract from unknown book, online at, accessed 21/6/2006. Add rest of ref.
[55] See Wickremeratne, U.C. 91996). The Conservative Nature of The British Rule if Sri Lanka, Navrang, New Delhi.
[56] D.Y. Saks (2005). Jews on Commando, Southern Africa Jewish Genealogy SA-SIG,
[57] Feineger was conferred Sri Lankan citizenship in early 1951.
[58] Jews of Old Ceylon The Island by Cecil V. Wikramanayake
[59] Fazli writes
[60] M. Herath. (2004) Colonial Kollupitiya and Its Environs, Lions Club of Colombo, p 141.
[61] Email correspondence from Dr Brendon Gooneratne. [date].
[62] Ranasinghe, Honouring Martin, p. 174.
[63] Muller, John. B. (2006). The Burghers, Wimal Enterprises, Colombo, p.85.
[64] See Eugene J. D’Souza. (2000). Nazi Propaganda in India, Social Scientist, 28(5-6), May – June pp. 77 – 90.


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