150th Birth Anniversary
Remembering Richard Gerald Anthonisz — a pioneer and visionary

by Deloraine Brohier

One hundred and fifty years ago, on the 22nd October 1852, Richard Gerald Anthonisz was born in the town of Galle. The family to which he belonged had first settled in Jaffna in the 17th century and moved to Galle twelve years before the British occupation began.

Richard Gerald Anthonisz had his early education in the English Galle Central School, from where, by winning the Queen’s Scholarship, he passed into the Colombo Academy. His career was varied though upward and successful. First in the field of Law as a Proctor of the District Court, he moved into Education, to be an Assistant Master in both Richmond College and in the Colombo Academy - later as Head Master of his old school in Galle, as a Registrar of Lands, then Police Magistrate and with yet another change, he became Assistant Registrar General, Colombo.

All these years, from his boyhood, the Dutch language and the culture left by the Dutch in Ceylon were the chief interests of Anthonisz’ leisure hours. To some of his elders and peers, these interests were regarded as profitless and visionary.

Then came, unexpectedly, an opportunity which justified his devotion to the studies in Dutch he had pursued from his early years. This became the turning point in the career of Richard Gerald Anthonisz.

Certain lands in the Matara District were claimed on the basis of an old Dutch Grant, the original of which the claimant challenged the Government to produce. The task of searching for this document was allotted to Mr Anthonisz. Thousands of documents had to be gone through, lying unsorted and unfiled and the search turned out to be long and laborious. Bringing this situation to the notice of the authorities, the Government created the post of "Examiner of Dutch Records" and appointed R.G. Anthonisz in this capacity, in July 1899. His meticulous examination of several documents made the historical and official value of the Records clearer. So in January 1902, Mr Anthonisz was appointed to a permanent Post as "Archivist and Librarian", which position he held till his retirement in June 1921.

The value of R.G. Anthonisz’ work should not be measured by its volume alone and it is not enough to say that he was Examiner of Records, an Archivist or Librarian. When Mr Anthonisz undertook his task, it was not a well equipped department that he moved into, with well defined duties and a trained staff to assist and support him. R.G. Anthonisz had to create and build a department.

In fact, the British authorities at this time seemed quite indifferent to the thousands of documents their predecessors, the Dutch Company had left behind. The records were really of inestimable value but were found carelessly and indiscriminately heaped on shelves, loosely tied together in bundles. These had to be sorted out, torn and damaged papers pieced together, and systematic lists made. The old Dutch documents and papers were not always easy to read in the closely hand-written Dutch of the 17th century and Mr Anthonisz had no previous training as an Archivist. He worked at his task alone and it can be said he trained himself.

As the years went by - Richard Gerald Anthonisz gained accolades for his diligence and perseverance. The public profited by his research and official recognition for his services came in his appointment as a Justice of the Peace and in the Award of the Companionship of the Imperial Service Order. In Holland as well, his scholarship came to be known and R.G. Anthonisz was admitted as a Member of the Society of Dutch Literature of Leyden.

Today the Department of Archives lends a great and valuable service to the Government and public alike. It is therefore important that we of this present generation do not forget or do ignore the pioneering work of this man - the first Government Archivist in Sri Lanka - who shaped and developed an institution that is so important to the country.

As in his official capacity and through his official duties, Richard Gerald Anthonisz should also not be forgotten for creating another institution - the Dutch Burgher Union.

Records inform us that as early as 1899 Mr Anthonisz rounded up a group of young Burghers to guide them in the study of the Dutch language and to teach them Dutch history. This led to the formation of the "Hollandsche Geselschap" the Holland Fellowship Society which emphasized communication with Holland and a history of the Dutch in Ceylon. As the activities of this Fellowship grew and lengthened towards the end of 1907, there came about the visit to the Island of a Dutchman by the name of Wagenvoort. His visit spurred Anthonisz to give thought to a wider basis of membership. The Dutch Burgher Union of Ceylon was the outcome.

The Union, which it can be said was founded by R.G. Anthonisz is a social and cultural organization for the minority community of which its Founder was historically, no less personally proud to belong to. In moving around the country from one town to another, from one duty to another, a persistent and compelling idea in his mind was the community.

Because of the unflagging persistence, the determination and courage of Richard Gerald Anthonisz a preliminary meeting was organized on 12 November, 1907 in the Lindsay School Hall to consider setting up a Dutch Burgher Union. A small committee was appointed to draw up Rules, which were duly adopted. An inaugural General Meeting of members of the Community, was held in the Pettah Public Library on the 18th January 1908 and the draft Constitution was adopted.

Modest and conscientious as he was, Richard Gerald Anthonisz took on the duties of Honorary Secretary of the Dutch Burgher Union, leaving to other leading Burgher men of his generation, the honour of serving as early Presidents. Eventually, in recognition of his services, in 1916, he was enthusiastically elected President, a position which he enjoyed till his death on the 3rd January 1930.

In later years, 1942, when Mr H Kenneth de Kretser was President of the DBU, it was decided that the birth Anniversary of Richard Gerald Anthonisz, the 22nd of October, be commemorated as Founder’s Day of the Dutch Burgher Union. So it has continued to be, regularly each year ever since.

A contemporary of R.G. Anthonisz described: "His life was gentle" - made so by his simple habits but possessing a proud integrity of character.

He dedicated his life to be a pioneer and to pursue two visions - one, of his official duties in career and the other in his personal life by his interest. The legacies he has left for posterity is the well established Department of Archives and the Dutch Burgher Union.