A Vibrant &Bustling City with a History of War and Occupation

Colombo, now the cosmopolitan and commercial hub of Sri Lanka, was once a simple trading port used by ancient merchants, before becoming a much sought after strategic location in the country’s colonial past.

The famed Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta arrived in Sri Lanka desiring to visit Adam’s Peak in the 14th century AD. Returning from his pilgrimage to Adam’s Peak he visited the city of Kalambu (Colombo), which he recorded as the finest and largest city in Serendib (Sri Lanka), and also as the residence of Jalasti, the Wazir Lord of the Sea, who had with him about 500 Abyssinians. Arab traders are believed to have settled in coastal Colombo, even before Battuta’s arrival, and it is their descendants that now make up the Sri Lankan Moor community. Over the following centuries, Colombo remained one of the key ports that connected Sri Lanka and its many trade goods with the rest of the world.

Portuguese Presence

Colombo, a name given by the Portuguese, is officially recorded again in the annals of history when Portuguese explorer Lourenço de Almeida accidently happened upon the island of Sri Lanka in 1505. Originally going in search of the Maldives, Almeida’s fleet was knocked off course towards the coast of Galle. After a brief stop in the Port there, the Portuguese vessels continued to sail along the western seaboard of the island and subsequently arrived in Colombo, the closest port to the capital city of Kotte. Hearing of the arrival of the Europeans, the Sinhala court decided to receive the visitors amicably, with the king directing the Portuguese to send a representative to discuss matters with him. A Portuguese officer named Fernao Cotrim set out to meet the king, accompanied by a Sinhalese escort. Fearing the true intentions of the Portuguese, the locals didn’t want them to know that the capital city was a mere two-hour journey from the coast. In order to make the foreigners believe that the city was far inland, they took the Portuguese officer on a three-day journey crossing hills and fording streams. This event was immortalized by the birth of a famous local proverb – Parangiya Kotte Giya Wage – which translates to ‘as the Portuguese went to Kotte’.

At his meeting with the ministers of the court, the officer asserted that the Portuguese were only interested in peaceful trade and promised to safeguard the coast of the island from external enemies. After further negotiations, the king and his council entered into an agreement with the Portuguese, promising to allow them four hundred bahars of cinnamon a year in return for protecting the coasts from external attacks.

In 1518, Lopo Soarez de Albergaria, the governor of Portuguese India, arrived in Colombo with a large fleet and requested permission to erect a fort in Colombo. The king agreed, even though the Moor merchants who anticipated the dire consequences of giving the Portuguese a foot-in, pleaded with him not to. The completed Portuguese fort was named ‘Nossa Senhora das Virtudes’. As expected, the Moor merchants soon found themselves losing control of the cinnamon trade in the country.

By now, the Portuguese had recognized that the island, which they referred to as Cilao, provided a strategic advantage necessary for protecting Lisbon’s coastal establishments in India. They soon got involved in the troubled politics of Sri Lanka, realizing that they could exploit the internal turmoil to expand their reach on the island.

In 1521, the reigning King of Kotte, Vijayabahu was killed by his three sons, who proceeded to divide the kingdom into three. The eldest brother, Buvanekabahu, continued to rule in Kotte, while the others set up independent kingdoms. Soon, the brothers began fighting each other in order to expand their respective kingdoms, and this led to Buvanekabahu relying on Portuguese assistance to keep his ambitious younger brother Mayadunne at bay. The Portuguese convinced the king to allow them to rebuild the fort in Colombo on a much grander scale, another important step towards fortifying their position on the island.

Buvanekabahu’s successor, Dharmapala, was but a child when he inherited the throne of Kotte. He was entrusted to the Franciscans for his education, leading him to convert to Roman Catholicism in 1557. This move contributed to further turmoil within the country, as it broke the centuries-old link between Buddhism and the monarchy. A majority of the people refused to recognize Dharmapala as king, and his rival Mayadunne began to exploit this to gain control of much of the Kotte Kingdom. King Dharmapala and his Portuguese supporters were soon forced to abandon Kotte and retreat to Colombo. They had to continue to defend Colombo from Mayadunne as well as his successor Rajasinghe I, who very nearly succeeded in ousting them from the island.

The Portuguese took great effort to convert the locals to Roman Catholicism during their reign. They were the first foreign influence to propagate Christianity on a mass scale in Sri Lanka and were successful in constructing a number of churches, some of which stand to this day. Many local converts adopted Portuguese names and studied in mission schools opened and operated by the foreigners.

Dutch Presence

The Dutch entered Indian Ocean trade in the beginning of the 17th century, hoping to seize control of the highly profitable spice trade from the Portuguese. They were given the perfect opportunity to take over the cinnamon trade in Sri Lanka when in 1638, King Rajasinghe II of Kandy signed a treaty for military assistance against the Portuguese, in return for Dutch monopoly of the island’s trade. Although the Portuguese initially resisted the Dutch, they finally surrendered control of all their strongholds.

The Colombo Fort was captured by the Dutch after an epic siege that lasted almost a year. During this time, the Portuguese faced epidemics, plague and famine, forcing them to eat elephants, dogs, rats and even resort to cannibalism. On May 12, 1656, 73 gaunt men marched out of the fort, the last surviving Portuguese of thousands who lived within.

The king of Kandy realized too late that he had replaced one invader with another. The Dutch, who had promised to restore Portuguese controlled forts and lands to the Sinhala people, refused to do so and instead took control of the island’s most profitable cinnamon lands, including Colombo. Colombo served as the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) until the next phase of colonization by the British in 1796. Because of its significance as a strategic point of governance and control for the VOC, the city of Colombo was further fortified and expanded to protect against hostilities from the sea and the interior of the island. The Dutch demolished the Portuguese fort city and constructed their main military fortifications (Casteel) in the west and built residential quarters (Oude Stad) in the east. The Dutch fort in Colombo also had a hospital and an orphanage. The fort was designed in keeping with European theories of the best military defenses of the time, but to suit local conditions.

The VOC continued to war with the existing Sinhala kingdom in Kandy, but were unsuccessful in taking complete control of it. However, the Dutch did monopolize trade in the island, starting with cinnamon and elephants and expanding to other goods.

British Presence

Great Britain began its occupation of Sri Lanka in 1796, when it settled in the coastal areas of the island with little resistance from the Dutch. In 1802, as a result of the Treaty of Amiens, the Dutch ceded complete control of the parts of Sri Lanka that they were occupying to the British Crown. The British went on to successfully invade the Kingdom of Kandy in 1815, the last stronghold of the Sinhala people. With this victory, Great Britain controlled the entire island, a feat that neither the Portuguese or the Dutch were able to achieve.

Colombo functioned as the administrative centre for the British from the beginning, and it became the capital of the Crown Colony of Ceylon after the Kandyan Convention of 1815. The British initially did not modify much of the Dutch Fort in Colombo, apart from raising the bastions. From 1869-1871, the walls of the fort were demolished to make room for commercial activity and the moat was filled. The city gradually expanded into a bustling commercial district, and to this day, remains the nerve centre of trade and commerce in the country.

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