Colombo was not always the bustling, vibrant city that it is today. In fact, for many years, it was a simple port used by Arab merchants to engage in trade with the ancient Sri Lankan kingdoms. Colombo started to gain significance only after the Portuguese recognized the strategic importance of the location and decided to build a fort adjoining the Colombo Port in 1518. It soon became the main administrative centre for the Portuguese, Dutch and British who successively occupied Sri Lanka from 1505 to 1948.
The colonizers invested in turning Colombo into a fully functional city, replete with fortifications, residential quarters, hospitals, military barracks, commercial establishments and places of worship. It continued to function as the island’s capital city well after Sri Lanka gained independence from the British in 1948. Even though the Sri Lankan government eventually moved the administrative capital to Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte in 1978, Colombo remains the commercial capital of the country.
The now famous names of some of the popular neighbourhoods of Colombo have rather interesting origin stories. Some of these names can be directly linked with events from the country’s colonial past or to various colonial era leaders who influenced the development of Colombo as a city.
The great siege of 1655-1656 saw the Dutch forces, led by commander Gerard Pieterszoon Hulft, decimate the Portuguese garrison over a period of seven months. Hulft located his command post on a hill overlooking the western rampart of the Colombo Fort. The commander was killed during the siege, just a month before the last 73 Portuguese troops surrendered. This hill became known as ‘Hulfts Dorp’ meaning Hulft’s village. Today, it is most famous for being the centre of legal activity in the country. It is also popular amongst locals for its extensive array of street food.
One of the reasons the Portuguese, Dutch and later the British found the small island of Sri Lanka so appealing was the abundance of the generally rare and expensive spice cinnamon. The Portuguese and Dutch forces took great lengths to wrest control of the island’s most profitable cinnamon lands from the Sinhala kingdoms. The affluent neighbourhood of Cinnamon Gardens (kurundu watte) was named for the 289-acre cinnamon plantation that used to occupy the area.
The Kollupitiya of old contained lush coconut and cinnamon plantations and beautiful villas, although it was not overly inhabited. Ambanwela Appuhaami was a rebel chief from the city of Kandy, who together with three other chiefs sought to slay King Rajasinghe II. When the plot failed, the king beheaded the other two chiefs but handed over Ambanwela Appuhaami to the Dutch, expecting him to be tortured more brutally by the Europeans. However, in a twist of fate, the Dutch released the rebel and gave him a large plot of land to cultivate a coconut plantation. Ambanwela Appuhaami, who then took the Dutch name Van Ry-cloff, expanded his coconut plantation by encroaching into the ancestral farms of the locals. The public couldn’t really do much about this injustice, since he held the favour of the Dutch. All they were able to do was retaliate by calling Appuhaami’s plantation kolla-ka-pitiya (land which was plundered), which later became Kollupitiya.
The area referred to as Slave Island was once an actual island in the Beira Lake, which was used to house Africans who were forced into slavery and brought to work for the Dutch East India Company (VOC). Apparently, a certain African slave serving a Dutch home in the Fort, murdered a whole family in retaliation for cruel treatment. As a result of this incident, all slaves were rowed out to ‘slave island’ at sunset every day, where they were kept till the next morning when they would return to work.
The historic suburb of Kochchikade derives its name from a miraculous act that took place during a time when Catholics were being persecuted by the Dutch. A Catholic priest from Cochial (present day Kochi in Kerala, India), volunteered to serve in Sri Lanka, but had to do so in hiding. Father Antonio disguised himself as a vendor, selling fish during the day and celebrating Catholic mass at night.
Legend states that the local fishing community were in dire straits as the coastal area was subject to constant sea erosion. This made the place uninhabitable and also negatively impacted the livelihood of the community. The people approached the priest to call on divine intervention to solve their problem. It is believed that Father Antonio planted a cross in the ground and fasted and prayed for three days. On the third day, the sea receded and the sand bank was miraculously restored. The people rejoiced, and the Dutch too were pleased with the outcome, as their activities had also been negatively affected by the erosion. Instead of punishing the devout priest, the Dutch allowed him to set up a small hut at the place he had prayed and permitted him to practice his Catholic faith. This small church grew over time and was dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua. The church still exists in the location, and is considered by those of many faiths to contain miraculous powers.
Colombo is the country’s most diverse city in terms of people, food, architecture and overall experience. It has absorbed the cultures and traditions of the many different communities who call it home, to create a beautiful mosaic of multiculturalism.