Sometime, in the latter part of the 1800’s, Colombo was a green city. Life, then, was simple and leisurely, calm and quiet and peaceful in many ways. There were one horse carriages and rickshaws, drawn by scrawny brown men, plying along the Galle Road in the midst of the Fort that skirted the harbor which opened out to the Indian Ocean on the west.
name is supposed to be derived from the Sinhalese “Kola” & “Amba”
meaning leafy mango tree, a tree with leave only and no fruit. Thus giving
KOLAMBA which has evolved into COLOMBO. Another conjecture is that the name may
have been derived from the fact that the Moor traders used to bring their boats
in down the Kelani river through the KELANITOTA (Kelani Port), which evolved
into KOLONTOTA and thereafter KALAMBO. The Portuguese contribution is that the
name has links to Columbus.
and edifices have been a significant feature of Colombo from its very early
days. One of the most striking buildings, even visible from the sea as reported
by the Portuguese was the Colombo Grand Mosque, supposed to have been built by
the Arab traders in 1505, located at New Moor Street. All old maps from the
Portuguese era show this Mosque very significantly.
Street, intersected by Queens Street on the west and York Street further east
were the main streets that housed both businesses and homes. Prince Street,
parallel to Chatham Street ran straight down joining up with Main Street which
flowed into the Pettah. The Grand Oriental Hotel, commonly referred to as the
GOH, stood magnificent and tall by the port. Today it has been converted to the
Hotel Taprobane with all its fineries and modern trappings. Bristol Street stood
on York Street with its polished wooden stairway. The Globe Hotel and British
India were noted for their watering services to the thirsty and weary. Trees
lined all the streets in beautiful cascades of brown and green enveloping the
area in splendor.
Street bordered the eastern wall and moat of the old Dutch Fort. This stretch
gave way to the Registrar General’s office, the Bristol Hotel, the National
Bank of India, and Victoria Arcade. Later, they too gave way to the more modern
structures of concrete that have surfaced today.
Street, now Mudalige Mawatha, was wedged in between Chatham Street and Prince
Street, parallel to both, and serviced the tourists with their needs of
trinkets, souvenir’s, tea, Jewellery and gems.
House, now referred to as President’s House, stood on Queen Street, bringing
back memories of so many memorable days of Portuguese, Dutch and British
political rule, power and fisticuffs.
lighthouse clock tower stood gallantly at the intersection of Chatham Street and
Queen Street where it still stands tall to this day in 2005. It was first built
in 1857 and its conception and planning was carried out as far back as 1815.
Royal College stood in its old green location past the Fort Railway Station by the lush green plains of that area called Captains Gardens. The Galle Face Green stretched out from the Fort towards the Galle Face Hotel that clung to the western coastline where the land extended towards the south of the island.
Beira Lake boasted of an opulence of inland water that stood right in the center
of the city of Colombo running its rivulets to various parts of the city in
streams and canals. The lake was named “Beira” to commemorate the name of
the Dutch Engineer Johann de Beira in AD 1700, who constructed the mouth and
water defences of the Dutch Fort. The lake, a long established part of Colombo,
was originally an extensive “reach of flood water” from the Kelani River. It
was originally called Lagoon by the Portuguese and was filled with alligators
and crocodiles, thus giving the name Kayman’s Gate for a nearby street.
military barracks, referred to as Echelon Square now, stood towards the Galle
Face. St. Josephs College, the premier Roman Catholic educational institution in
the city, lay more eastwards from the lake, amidst tall palms and beautiful
Victoria Park, referred to now as the Vihara Maha Devi Park, stood sprawling in
its lush green and vegetaion in Cinnamon Gardens.
main towns of Colombo where people mingled and action permeated daily life were,
the Fort, Pettah, Hultsdorf, and Mutuwal in the north.
was on the 3rd of Sep 1802 that the last Dutch Governor of Colombo, van
Angelbeck, killed himself for having capitulated to the British. He was buried
next to his wife, Vrouw Angelbeck’s coffin in the crumbling Chapel that was
used to bury eminent Dutch persons. Others who were buried there were
Hertenberg, Vreeland, Van Eck, & Falk.
niece, Jacomina Gertrude, daughter of Van der Graaf and wife of Hon George
Melville Leslie (an English Civil Servant), was his only heir. She inherited the
massive mansion, Queens House (named after Queen Victoria’s ascension to the
throne) then and is called President House now, and the largest and most opulent
in the Fort at that time. However, she was compelled to sell the house to the
Government for 35,000 Rix Dollars on account of monies owed to the state by her
husband who was the Paymaster General and was subject to the shortage of a sum
of over 10,000 Pounds to his utter embarrassment. The deed of transfer was
confirmed and completed on January 17 1804. The street on which it is located
was originally referred to as KingsStreet, then changed to Queen Street and now
has now been renamed to Presidents (Janadhipathi Mawatha) Avenue.
British Raj, who took over colonial power from the Dutch in 1796, appointed John
MacDowall of the Madras Service as the administrator of the city of Colombo. He
was also the Collector. At that time it was estimated that the city had around
50,000 inhabitants. The Dutch and Portuguese continued to live in their occupied
residences in the Pettah while the Sinhalese, Tamils and Moors preferred to live
in the suburbs. The Brits too preferred the Fort and divided it into quarters
based on its principal roads.
was towards the end of 1798 that Frederik North arrived and was appointed the
fist Civil Governor of Ceylon by the Brits. He brought a handpicked band of
civil servants along with him to run the islands administrative affairs. Among
them were Eudelin de Jonville and Antony bertolacci, a Frenchman.
of the most noted of North’s many duties was ‘Christianization’, and
towardsthat end an academy was established where the sons of rich Sinhalese,
Indians and Europeans studied together. By 1801 there were 170 parish schools in
the island and 342,000 native Protestants in addition to greater number of Roman
Catholics, a legacy of the Portuguese era of colonialism.
North was succeeded by Sir Thomas Maitland. He preferred to live by the sea at
Mount Lavinia, a few kilometers south of the city of Colombo. He was responsible
for moving the tombs of the Dutch interred at the Chapel in the Fort to be
re-buried at the premises of the Wolfendhaal Church in the Pettah. However, when
the coffins were finally moved, under a very impressive military guard and
parade of fife and drums, it was General Sir Robert Brownrigg Bart, who was
Governor. He was flanked by the Chief Justice, Hon Sir Alexander Johnston and
the Puisne Justice, the Hon Mr William Coke.
even had its first circulating library in 1801, run by Michael Loghlin, a
merchant who had sailed in from Madras. He also ran an auction house. Many other
European houses and businesses soon sprang up in the Fort. Many of those who
managed these businesses were retired sea captains who found that this was a
lucrative opportunity to further their careers. Amongst them were L.D. Bussch,
George Steuart, George Boyd, James Steuart, F. B. Montcur, John Pierre Jummeaux,
W. C. Gibson and George Winter. There was also an English watchmaker.
Sinhalese referred to the Pettah as “Pita Kotuwa” meaning “outside the
Fort” which was what it really was and is to this day. The Pettah still houses
the many wholesale and retail businesses and vendors as it used to before.
Although most of the business in Colombo has now been decentralized to the many
smaller towns within the Pettah still stands tall as the hub of key business
activity. The Central bus station is located in the Pettah and the Fort Railway
Station also lies within its perimeter. It is from these two hallowed echelons
of public transportation that the thousands of daily workers, tradesmen and
ordinary people commute to and from the city. Many famous men of that era used
to live in the Pettah. One was Sir Richard Morgan, Queens Advocate, who was born
in Prince Street in 1821. Gradually the resident population moved to other
localities like Hultsdorp, San Sebastian, Messenger Street, and Dias Place.
Mudaliyars lived around the Wolfendaal and many of them were housed on
Silversmith Street. Udugaha Mudaliya, grandfather of SWRD Bandaranaike, Sir
Thomas de Sampayo, and a member of the Legislative Council, James D’ Alwis who
was also a well known oriental scholar lived down this street.
Nattukottai Chettiars, who were descendants of those who had migrated from South
India, were mostly involved as money changers, pawn brokers, and Jewellery
manufacturers, distributors and retailers. They lived and conducted their
businesses in and around New Chetty Street, which was named after them, and
further at Grandpass. Queen’s Advocate Selby lived in a mansion called Selby
House which latyer went on to become the premises of M/S Heptulabhoy & Co, a
flourishing export oriented business run by a Borah merchant who renamd it to
too became a very fashionable suburb for residency. The Brit Collector of
Customs had his home there adjoining the salt lake. The Auditor General, H A
Marshall built three large residences, Rock House, Whist Bungalow and Modera
House. Rock House was occupied by Sir William Coke, the Chief Justice. The
Armitages occupied Modera House and Whist Bungalow was the residence of an
English gentleman. Later, Sir Richard Morgan purchased Whist Bungalow on which
he spent large sums of money re-decorating and refurbishing it in very lavish
fineries. It is said that this extravagance almost reduced him to near
bankruptcy at the time of his death and that his ghost does haunt the place ever
Mutuwal people were C A Lorensz, who later moved to Karlshrue in Borella, near
the present Welikada Prison. Also four eminent personnel of the Tamil community,
Sir Ponnabmbalam Arunachalam, Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy, and Sir Ponnambalam
Ramanathan lived in Mutuwal. Arunachalam
later moved to Cinnamon Gardens, which eventually became the most fashionable
and rich neighborhood within the city of Colombo.
other towns that sprouted and bloomed and provided decent living for the rich
and the famous were Kollupitiya (Colombo 3), Bambalapitiya (Colombo 4), Havelock
Town (Colombo 5), and Wellawatte (Colombo 6).
of the most famous of residence in Colombo 3 was Alfred House owned by Charles
de Soysa. Its extensive grounds stretch from the plush residential areas of
Bagatelle to School Lane and from Galle Road to Thurstan Road.
Brits also set up the first botanical garden in Colombo at Kew Road in Slave
Island (Colombo 2), after Kew Gardens in England. Slave Island later became to
be known as Company Street or Kompanna Vidiya on account of the Rifle Regiment
that was atationed there down Rifle Street.
(Colombo 10), the “Sandy Plains”, grew the best cinnamon of all in Colombo.
Today it is one of the most congested parts of the whole city of Colombo.
1824, the population of Colombo was 31,188 of which 734 were in the Fort, 4,979
in the Pettah, and 25,475 were
located beyond the Pettah. In 1871 the population of Colombo rose to 98,843 and
in 1936 to 511,639. Today the city is almost 90 times as dense as it was in 1936
and its area has also expanded from 9.45 square miles in 1881 to 14.32 square
miles in 1963. The Greater Colombo area today encompasses almost 38 square
Rosemead Place, in the Cinnamon Gardens locality, a palatial home called
“Tintagel” was bought by the late Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike who lived
in it until he was assassinated in 1958. His family continue to live there to
official residence of the Prime Minsiter, “Temple Trees”, down Galle Road at
Kollupitiya (Colombo 3), was originally occupied by the Lieutenant Governor, and
thereafter, the Colonial Secretary. Other notable structures were the Sravasti
in Edinburgh Crescent, Mackinnon House which is now the Central Hospital,
Torrington House, property of W H Figg of Whittal & Co which was then
occupied by the Governor Sir Herbert Stanley when Queens House was under
large business houses were established in and around the Fort of which many have
now passed on to Sri Lankan ownership. Some of them are noted below with their
year of establishment:-
Baur & Co – 1897
Spence & Co – 1873
Scott & Co – 1848
& Co – 1904
Mills – 1835 (later became the BCC)
Brothers – 1910 (later part of Shaw Wallace & Hedges)
& C0 – 1881
Brogue & Co – 1846
& Co – 1867
Ltd – 1850
& Co – 1871 (later (Carson Cumberbatch & Co)
P Hayley & Co – 1878 (later Hayleys Ltd)
Commercial Co – 1876
Lampard & Co – 1901 (klater Harrisons & Crosfield)
W Mackie & Co – 1907
Butler & Co – 1848
Forsyth & Co – 1892
B Creasy & Co – 1882
John & Co – 1876 (later amalgamated with John Keel Thompson White)
& Co 1896
Fraser & Co – 1895
& Co – 1903
W Cave – 1876
M Robertson – 1848 (later amalgamated with George Steuarts)
& Co – 1866 (later controlled by Carson Cumberbatch & Co)
Hedges Ltd – 1864 (later amalgamated with Shaw Wallace)
Brown & Co – 1876
H vavasseur & Co
Finlay & Co – 1890
& Co (Millers Ltd)
& Co – 1878
Colombo Apothecaries – 1892
Brothers – 1857 (later Volanka Ltd)
Brothers – 1854
Ladlaw & Co
& Co – 1880 (later Whittal Boustead)
by Carl Muller (Penguin 1995)