Romance of Colombo's place names

by Andrew Scott , Daily News Sat Jan 5, 2002

Colombo has served the needs of many generations and it has a simple beginning dating back to the colonial era. The very beginning of Colombo dates back to 1505 when the militant Portuguese invaded the island and constructed a fortress in the city. It was primarily due to its strategic position that the invading Portuguese selected Colombo as their capital. Subsequently during the Dutch occupation Colombo was re-structured to serve their aesthetic and military needs.

The British who followed the Dutch took every step to modernize this city and some of their art and architecture could be seen in Colombo as well as in other parts of the country even today.

Colombo has undergone a tremendous change now and this change is reflected everywhere while over the past few years some of the popular place names in Colombo have been replaced with names with a Sri Lankan flavour and before all these names are changed it is worthwhile to probe the history and legends behind at least some of them.

Many of the place names in Colombo such as Queen's Street, Prince Street, Duke Street have a royal flavour and they remind us of the colonial connections we have had.

The bridge which leads into Colombo is called the Kelani Bridge now. Earlier this very same bridge was called Victoria bridge, named after one of Britain's most famous Queens.

Albert Crescent was named after prince Albert and Edinburgh Crescent was named after the first Duke of Edinburgh. Colombo's Queen's Street got its name because the Queen's representative lived there. Not only the British but also the Dutch named some of the places in Colombo after their royalty.

For example Keyzer Street was named after their emperor whom they called 'Kaiser.'There are many places in Colombo named after some of the past English Governors who served here. These include Maitland Crescent, Paget Place, Barnes Place, Campbell Place, Ward Place and Macarthy Road. Guildford Crescent was also named after a governor. Earlier this was named as Frederick North Road, after the first Governor of Sri Lanka. Later Governor North became the Earl of Guildford and the road was renamed accordingly.

Similarly Rosmead Place was originally called Robinson Street which was named after Governor Hercules Robinson. Later Sir Hercules Robinson became Lord Rosmead and thereby Robinson Street was renamed Rosmead Place. Chalmer's Granaries was named after Sir Robert Chalmers and Manning Town, Manning Place and Manning Market are all linked up with the name of Sir William Manning.

Some of the street names in Colombo take our memories back to the names of some famous road builders and their names have become immortalised in the nation's history.

Dawson street is named after Captain Dawson whose name is perpetuated by Kadugannawa's Dawson tower which has become a permanent landmark on the Colombo Kandy road. Major Skinner, another road builder, has the road past the Technical College named after him. The name of another road builder, Captain William Gregory, is remembered by Gregory's road in Colombo.

Some other road names in Colombo such as Wolvendhall Street, Messenger Street, Korteboam Street, Grandpass and Dam Street take us back to the Dutch period.

The Portuguese too left behind some interesting place names such as Mattakkuliya and Kollupitiya. Mattakkuliya is a Portuguese name which means "where the cooly was killed."  Kollupitiya was a great plain where the boys played. It had first been called 'Koan Pitiya' which later became Kollupitiya and during the time of the British occupancy it came to be called 'Colpetty.'

They often gave names of Saints to whom the churches in the vicinity were dedicated. San Sebastian Hill and St. Joseph's Road are examples of these and Milagiriya had the church of Our Lady of Miracles.

During the early days Pettah was a highly residential area and it had many streets shaded by trees. Messenger Street was called 'Rue de Massang' by the Dutch because there were many Massang trees and even today it is called Masang Gas Vidiya. Earlier Dam Street was called 'Damba Street' as Damba trees grew there. Bloemendhal Street meant Vale of Flowers and Korteboam means short trees.

The Beira Lake, one of Colombo's most prominent landmarks, was named by the Dutch after the Dutch engineer Johann de Beer. Pettah too was named by the Dutch and Hulftsdorp was named after the Dutch General Hulft.

It is interesting that nearly every British Governor is remembered by a street or another place name in Colombo. Some of the well-known roads in Cinnamon Gardens which was a fashionable residential area even then was named after Governors Sir Edward Barnes, Sir Robert Horton, Viscount Torrington, Sir Henry Ward, Sir Charles MacCarthy, Sir Hercules Robinson and Sir William Gregory.

However, it is rather surprising to recall that no street or other place has been named after the last three British Governors of Sri Lanka, Sir Andrew Caldecott, Sir Monk Mason Moore and Lord Soulbury. Today it is seen that even though some people like new names there is always a preference for old place names which have a history and a charm of their own.