Setting sail from Danish Tranquebar, we wend our ship southward to the jewelled isle of Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka), situated at the southern tip of the Indian Subcontinent. We are bound for the port city of Colombo, on the southwestern coast of the island-nation.
The Greeks, Persians and Arabs knew of this port, and frequented its shores in late antiquity. The former – in particular, Greek geographer Ptolemy – referred to the island as Taprobana, the latter as Sarandib. In the course of a millenia and a half, the island would be ruled by a succession of Hindu kingdoms, culminating in just under a century of occupation by the mighty Chola Empire in the 11th century.
When the Portuguese arrived in 1505, first at Galle and onwards to Colombo, the island was split into some half a dozen kingdoms, chief of all being the Kotte and the Kandy Kingdoms.
From the coastal Kotte Kingdom, the Portuguese extracted the rights by treaty to establish a coastal settlement and fort at Colombo. From thence, they would grow in power, eventually annexing Kotte and the northern Kingdom of Jaffna, and expanding the rule to including all of the western and northern coast of the island they called Ceilao (from which the English word Ceylon is derived).
Hardly anything remains of Portuguese Colombo today. The fort the Portuguese built has all but vanished, but the area on which the fort used to stand, is still known as Fort, and was the administrative and commercial centre of British Ceylon. Elsewhere, a few Portuguese tombstones continue to stand in the galleries of the National Museum of Colombo.
The Dutch United East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) arrived in Ceylon in the early 1600s and swiftly made an alliance with the Kingdom of Kandy – the last Sinhalese Kingdom in Ceylon. King Rajasinghe II of Kandy would sign a treaty in 1638 with the VOC, seeking aid in wrestling control of Ceylon back from the Portuguese, in return for a monopoly on trade.
Dutch Ceylon was established in 1640, but it wasn’t till 1658 that the Portuguese were driven off the island. Colombo was taken in 1656 and served as the capital of Dutch Ceylon for more than 100 years. The Dutch, having ousted the Portuguese, defied the terms of their treaty, and in the ensuing decades, would continually add to their territory, eventually taking control of almost all of Ceylon’s coastline, rendering Kandy landlocked and helpless.
Most of Ceylon’s Dutch heritage remains in Galle – which was the Dutch stronghold for much of their occupation of the island. That said, Colombo still retains a few important Dutch-era buildings, chiefly the former Dutch Hospital in the Fort and the Dutch Museum and Wolvendaal Church in Pettah.
The descendants of the Dutch – the so-called Dutch Burghers, or Dutch Eurasians also still maintain their presence in today’s Colombo; and have contributed a distinctly Malay tinge to the city’s unique cuisine.
Dutch Ceylon became British in 1796. Twenty years later in 1815, the Kingdom of Kandy finally succumbed and was absorbed into British Ceylon.
Much of the city’s European colonial heritage dates from the British era, in particular, the Fort area contains some of the buildings most monumental civic and commercial edifices.
To the East of Fort sits Pettah – the older, Dutch city centre, which today retains a bustling air and entirely multi-cultural outlook. Here sit the city’s most important mosques – including the Red Mosque – Hindu temples and churches, alongside the city’s old British City Hall.
To the south of Fort sits Cinnamon Gardens, laid out by the British in accordance with Garden City principles in the late 19th century. Here is a leafy, verdant landscape of bungalows and villas, sitting along broad boulevards. Here too one finds the residence and offices of one of British Ceylon and Sri Lanka’s most important exports – the late Geoffrey Bawa, pioneer of the “Tropical Modernist” style.
Ceylon became independent Sri Lanka in 1948, and many of its colonial-era government buildings were repurposed as civic and administrative centres for its fledgeling government.
By 1983, Sri Lanka had plunged into Civil War, with the Tamil Tigers in the northeast fighting for an independent Tamil Eelam state in the northern region of Jaffna. Those who grew up in the 1980s and ’90s would remember the violence associated with Sri Lanka during this time. A Peace Accord was only signed in 2009.
Since then, Sri Lanka has wasted no time in getting back on its feet. Any visitor to Colombo today would find it a modern and thoroughly clean city, reminiscent of Singapore in the late 1980s and even the early 1990s.
The best experience of the city can be had taking a stroll along the lovely seaside promenade known as Galle Face Green. In the distance stands the iconic Galle Face Hotel, one of the oldest and greatest hotels in the Far East and the grande dame of the city’s hospitality scene for more than 100 years.
Laid out in 1859 by the British and initially used for cricket and other sports (it was the equivalent of the Padang in Singapore), today, Galle Face Green is popular with ordinary Sri Lankans, who emerge en masse in the early evenings to picnic, fly kites, take in the sea breeze and look to the future.