"Once Upon A Time" - Colombo And Nostalgic Memories


By Upali K. Salgado

When one sees today the beautification of Colombo city, senior citizens who have lived during the two and a half decades - 1925 to 1950 would picture in their minds "Colombo the Garden City" it was, during British Colonial time. With an ever expanding resident population, and also a floating population that daily throng the metropolis for work, to meet their social and administrative needs, the landscape has changed much like any other big city in Asia.

The Portuguese who came here in 1505, and later the Dutch VOC and the British used the name "Colombo". Rev Fr Fernando de Queroz has said," the name Colombo is a corruption, the true one is "Calembe" which in the Chingala language means, "leaf of the mango tree". Robert Knox said there was a Mango tree on the West of the city, which had only leaves and never bore fruit, hence the name "Cola-Amba" came to be used. The Dutch designed their Court of Arms for the town, depicting a mango tree and a dove. Another theory is that, the city was called "Kolon-Tota", meaning a Ferry or Port, used by Moor traders who sailed in about 1400AD, from the Moroccan region to present day Indonesia. They called the city "Calembo".

Town Planner, Professor Patrick Geddes of Scotland, submitted a Report in 1921, and urged that there be a large central and dignified Municipal building to house Local Government Offices, a large Public Reception Hall, and a Mayor’s Office and a large Public Library. The last indicated public inadequacy, was shortly thereafter met with a Philanthropic donation of a large upstair building owned by Dr. W. Arthur Silva. This building is now occupied by the Mayor of Colombo as his official residence. The Colombo Municipality was founded in 1865 and the stately looking Municipality building popularly known as the "Town Hall", was designed by Mr. S. J. Edwards of the firm Ralph Booty & Co, Ltd., Singapore. Mr. T. Reed laid the Foundation stone in 1924, the town hall was occupied four years later, when Mr. H. E. Newman was Mayor. The building was financed with a Government loan, and as a result, for years Municipal finances were depleted. A few of the notable elected Mayors of the past were A E Goonasinghe, R. A. De Mel, R.F.S. de Mel, Dr. Kumaran Ratnam Refran. Dr. N. M. Perera, V.A. Sugathadasa and C.T. Grero. Another imposing edifice of the time was the Colombo Museum, built at the behest of Governor Gregory, a historian, whose statue adorns the garden frontage. The Old Dutch Museum at Prince Street Pettah is a reminder of Dutch Architecture. Everything inside the building is of Dutch origin. The Burgomaster chairs and Almirahs with inlaid different wood & porcelainware and coins speak of their culture and civilization.


Colombo today has over 1000 roadways and some are called "Lanes" Places, Avenues", "Gardens" and "Passages". Most of the older names link the historical past, when the Moors, the Portuguese, the "Kaffers", the Dutch, Malays and British lived together with the indigenes population of Sinhalese and Tamil people. Unlike in India, where ultra nationalism, is visible, resulting in the change of historically known city names (Example : Calcutta is now known a "Kolkotta", Bombay is called "Mumbai"; Madras is known as "Chennai"), we have valued the historical past and retained several interesting street and place names, which have "interesting stories behind them". The Portugese Colonialists gave street names to remember their Saints; hence we have St Sebastian Street, St. James Street, Kotahena; St. Anthonys’s Road, Mutwal. The Dutch who ruled the Maritime Provinces, left their imprint by leaving names such as Hulftsdorp (named after Governor Hulft), Wolvendhal Street (the dale of wolves who disturbed the peace of the night), Vystwyke Road (named after a despotic Dutch Governor Vurst (1726-1729), who was recalled to Batavia by the VOC. The British had their own way by naming streets after their Governors: Horton Place (after Gov Horton), Gregory’s Rd. (after Sir William Gregory). Mr. R. H. Tickel was the Engineer who laid the Sewage system between 1906-12 and is remembered with Tickel Road, Borella. Many a well known Ceylonese who had distinguished themselves in Politics, Social welfare, Letters, Arts and in Medicine have been remembered. To mention a few notable names: Sir Baron Jayatilleke, Hon D. S. Senanayake, R. A. de Mel, W. A. Silva (the Author) Sir James Peiris, Sir Ananda Coomaraswamy, Prof. G. P. Malalasekera, Dr. N. M. Perera, H. Sri Nissanka KC, Prof. Nandadasa Kodagoda. Interestingly, names of several Trades have been associated with Street names. To mention a few, there is Barber Street, Brassfounders Street, Silver Smith Street, and Oilman Street in Pettah. A Dutch canal girdles the city on the south, east and north. It served as a water highway for transporting goods about 80 years ago and the canal network extended north of the Kelani river past Negombo.

The Galle Road which today carries a heavy load of traffic was thoughtfully widened between 1939 - 1950 when Sir John Kothalawala was Minister of Transport. In those far off days were seen the mobile Salesmen who went from door to door. The Chinamen on his push cycle selling Noodles and the Indian Trinketseller, and the mobile reading library with a load of cheap paper bags on the head of the visitor- are unforgettable. His lending charge was only ten cents per book for each week!


Most cities of the world proudly boast of historic landmarks to show citizens Valour, Achievement in Industry or perhaps a religious Icon. The Eifell Tower in Paris, the imposing, "Gateway to India" built by the British in Bombay, the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia. Our own historic picturesque Beira Lake, has been the home of Moor traders who arrived in ancient times from Arabia enroute to Batavia; the "Kaffirs" who were brought by the Portuguese and later by the Dutch and British to be slaves, the Afghan Money Lenders (of the 1940’s). They roamed the streets squeezing the pockets of poor Mercantile clerks who defaulted loans (Banking was not developed at that age) the Malays who were loyal British subjects in the Police force. Fr. Fernando Queroz, in his CONQUEST OF CEYLON, published in AD 1688 says, the Sinhala King Vijaya Bahu of Kotte laid seige in Colombo in 1521, when the Portuguese Captain Lopo De Britto persued the attackers, killing and wounding them until they reached the brook, which was later dammed to be a large Lake, for better fortification of the city". Some of the better known Street names in Slave Island are Malay Street, Kew Street, Rifle Street and the Moor Passage. They are all a pointer to past history. Living in Slave Island were a large number of "Kaffirs" (over 700 of them), brought to be Slaves by the Portugues, from regions around Mosambique, and in later time from Goa, which was a Portuguese Colony. These "Kaffir" slaves were a "tradeable commodity" until the British abolished slavery in 1845. The Kaffirs are today complemented for their lively "Kaffirinn" music, which has a "fast beat". They sing and dance wearing colourful clothes and today reside in a settlement of their own, close to Puttlam. They speak a mixed language. The "Garden city" also had several large residential mansions. "Temple Trees" the present home of our President was occupied by the Chief Secretary during British Colonial times. "Lakshmi Giri", and "Regina Walauwa" at Thurstan Road, "Prince Alfred House" at Kollupitiya, "Sravasthi" (the home of two Philanthropists Dr. W. Arthur Silva and his wife Mrs. Katherine Silva), "Sethsiri Paya" (the home of Sir Ernest and Lady Evadne de Silva) at Flower Rd., the "Maligawa" owned by Sir James Obeysekera, and "Tintagal" built by Dr., Lucien de Zylva and later punched

by Hon S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, and Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike who were Prime Ministers of Ceylon, "Mumtaz Mahal" Kollupitiya occupied by the Speaker of Parliament.,

As a boy, I remember World War Two, (1939-46) when Colombo looked a fortified, impregnable city, with anti Aircraft "Ak-Ak guns" stationed at important Street junctions. There were dozens of large Barrage Saloons, moored on to ships in the harbour, as a safety measure against possible dive bombing. Most shops were closed. The city was deserted, but for garrisons of Australian and African soldiers moving about on foot or in Armoured cars. The small resident population (others had evacuated themselves to the country.) had to rely on the all important Co-operative Store to obtain on a coupon system for their weekly dry rations. The Ceylon Turf Club had been requisitioned and was converted to be an Airstrip for British "Spitfire" fighter aircraft to take off, in the event of a Japanese Air Raid. A "Black out" was rigidly imposed; One had to obtain a Pass to move about at night.


Over the years there have been several important visitors from overseas. Amongst them were Mahathma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Chou Enlai (1957), Rajiv Gandhi, the British Royalty in 1875, 1922, 1954 and in 1962. The Prince of Wales (later, King Edward VIII, son of King George V) stayed at Queen’s House when on a visit. One early morning, seeing a push cycle parked outside Queen’s House, he "scooted" on that bike. He lost his way near the Town Hall. In the meanwhile there was pandemonium at Queen’s House and the Governor was furious when told that his Royal Guest was missing. Finally, two hours later, a Police Constable on beat - duty was suspicious of the behaviour of the white skinned man in the early hours and promptly "arrested" him. Later, it was discovered that the police had arrested the much wanted Prince of Wales!

After the war was over, Horse Racing was a popular sport. British owned Mercantile Houses had a half holiday to enable staff watch the horse racing for the "Governor’s Bowl". A beautiful brown thoroughbred horse named "Cotton Hall" was the winner on three successive occasions! This sporting event also had a social dimension as it afforded the Colombo Ladies a window to show off their latest in dress fashions.


I refer to only four prominent landmarks in the city. THE CLOCK TOWER served a dual purpose. It served as the Colombo Light House to guide the movement of ships to the 643 acre Colombo Fort and was also a Clock Tower. The Light House ceased to function in about 1952, when a new one was installed at Galle Buck, overlooking the sea. The other landmark is the BOY SCOUT SILVER JUBILEE MEMORIAL designed by the Mr. Wynne Jones, a PWD Architect, portraying a teenage Boy Scout saluting the nation in 1952, after having laboriously "climbed a hill" (signifying 50 years of Scouting in Ceylon). The third landmark is the forty three acre PUBLIC CEMETERY at Borella. There sleep well, over the years many an honoured and distinguished personality from all walks of life, and also the poorest of the poor. Death is a great leveller of all human beings. Referring to the Cemetery, let us not forget a Community of Ceylonese whose deeds are perhaps forgotten, because many of them voluntarily chose to migrate seeking greener pastures. They, of the Dutch Burgher Community who lie under the turf of this resting place are the Van Sandens, Vollenhoven’s, Wambecks, Vanderwalls, Willenbergs, the Toussaints, Spittels, Arndts and the De Jong’s. They gave their strength in numerous fields for the welfare of society. Their progeny remain and are few in numbers. The last landmark is the WAR MEMORIAL (1914-18 World War) often called the "Victory Column". It was sited at Galle Face and later shifted to Vihara Maha Devi Park. When the work was over,_ it was strongly rumoured that the cement for the tall imposing structure had been of German Origin (provided by the defeated nation!) which was not true, although a German cargo vessel named "Kaizer Wilhelm II" had transported the cement from Liverpool to Colombo. Engraved in this large war memorial are the names of several Ceylonese soldiers who sacrificed their lives when under British rule, for a British cause.

It is a step in the right direction to beautify Colombo. However, with the expanding population, sky rise apartments will surely be seen in the future, as in the case of Singapore or Mumbai. Whilst in the future the face of Colombo will change, but not the historic endearing landmarks be erased.

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