Sri Lanka’s international harbour city, Colombo

Colombo Sri Lanka

Colombo Sri Lanka

Colombo, with its large natural harbour and its strategic position in Sri Lanka along the East-West sea trade routes was known to Greek, Persian, Roman, Arab and Chinese traders over 2,000 years ago. Arabs traders from the middle east began to settle in Colombo around the 8th century AD mostly because the port controlled much of the trade between the Sinhalese kingdoms and the outside world. Their descendants now comprise the Sri Lankan Moor community.

The Portuguese first arrived in Sri Lanka in 1505. During their initial visit they made a treaty with the local king in his capital of Kotte enabling them to trade in the islands’ crop of cinnamon, which lay along the coastal areas of the island. As part of the treaty, the Portuguese were given full authority over the coastline in exchange for the promise of guarding the coast against invaders. They were allowed to establish a trading post in Colombo and within a short time, they expelled the Muslim inhabitants of Colombo and began to build a fort in 1517.

In 1638 the Dutch signed a treaty with the King of Kandy which assured the king assistance in his war against the Portuguese in exchange for a monopoly of the island’s major trade goods. The Portuguese fought both the Dutch and the local Kandyans from 1639 and were gradually pushed back to their strongholds. The Dutch captured Colombo in 1656, gaining control over the island’s richest cinnamon lands. Colombo then served as the capital of the Dutch maritime provinces under the control of the Dutch East India Company until 1796.

Although the British captured Colombo in 1796, it remained a British military outpost until the Kandyan Kingdom was ceded to them. In 1815 they made Colombo the capital of their newly created crown colony of British Ceylon. Unlike the Portuguese and Dutch before them, whose primary use of Colombo was as a military fort, the British began constructing houses and other civilian structures around the fort, giving rise to the current city. This era of colonialism ended peacefully in 1948 when Ceylon gained independence from Britain. Due to the tremendous impact this caused on the city’s inhabitants and on the country as a whole, the changes that resulted at the end of the colonial period were drastic.

Colombo Town Hall Sri Lanka

Colombo Town Hall Sri Lanka

An entire new culture took root. Changes in laws and customs, clothing styles, religions and proper names were a significant result of the colonial era. Even today, the influence of the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British is clearly visible in Colombo’s architecture, names, clothing, food, language and attitudes. Buildings from all three eras of European Colonial Rule stand as reminders and the city and its people show an interesting mix of European clothing and lifestyles together with local customs.

In the 1980s, the official capital of Sri Lanka was moved from Colombo to the adjacent city of Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte, a former suburb of Colombo. Despite the move, most countries still maintain their diplomatic missions in Colombo which continues to be the island’s commercial centre.