|Sunday, 15 February 2004|
Colombo - then and now
by PADMA EDIRISINGHE
The city of Colombo is today dubbed "The ultimate in our concrete jungles", not at all a complimentary term especially from an environmental point of view. But some four to five centuries back except for the little outcrop of trading settlements (mostly Moor settlements) around Kolon Thota, the area shared the characteristics of the average topography of our island as a showcase of lakes, waterways, marshes, shrubland and even small forests and hills of modest proportions.
Place names such as St. Sebastian Hill are indicative of the last gentry while place names like Madampitiya, Bambalapitiya were probably spawned out of groves of Maadam (a kind of juicy edible fruit even now growing in clusters by our streams) and Bambala (a name now not in usage).
A forest spread evidently in the area facing Lake House today, a building sprouted centuries later out of the brains of the newspaper doyen D. R. Wijewardene who decided to baptize the magnificent mansion (by contemporary standards) The House by the Lake or Lake House. It was no doubt even then a rustic landscape exhibiting small settlements of humans and coconut plantations through which a waterway originating from the Kelani ran to the Indian ocean. It was this waterway and its branches that had catapulted to the Beira Lake that even today plays hide and seek all over the metropolis.
According to Dr. R. L. Brohier, by the Dutch period parts of this area had been transferred to coconut plantations and came to be known as the Buffalo's Plain. But that the jungle had yet retained its hold is testified by an incident related in "Changing face of Colombo" by the author (and translated to Sinhala by the writer).
According to the Official Diary of Colombo maintained by the Dutch on November 27, 1751 a huge black elephant had burst from the adjoining jungle and entered Colombo Fort through the Rotterdan Gate, now identified as the site of the Regal Theatre Roundabout. It had, in a mad frenzy of fury then wrenched off the arm of one sentry on duty and killed another by dashing him to death on the ground.
Forests, pachyderms on the run, gushing waterways - just 350 years ago that was the scenario around the present Regal Roundabout where the cinema hall that lent the place its name flashes its latest cinema pieces via giant posters and glitzy neon lights.
Meanwhile less gruesome things were happening close by in the 18th Century i.e. in the area where the tall Bank and hotel buildings and the World Trade Centre loom to the skies. It was no doubt another open space by the ocean where the ruling Dutch and the natives gathered for various purposes. After the British captured Colombo from the Dutch they had erected here five blocks of barracks for garrison troops in the year 1875 which complex came to be known as the Echelon Square. But before the capture the area had been known as the Kaffirs Veldt, a term it had earned later due to a hotch potch of turbulent events connected to the Kaffir labour force.
The initial import of Kaffir labour can be attributed to the Portuguese but the Dutch continued the import and soon they developed into a considerable segment of population within the Colombo Fort. Most of them worked as domestic labourers. Discontent that grew among them culminated with a "Kaffir insurrection" in which the Fiscal of Colombo and his wife were murdered at midnight in their bedroom by a Kaffir who worked in their household.
This catastrophe required a new system. Came the idea of roll-call before departure and on arrival where all Kaffirs had to answer a roll-call. From where were they to come and depart in the night? To the "lje" (island close by) that still retains the name Slave Island. Across Colombo's Lake (The Beira Lake) they were ferried to the lje. And where was the Roll-Call itself orchestrated? In that open space by the sea that soon came to be known as the Kaffir Veldt.
Today as you go about your business at the World Trade Centre or the high rise Bank of Ceylon building, just to ward off the tedium of it all in the blaze of scorching sun rays, you can visualise the rows of Kaffirs standing one behind the other and smirking as the Dutch officers true to the contemporary legend of White Supremacy lorded them over before they were led along a tiny passage through the ramparts to "Sallyport" for departure to lje, the jagged peninsula now also called by us, natives, Kompanna Vidiya.
Produced by Lake House