Slave Island Oasis of cultural freedom | Sunday Observer

Slave Island Oasis of cultural freedom

The city of Colombo has 15 Municipal wards, and Colombo 2 is one of its most vibrant. For centuries known as Slave Island the area is bursting with life and is bestowed with much history from the Old Ceylon era. One of its significant landmarks is the Beira Lake - which for three centuries was a formidable defence to the Colombo Fort (present day York Street was the rampart of the Dutch Fort). Slave Island has blossomed into a collective expression of all ethnic communities and religions, and has a predominant Muslim community.

Many city dwellers don’t realize how this area was named Slave Island. Centuries ago when the VOC - Dutch East India Company was dominating business enterprises in Ceylon they had hundreds of slaves. These slaves were a segregated community. It is said that a violent slave had once managed to murder an entire Dutch family named Van de Swan, in a fit of rage.

This would have caused great mayhem, which resulted in the slaves being kept overnight at Slave Island. Some opine that the Dutch soldiers introduced crocodiles into the Beira Lake, so that the slaves would not dare to swim and escape.

Early in the morning they would be ferried back to work in the Fort. The former Bristol Hotel was the area where these slaves boarded the ferry. One can hardly comprehend this exercise today! Subsequently, the British gained control of Ceylon. The Beira Lake also has a heritage of its own - built by the Dutch engineer De Beer, it was named the Tank (De Tangh). Some argue, it was only in the maps of 1927 that the tank was named Beira Lake. With time, many of the slaves of African origin (Kaffirs) moved to Puttalam, Negombo, Trincomalee and Batticaloa.

The Malay influence

For decades, Slave Island has been a stronghold of the Malay community, and subsequently, the Muslim community, in general. There were also residents from the Bhai ethnic clan from Afghanistan, who prospered as money lenders.

The dominating Dutch had a regiment of soldiers of Java origin who were brave men. These tough Javanese soldiers were later garrisoned at Salve Island. As the decades progressed, the Java soldiers remained in Ceylon and took to various forms of business and trading.

The road bearing the name Rifle Street, in Colombo 2 is a glowing witness to the presence of the Malay Rifle Regiment from that era. To date many men from the Malay community have served with integrity and gallantry in the Army and the Police. Police Heroes’ Day commemorated on March 21 originates from the date of the death of the Malay police constable Sabhan (he was shot dead by Utuwankande Saradiel).

Java Lane in Slave Island is another example of the strong Malay presence. Sadly, with time and development, Java Lane is no more, and there stands today at this site a massive multi-storey housing complex.

Impressions of Old Ceylon

We took the train to Kompanna Veediya train station, which was built in 1870 by Governor William Henry. The station’s name, taken from the local vicinity was coined in 1866 when the Colombo Ice Company was established. Local residents began using the term ‘Kompanni Veediye’ to describe the “company” on this road. In 1913 it became the first railway station to have a double platform. It is said, this station was built to mirror a station on the Liverpool - Manchester line, in UK. We decided to walk along the crowded streets of present day Slave Island. Walking along Malay Street we took the second turn to New Ferry Lane (remember the slaves were ferried from this point). I met up with a mutual friend Kabeer haji - the owner of an authentic Malay food outlet. Since 1988, his grandmother runs this business, which to date is patronized by mercantile workers, students and members of the army and air force who work nearby. On display are beef samosa, fried beef, satays of beef, fish patties and their signature meal, pittu and babath (tripe). After chatting with Kabeer we walk down Sri Murugan Street, where the famous Sivasubramania Swami Kovil rises majestically.

The kovil built 125 years ago, has been a beacon of hope to Hindu devotees. A few feet away is another iconic building, the Nippon Hotel. This was once a stellar property and is still in operation. At the end of the Hotel is a sacred Bo tree, around which a beautiful serene Buddhist shrine nestles. The statues from the orient, and red lanterns enhance this area. Crossing at the pedestrian lines one enters the Catholic Church dedicated to Infant Jesus. On Fridays the mass is attended by hundreds of city workers.

Crossing at the next intersection we come to Wekande Road where a spectacular mosque comes into view. This masjid had been built in 1876. We met the resident Moulavi (Priest) Nazeer Buhardeen, and another senior resident Roomi Careem. Born and raised in Slave Island, Careem explains, “This is a unique ward in Colombo. Look around you brother, where else would you find a Church, Hindu Kovil, Mosque and Buddhist Temple – in such close proximity. We all live in harmony. We are one united family, and have lived this way for decades”. Adding to this Buhardeen explains, ‘Slave Island has so much history. This is a very old mosque, almost 240 years. On Fridays, around 2,500 people attend jumma prayers. We always contribute to foster inter-religious harmony”.

After this conversation we navigate through Church Street, named probably after the Christian school - Holy Rosary School built here in 1890. The statue of Our Lady stands against a bright blue wall. Slave Island has many old street names - Stewart Street, Vellons Passage, Kew Road, Glennie Street, Chapel Street and Dispensary Street.

Coming back to the Slave Island junction it was time for a cup of tea. We walked into a bakery that still makes its bread and buns manually. It was fun to observe the old bakers kneading the dough. We could feel the heat from the oven as we sat in the bakery.

Slave Island is also a culinary paradise - you can indulge in authentic Muslim food, traditional spicy Matara dishes and delicacies of South Indian origin.

In addition, there are ‘night kadays’ (shops) that operate till 1 am, selling an array of food from burgers to chicken kebabs. You can have anything from king coconut to faluda to watermelon and lime sherbet. We walk towards the train station. Office workers stand on the platform, until the evening office trains come and pick up the thousands of city workers and transport them to their destinations. It was interesting to note many Chinese construction workers, wearing orange jackets, walking along the pavements. Some stop and buy bottles of water. I gaze at a patch of land where the Castle Hotel once stood for almost 140 years. There was a working class bar here, which attracted an assortment of men. As we crossed the road we ran into a man with his horse. Ameer takes a chestnut brown horse to Galle Face Green, where he charges 100 rupees a ride, from children. He explains, ‘I was born and raised here. I have been doing this job for 15 years. I never expected to see so many high rise towers in my home town’. Of course, change is part of life. Like Ameer many of the ‘original’ residents from Slave Island will have to adapt to new things. As the sun goes down they can sit and talk of the beautiful days gone by.

Slave Island is testimony to Sri Lankans residing in peaceful co existence. It is a ward embellished with culture, history and new aspirations.