1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Colombo

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COLOMBO, the capital and principal seaport of Ceylon, situated on the west coast of the island. Pop. (1901) 154,691. Colombo stands to the south of the mouth of the river Kelani. The coast-land is here generally low-lying, but broken by slight eminences. The great artificial harbour, enclosed by breakwaters, is bounded on the south by a slight promontory. This is occupied by the quarter of the city known as the Fort, from the former existence of a fort founded by the Portuguese and reconstructed by the Dutch. In 1869 the governor, Sir Hercules Robinson (afterwards Lord Rosmead), obtained authority to demolish the fortifications, which were obsolete for purposes of defence, and required 6000 men to man them properly. The levelling of the walls and filling up of the moat made the Fort much more accessible and healthy, and since then it has become the business centre of the city. Here are situated Queen’s House, the governor’s residence; the secretariat or government offices, and other government buildings, such as the fine general post office and the customs house. Here also are most of the principal hotels, which have a peculiarly high reputation among European hotels in the East. A lofty tower serves as the principal lighthouse of the port and also as a clock-tower. On the south side of the Fort are extensive barracks. The old banqueting-hall of the Dutch governors is used as the garrison church of St Peter.

To the north-east of the Fort, skirting the harbour, are the Pettah, the principal native quarter, the districts of Kotahena and Mutwall, and suburbs beyond. In this direction the principal buildings are the Wolfendahl church, a massive Doric building of the Dutch (1749); the splendid Roman Catholic cathedral of St Lucia (completed in 1904); and St Thomas’s College (1851), which follows the lines of an English public school. Close to this last is the Anglican cathedral of Christ Church. The Kotahena temple is the chief Buddhist temple in Colombo.

To the north-east of the Fort is the Lake, a ramifying sheet of fresh water, which adds greatly to the beauty of the site of Colombo, its banks being clothed with luxuriant foliage and flowers. The narrow isthmus between this lake and the sea, south of the Fort, is called Galle Face, and is occupied chiefly by promenades and recreation grounds. The peninsula enclosed by two arms of the Lake is known as Slave Island, having been the site of a slave’s prison under the Dutch. South-east of this is the principal residential quarter of Colombo, with the circular Victoria Park as its centre. To the east of the park a series of parallel roads, named after former British governors, are lined with beautiful bungalows embowered in trees. This locality is generally known as the Cinnamon Gardens, as it was formerly a Dutch reserve for the cultivation of the cinnamon bush, many of which are still growing here. In the park is the fine Colombo Museum, founded by Sir William Gregory; and near the neighbouring Campbell Park are the handsome buildings of a number of institutions, such as Wesley College, and the General, Victoria Memorial Eye and other hospitals. South of Victoria Park is the Havelock racecourse. Among educational establishments not hitherto mentioned are the Royal College, the principal government institution, the government technical college and St Joseph’s Roman Catholic college. Most of the town is lighted by gas, and certain quarters with electric light, and electric tramways have been laid over several miles of the city roads. The water-supply is drawn from a hill region 30 m. distant.

Under British rule Colombo has shared in the prosperity brought to the island by the successive industries of coffee and tea-planting. At the height of the coffee-growing enterprise 20,000 men, women and children, chiefly Sinhalese and Tamils, found employment in the large factories and stores of the merchants scattered over the town, where the coffee was cleaned, prepared, sorted and packed for shipment. Tea, on the contrary, is prepared and packed on the estates; but there is a considerable amount of work still done in the Colombo stores in sorting, blending and repacking such teas as are sold at the local public sales; also in dealing with cacao, cardamoms, cinchona bark and the remnant still left of the coffee industry. But it is to its position as one of the great ports of call of the East that Colombo owes its great and increasing importance. A magnificent breakwater, 4200 ft. long, the first stone of which was laid by the prince of Wales in 1875, was completed in 1884. This breakwater changed an open roadstead into a harbour completely sheltered on the most exposed or south-west side; but there was still liability in certain months to storms from the north-west and south-east. Two additional arms were therefore constructed, consisting of a north-east and north-west breakwater, leaving two openings, one 800 ft. and the other 700 ft. wide, between the various sections. The area enclosed is 660 acres. A first-class graving-dock, of which the Admiralty bore half the cost, has also been added. These improvements caused Galle to be abandoned as a port of call for steamers in favour of Colombo, while Trincomalee has been abandoned as a naval station. The port has assumed first-class importance, mail steamers calling regularly as well as men-of-war and the mercantile marine of all nations; and it is now one of the finest artificial harbours in the world. The extension of railways also has concentrated the trade of the island upon the capital, and contributed to its rise in prosperity.

Colombo was originally known as the Kalantotta or Kalany ferry. By the Arabs the name was changed to Kolambu, and the town was mentioned by Ibn Batuta in 1346 as the largest and finest in Serendib. In 1517 the Portuguese effected a settlement, and in 1520 they fortified their port and bade defiance to the native besiegers. In 1586 the town was invested by Raja Singh, but without success. On its capture by the Dutch in 1656 it was a flourishing colony with convents of five religious orders, churches and public offices, inhabited by no fewer than 900 noble families and 1500 families dependent on mercantile or political occupations. In 1796 it was surrendered to the British.