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Notes on the Geography of Sri Lanka: Colombo

Colombo became a great port only in the 20th century, when the British built several breakwaters that enclosed about a square mile of water and protected it from the monsoon. The city quickly doubled from 126,000 people in 1891 to 248,000 in 1921.  Since then, it's grown even faster: today, although the city officially has about 1.2 million people, there are 4.4 million in Colombo and the adjoining Gampaha districts.  That's more than a fifth of the country's total population. 

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The coastal plain a few miles east of Colombo has a very distinctive land-use pattern, with lowland paddy fields in a dendritic pattern separated by forest gardens.  The name "forest garden" is odd, but the forest is heavily peppered with homes occupied by commuters determined to avoid a concrete jungle. Much of the paddy land, though green, is now simply in grass.  That's because paddy prices are so low that the crop makes sense only for the farmer's own family, for whom it replaces rice that would otherwise be bought in the market. 

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The city has a long colonial history, though the oldest layers--especially the Portuguese (from 1507 to 1656) but also the Dutch (from 1656 to 1796)--have been largely obliterated.  Here's a bit of the Dutch legacy: a disused canal, part of an early transportation network. The canal links Beira Lake with the harbor.

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Few Dutch buildings survive, but here's one on Prince Street in the district called Pettah, immediately east of the old coastal fort.  Built in the late 1600s as the private house of Count August Carl Van Ranzow, since 1982 it's been a museum.

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Over the entrance there's a fragment from Psalm 127: "Except the Lord build the house, the builders labor in vain."

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Behind the house there's a rectangular courtyard with a well.

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From the back of the courtyard looking toward the main building.

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Lots of ventilation: there's no ceiling other than the roof tiles.

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East of Pettah, the Dutch colonists in 1749 opened the cruciform or four-winged Wolfendahl Church. No respecter of their predecessors, the Dutch built it on the site of a Portuguese church.

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The church gates carry the insignia of the United East Indies Company.  The same logo can be seen in the sets of photographs on this website of Jakarta and Delft.

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A tombstone now attached to the wall of the church: "Here rests the body of Jacob Anton Muller, in his lifetime Surgeon of Tutucorin, born 28 May, 1743, died 4 Feb., 1831, aged 87 years 8 months and 8 days."  Dutch tombstones were often turned over and re-inscribed by the British, but the Dutch can hardly complain: they themselves destroyed the tombstones of the Portuguese.  (For more Dutch tombstones, see the pictures of Galle.)

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Not your typical church: St. Peter's, which stands at the harbor side next to the Grand Oriental Hotel, was the home of the Dutch governors and later served as the Government House of the first British governor, Frederick North.  The British attended service at the Wolfendahl Church until 1804, when this move to this building and made it the Fort Church.  In 1821, it was consecrated as St. Peter's.  In Tombstones and Monuments in Ceylon (1913), the indefatigable J. Penry Lewis suggests that the portico and verandas were British additions to the original building.

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The nave, originally two separate rooms. Lewis suggests that the arches were added during the British period.

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At the rear of the nave, a massive black punkah can stir the heavy air.

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The walls are the most heavily laden of any church in the country. 

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One of the biggest, oldest, and certainly most verbose stones.  It dates to 1814, the year before the British conquered the highland kingdom of Kandy, and it may be the reverse side of a Dutch tombstone. "Here lie deposited the mortal remains of the Right Hon'ble Lady Louisa Rodney, daughter of John, Earl of Aldborough.  She was born December 3rd, 1778, married October the 19th, 1799, the Hon. John Rodney.  She departed this life December 2nd, 1814.  A few days before her death she was seen in this place apparently in health joining with unaffected piety in the public worship of her Maker, one who was felt to be the life, the ornament of the limited society of Colombo.  The pious daughter, the faithful wife, the affectionate mother, had too well discharged her various duties, not to feel a firm reliance on the mercy of the Creator.  To those with whom those relations existed, who shall speak earthly comfort?  Who shall replace to her parents the pride of their noble house?  Who shall soften the affliction of the beloved partner of so many of her happiest years?  Who shall calculate the loss of such a mother to the poor infants surrounding their sorrowing father, unconscious of their common calamity, and wondering at the change which had converted the happiest dwelling into a house of mourning?  Before her native dignity and easy condescension, restraint and ceremony alike retired, and while our social circles were enlived by her cheerful temper, the sorrows of the unfortunate were sooth'd by her prompt bounty.  Such was the kind, the good, the warm-hearted friend whom all deplored [sic].  Such was she who has left a void in our society not to be filled up, and now is her earthly form, which beamed the very spirit of benevolence, the tenant of a cold and silent grave.  For such a loss it is fair to indulge in the grief, which we feel to be universal, the best affections of our hearts demanded, and cold must be that heart, knowing as we know, would not sorrow for the amiable Lady Louisa Rodney.  And now, O Lord, in whose hands are the issues of life and death, not my will, but Thine be done."

From an obituary : "The funeral, which took place on Saturday, was attended by an immense concourse of persons of every description in the neighborhood of Colombo.... Never was witnessed a scene of sincerer grief than the Church of Colombo exhibited while the funeral service proceeded.... We use no figurative phrase in saying that the death of Lady Louisa Rodney has cast a general gloom of sadness over this Settlement." 

Her husband was Chief Secretary  and continued in Ceylon until his retirement in 1832.  He died in France in 1847, aged 82, by which time he had fathered 18 children from three wives--Louisa being the middle one.

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A few of the older memorials are in Latin, like this one for William Coke, Puisne Justice of the Supreme Court.  Coke had just arrived for the Criminal Sessions at Trincomalee when fatally struck at age 43 by dysentery.  A member of Christ Church, Oxford, he had earlier been a King's Scholar at Westminster School.  

"Memoriae positum Gulielmi Coke equitis Aedi-Christi Oxon alumni studentis regis Britanici in hac usula concilio qui per annos decem rem juridicam hic administravit juris consultus regius socius judex praeses literis humanioribus ornatissimum suavitate morum insignis, ingenio dulcis judicio sincerus suis benignus omnibus facilis et urbanus justitiae et propositi impavidus sed placide vindex bonos omen sibi conciliavit concivibus dilectus indigenis veneratus quam carus vixit quam flebilis occidie nobis et posteris hoc marmor testetur.  Natus Anglis in agro Derviensi, decessit Trincomalae, Kal Septembris 1818, aetat 43."  

 

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"In Memory of William Tolfrey, Esq., of His Majesty's Civil Service, who devoted his oriental learning to the propagation of the Gospel by rendering the Holy Scriptures into the Singhalese and Pali languages.  He had with intense application nearly completed a translation of the New Testament, and the last labour of his hand well described in the language of St. Paul his benignant character and the great object of his pious zeal: 'And the servant of the Lord must not strive but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves: if God peradventure will them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth, and that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will.' --Timothy 2nd, ii. 24, 25, 26.  He was called from his unfinished task 4th January, 1817.  Aged 39 years.  This monument is erected by the grateful public of Colombo."

Tolfrey's career began as a soldier in the Mysore and Mahratta wars, but he evidently had a literary bent even then, because his letters about those campaigns "were greatly admired for classical elegance of composition and masterly display of knowledge of his subject."  Lewis further explains that Tolfrey sold his commission and came to Ceylon in 1805, where his uncle Samuel was in the civil service.  He himself then joined the civil service and, with a knowledge of Sanskrit, Pali, Hindustani, and Tamil became the government's chief translator in 1816.  These language skills made him especially aware of the simmering tensions that ultimately led to the Uva rebellion.  According to Bennett's Capability of Ceylon (p.420) Tolfrey "was thought scarcely less than a lunatic for viewing them [these tensions] in a more serious light.   He was constitutionally of a melancholy turn of mind, and the excitement  which had at first driven him to madness ended in death."

 

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Another Tolfrey--a cousin. "Sacred to the memory of Edward Tolfrey, Esq., of His Majesty's Ceylon Civil Establishment, and late Judicial Commissioner in the Kandian Provinces, who after a period of nearly 20 years' service in various parts of this Island died in Kandy on the 9th August, 1821.  Aged 37 years."  Tolfrey is buried in Kandy's Garrison Cemetery, but no stone there survives.

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"In memory of the Hon. Sir John D'Oyly, Bart, Resident of the Kandyan Provinces, and one of the Members of H.M. Council of this Island, whose meritorious services to the Government from the year 1802 and his talents during the Kandyan war stand recorded in the archives of this Government and in the office of the Secretary of State for the Colonies."  See the pictures of the Garrison Cemetery, Kandy, for more on D'Oyly.

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"In memory of Henry Augustus Marshall, Esq., for many years Auditor and Accountant-General of this Island.  He was educated at Harrow and at Charterhouse and at Christ Church, Oxford, and entered the Ceylon Civil Service in 1798, having accompanied the Honourable Fredk. North to the Island, from which time he never returned to Europe.  He was an elegant classical scholar and a sincere Christian.  He died on 23rd January, 1841, in the 64th year of his age.  This table is erected by his widow and two sons as a testimony of their love and respect."

From an obituary: "During the holidays he took a trip to Nuwara Eliya, after which he appeared in excellent health and spirits, but fever soon made its appearance, under which he sank in a few days."  Sir Charles Marshall, Chief Justice, was known as Equity Marshall, so this Henry Marshall acquired the joking nickname "Iniquity Marshall."

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"This tablet is erected by the Ceylon Civil Service in testimony of their respect for the memory of Percival Acland Dyke, for upwards of 45 years a member of the Service, and for the last 38 years of his life the Government Agent of the Northern Province of Ceylon.  Known no less for his untiring devotion to the Public Service than for his capacity for administration and the zeal which he displayed in promoting the interests of the people over whom he was placed.  He rested from his labours on the 9th October, 1867."  Buried in Jaffna.

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"Juvent Aspera Probum.  In ever loving memory of George Steuart, founder of the firm of George Steuart & Co., Colombo, late of Waverly Lodge, Blackheath, Kent.  Born at Dover, 1st May, 1808.  Died at Dover, 8th July, 1896."  The firm, which managed coffee estates, was begun by brother James Steuart in 1835, but he as a government officer was compelled to divest himself of it.  In 1839 James turned it over to his brother Joseph, who however died in 1843. The firm was then turned over to another brother, George, who renamed the firm and ran it until retiring to England in 1863, where he lived another 33 years.

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A  more churchly edifice: St. Andrew's Church, built 1907.

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Inside, one of those memorials that cast doubt on the common view that the colonial establishment was a nest of scoundrels.

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The seat of British administration: the secretariat (1929), designed by an architect who apparently never outgrew his building blocks.

 

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The same building, from another perspective. Behind it, the two arms of Beira Lake, which frame the peninsula called Slave Island.

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Adjoining the secretariat: the colonial period's National State Assembly, also from 1929. On the left, the former Meridien Hotel, now an independent operation. Off camera to the left, there was (December 2000) a closed Intercontinental Hotel. Since then, it has reopened as an independent operation.  Another sign of political trouble: the security barricades.

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Old British-made gates, still swinging freely at the entrance to the Colombo Museum.

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Opened in 1877, the museum was designed by J.G. Smither, the prolific architect of the Public Works Department and the author of the meticulous Architectural Remains at Anuradhapura, Ceylon (1894).

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The former Law Courts, another massive and in this case often modified building with paired porticoes.

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Across the street from the old courts is All Saint's Church, built in 1865 and here having its interior whitewashed.  Two would-be circus artists are high on the scaffolding.

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On the church wall, a memorial to a court functionary, the chief Sinhala interpreter.

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The former headquarters of the Public Works Department.  Built in 1908, it now houses the next-to-invisible Tourist Police.

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The war memorial in Viharamahadevi (formerly Victoria) Park.

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The Galle Face Hotel, seen here from Galle Face, a strip of open beach frontage set aside as a park by the British and even more valuable now, when the coast for miles in either direction is so built up as to be nearly inaccessible.

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The hotel traces its history to 1864, but the present structure is from the 1890s.

 

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The other historic hotel is the harborside Grand Oriental Hotel, built in 1875 to a design by the same Smither who did the Colombo Museum. The hotel was renovated in 1924 but is pretty empty these days.  At the lower right is the former Custom House.

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When tourists arrived by ship, they couldn't beat the GOH, which was literally the first building they saw after clearing customs.  St. Peter's Church is just to the right of the picture but behind a security checkpoint.

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A block up York Street from the GOH: the preeminent colonial emporium, Cargills.  In the background are the twin towers of the world trade center and the shorter cylinder of the Bank of Ceylon--all on former barracks land. The Cargills building, which opened in 1906, was built by Walker, Sons, and Co., a firm with exceptionally diverse interests.  John Walker, from Perthshire, had begun by building coffee machinery at Kandy in the 1860s. By 1900, his company had 35 Europeans and 1,300 Eurasians on its staff.  It ran a retail store in which it sold hardware, automobiles, and bicycles that it itself made under the brandname Serendib.  Walker also rebuilt the Galle Face Hotel in the 1890s.

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Cargill's had started as Milne, Cargill, and Company, but Milne soon retired to Glasgow, while Cargill had other interests, including Burmah Oil.  Long registered in Glasgow. Cargills was sold to Sri Lankans in 1946, but the new owners chose to keep the Cargill's name. 

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The wealth of the Orient, as perceived by a merchant prince and his architect.

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Cargill's today operates the island's leading chain of supermarkets--very modest by international standards but a huge advance over what was available in Sri Lanka 20 years ago.  A few antiquated company signs survive--not only here in the arcade of the old Colombo store but in other towns, including Nuwara Eliya.

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A former competitor on Chatham Street. No longer competitive at all: instead, it's out of business, thanks to security barriers that make it nearly inaccessible.

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Another erstwhile retail shop: Whiteaway Laidlaw and Company.

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Main Road, with the harbor to the right and York Street straight ahead. The wedged-shaped building formerly housed the Eastern Bank.

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A storefront window in that building.

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Cave started out as secretary to an Anglican bishop. By 1876 he was importing religious books.  Then he opened a regular bookshop, began importing pianos, and turned into a conglomerateur.  He later wrote several Ceylon guidebooks still available in antiquarian shops--for example, The Book of Ceylon (1908).

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Tail end of the colonial era: the Regal Cinema, from 1930. The city had several movie theaters, including not only the Regal but the Elphinstone, Empire, New Olympia, and Tower. 

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Many private homes from that era survive, though usually put to other use: here, for example, is the home of the 80 Club.

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In addition to all these buildings--churches, government buildings, hotels, shops, and homes--Colombo was a major financial center, with many international organizations present in the few blocks around the city's famous clocktower-cum-lighthouse.  Alas, taking pictures here has been difficult or impossible in recent years.  Note the security barriers, there to protect the president's residence, known as Queen's House. We're in the heart of the old fort, though the walls no longer exist.

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One such bank, abandoned when this picture was taken but formerly the Chartered Bank of India..

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Another major bank: originally the Imperial Bank of India but now HSBC.

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Lloyd's. With all the others, it's a good indicator of Colombo's importance as a maritime hub.

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Until the recent rise of textiles, the country's main export was tea or--earlier in the 19th Century--coffee.  To help speed that export, a railway system was built in the mid-19th Century.  Here's the main Colombo station, Fort Station, opened in 1917 but actually the third Fort station.

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It's architecturally modest but does have some graceful steelwork.

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The country's main railroad shops are a couple of miles to the east.  Though busy, their condition today would give palpitations to any railroad official of a century ago.  Note the old turntable in the foreground.

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The busy mainline from the interior into the city; on the right, a train running very late.

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Abandoned engines, for use on the narrow-gauge Kelani Valley line, which opened in 1902.

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A remarkable vehicle: a self-contained, steam-powered, narrow-gauge passenger car, also retired.

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This is one of a half dozen steam engines in working order.  The name Viceroy Special seems odd, since Ceylon had a governor, not a viceroy, but during World War II the Viceroy of India did come frequently to Ceylon; hence the name.  The trains operate chiefly as tourist specials, though they have also been fired up when diesel fuel was in short supply.

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Locomotive profile.

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Semi-abandoned workshops.  The tracks are for a rolling platform that can move cars from any track on the right side of the picture to any track inside the shed.

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The transfer platform.

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Despite the decrepitude, the railway system is very active.  Here, a few miles south of Colombo, another branch of the railway--this one broad gauge--hugs the coast on its way north from Galle to Colombo.


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