Monday, 11 April 2016 11:42

Stepping into the Past On foot through the historic streets of Colombo

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Every city has streets that are crucial to its history, and Colombo is no exception. For instance, before air travel became commonplace, the exit road from Colombo's port, York Street, drew every passenger into the heart of the Island. Yet in Dutch times, it was a canal. The adventurer on foot can imagine old times in some of Colombo's historic streets.

In November 1505, Lourenço de Almeida, commander of a Portuguese fleet, discovered the predominantly Arab trading settlement known as Kolon Tota, today's Colombo. It comprised just one thoroughfare where commerce was concentrated, off which narrow lanes led to the houses of the inhabitants and jungle beyond. Fortunately, this thoroughfare still exists. Its name, Bankshall Street, from the Javanese bangasalas (warehouses), reflects its history.

The Portuguese built a fort that exploited the topography, but the urban planning within was lacking. When the Dutch conquered the Portuguese in 1656, they constructed a more robust fort and introduced their effective grid system of streets, evident in all their colonies.

During the early years of British rule in Colombo, after the submission of the Dutch in 1796, existing street names in the fort were retained. But in 1830, the north-south road on the seaward side, where the governor's residence was situated, was renamed King Street in honour of William IV, and changed to Queen Street in 1837 when Victoria came to the throne. Since Sri Lanka became a republic it has been called Janadhipathi Mawatha, President's Avenue.

The British constructed a parallel road on the opposite side of the fort called York Street, no doubt referring to a Duke of York. Of the streets running east-west that linked the main thoroughfares of Queen and York, the foremost was the Dutch residential De Beer Street, later changed to Chatham Street. And parallel to Chatham lay Hospital Street, significant during the Dutch era as it served their key hospital.

These are four interlinked streets that have, in different ways, played a role in the development of the fort. Though mostly transformed in recent decades, they contain examples of the Dutch and British periods. And with a little information and imagination, a walk through these short streets (the fort is 750m long and 600m wide) affords a glimpse of the past.

York Street
Start where a visit to Ceylon began for passengers a century ago. On exiting the harbour, York Street greeted them with its grand, colonnaded architecture and red earth thoroughfare so broad that trees grew far out from the pavement. Along the street, rickshaws, buffalo carts and carriages wended their way, the only transport keeping to a strict course being the trams.

During Portuguese rule, the area contained a stream that flowed from the nearby Beira Lake into the port. The Dutch, inevitably, decided to turn it into a canal. Thus the creation of York Street was a major feat of British engineering.

The first building on York Street was, and remains, a hotel, which became famous during the era of sea travel because if its proximity to the harbour, an enticing first stop for the sea-weary. Bella Woolf enthuses in The Twins in Ceylon (1909): "There was a big hotel, called the ‘G.O.H.' - short for Grand Oriental Hotel - and there was a band playing and a palm-garden, and they had lunch, waited on by Sinhalese dressed in white."

York Street has always been a commercial street. Beyond the GOH is one of Colombo's most celebrated mercantile buildings - the lengthy, red-and-white brick Renaissance-style Cargill's department store, completed in 1906. In the past it served as the country's premier department store, and would have attracted passengers who needed to replenish toiletries and the like.

Chatham Street
Turn right where York Street intersects Chatham Street. In Dutch times it became a desirable residential street named after an engineer, De Beer, who deepened the adjacent Beira Lake to allow ships to berth. The British "Chatham" refers to Lord Chatham or William Pitt, Prime Minister from 1766 to 1768.

The 17th and 18th Century Dutch houses were so deep they stretched from De Beer Street to the street behind, of lesser status, where deliveries and domestic activities took place. Initially, the British resided here too. The houses were simple, single-storey structures with tiled roofs. The street façade was a continuous colonnaded verandah of timber posts supporting the eaves that overhung the street.

The architecture may have changed but watch out for one or two exceptions. The trees that shaded the street have gone but the “strange medley” still exists

By the early 20th Century, Chatham Street had become part of the fort's bustling shopping area as Henry W. Cave reveals in The Ceylon Government Railway (1910). It was, he wrote, composed of a "strange medley of restaurants, native jewellers, curiosity shops and provision boutiques, the most part old and limited to one floor."

The architecture may have changed but watch out for one or two exceptions. The trees that shaded the street have gone but the "strange medley" still exists.

As you proceed along Chatham Street, you will notice a square tower ahead, located at the centre of a crossroads. It is a unique historical landmark, a clock tower and (former) lighthouse, 29m tall, the only example of such a dual-role tower in the world and the only lighthouse located in the centre of a city. The beacon became operational in 1867, but the clock was not installed until 1914. By the 1950s, tall surrounding buildings made the lighthouse aspect redundant.

The most splendid building in Chatham Street, Central Point, lies opposite the clock tower. Built for a life assurance company in 1914, it was the tallest in Colombo. Today it's a government building, but has a worthwhile Economic History Museum that gives the chance to see the impressive Corinthian columns and marble-clad interior.

Hospital Street
Flanking Central Point is a short lane that leads into narrow Hospital Street, which runs alongside the magnificently designed and highly advanced Dutch Hospital, constructed in 1677. It is one of the few extant examples of such 17th Century Dutch architecture in South Asia. In 2011, it was transformed into a shopping and dining precinct, but the historic architecture was preserved.

Janadhipathi Mawatha
Backtrack to the intersection the clocktower dominates: it's where Janadhipathi Mawatha crosses Chatham Street. Turn right into Janadhipathi Mawatha and through the pavement corridor that forms part of the outer entrance to the street. On the left is President's House with, ironically, a statue of Governor Sir Edward Barnes (1824-31) in front.

At the furthest end are gate-posts. This was the entrance to Gordon Gardens, opened in 1887 but lost to the public since 1980 due to security concerns, "a park replete with fountains, gay flower pots and grateful shade. By day it was the rendezvous of the elite of the city, white and brown. By night the gates were closed, and stern placards warned trespassers to beware," wrote Harry A. Franck in A Vagabond Journey Around the World (1910).

Strange as it may seem, the magnificent colonial building opposite President's House, now abandoned, was not some establishment intimately connected to the colonial government but the General Post Office. Hopefully, as with many other colonial buildings, it will be restored and serve a new purpose.

This is the end of the street journey. Time to head for home... or perhaps return the short distance to the Dutch Hospital for some refreshment and reflection.

Words Richard Boyle

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