Friday, February 17, 2006

Slave Island

Slave Island

The Nippon Hotel:
The area of Colombo about 2 Km south of the Fort and adjoining Galle Face at its rear was once an island on the Beira Lake. Slave Island consisted of a mud village, a bazaar, an excellent ground, and two “gentlemen’s villas”. Kew road connected Slave Island to the Fort by bridges and causeways.

The area is pockmarked with many streets and buildings since development work in the city was carried out during and after the British Colonial era. Wekande is one area within Slave Island bordering the Beira Lake on its south.

Today, Slave Island is a very busy commercial area with many government offices, restaurants, hospitals, corporate offices, cinemas, religious places, and residencies. The Headquarters of the Sri Lanka Air Force, Sri Lanka Army, and the City Football League are also located in here.

The first botanical gardens in Colombo were also located here and its links with London’s Kew Gardens are linked to Kew Road.

The Kaffirs
The Portuguese brought around 1,600 ‘Kaffirs’ to Ceylon from Goa, as workmen. They had originally come to Goa from East Africa. The Dutch, later, uswed them as domestic help and labor.

During the 18th century the Kaffir population in Cedylon had grown to large numbers that it gave them a sense of security and strength to stage an insurrection in the city. Besides committing much destruction in the streets and also to private propertry, they also revolted against their employers, some even committing murder.

The Dutch East India Company, at that time, was located in Kollupitiya, very close to the Oberoi Hotel. It is said that one of the Company Officials, Barent Van der Swaan and his wife, were murdered – stabled whilst asleep at night - by one of the slaves working in their bungalow.

The bungalow in which the murders took place was supposed to be haunted and hence unoccupied for many years. When coffee reigned supreme, during the British times, the place was converted into a mercantile store.

The Kaffir insurrection was suppressed and all the slaves were taken along a narrow passage through the ramparts and ferried across the Beira Lake to a jagged peninsular called, IJE, meaning ‘Island’, specially built for them. They had to spend the nights in shanties and tenement houses.

The Dutch used the island to hold the slaves at night, depending on the crocodiles in the lake to prevent them from escaping. The area is now known as Slave Island, the place where the Dutch imprisoned the slaves.

The descendants of the Kaffirs are now concentrated, mainly, in the Batticaloa, Trincomalee, and Puttalam areas. They still sing and perform the Kaffringha, a popular dance form attributed to their community and heritage.

The Malays
During the 17th and 18th centuries, Slave Island was occupied by Javanese and Malay people, who were mostly soldiers who fought and served under the Dutch and British Colonial rulers. The Colombo Malay Cricket Club, formerly located at Riufle Green and now moved to the Jalan Padang at Kew Road, is the oldest cricket club in the whole of Sri Lanka.

Ceylon Cold StoresThe Colombo Ice Company was established in 1866 on the banks of the Beira Lake in Slave Island. Its premises down Glennie Street became known as ‘Ice Kompanniya’, a name that lingers over a century later. Many elders still refer to the Ceylon Cold Stores Ltd., as “Ice Kompanniya”. Over this period the whole district of Slave Island also became to be known as “Kompanni Veediya” meaning Company Street.

Ceylon Cold Stores, later went into the production of aerated waters, ice cream and even many other dairy products and groceries. Today it boasts of a massive supermarket catering to the elite and middle class of Colombo. Milk production and distribution, was also another industry that the Company ventured into and successfully carried out.

It is also reported that, during British times, Slave Island became the home of a Company of the Malay Rifle Regiment. Rifle Street is called Kompanni Veediya for this reason.

Still slave to a name
We pass them every day but do we know their significance? In our new series, Dr. K. D. Paranavitana delves into the history of some of Colombo's famous names and places.

The Colombo Municipality has a ward by the name of 'Slave Island', but it is neither an 'island' nor are 'slaves' found in this area. In the first half of the 20th century, local newspapers carried articles objecting to this name and wasted much ink and energy. Nothing happened and the areacontinued to be called 'Slave Island'.The Beira Lake: Did Dutch Engineer De Beer build it?
Some suggested re-naming it 'Malay Town', others preferred the name 'AfghanTown' as there were residents of Afghan origin. The best suggestion made by someone in the 1940s was to call the area by the name of the famous lake which graces the location; "why not 'Beira Town' or 'Beira Plain'?"

Beira Lake was once the pride and glory of the city of Colombo. For almost three centuries it served as a defence to the fort from the land side. In early British times the lake was used for recreation and amusement. In 1945an anonymous correspondent wrote to the Colombo Observer quoting Martineau's Cinnamon and Pearls (1853): "The Blue Lake of Colombo. Never loses its charm. The mountain range in the distance is an object for the eye to rest lovingly upon, whether clearly outlined against the glowing sky, or dressed in soft clouds from which Adams Peak alone stands aloft,like a dark island in the waters above the firmament."

Today, we can hardly expect to see Adam's Peak over the Colombo Lake on any day of the year, not even from the top of the Twin Towers. Now the Lake is surrounded by concrete constructions and high-rise buildings. At present it is simply a smaller lake than what it was, though the recent changes in thewater's edge around the Simama Malaka have brought in some picturesque scenes.Nippon Hotel in Slave Island The origin of the word 'Beira' and when it was so named are not clear. Some are of the opinion that it was named after a Dutch engineer called 'De Beer" who had constructed the moats and water defences of Colombo Fort around 1700. Some years ago there was a stone slab at the small sluice of the Beira Lake near the 'Convention Centre' bearing the inscription "De Beer: AO 1700". It is no longer there and nobody knows where it is now.

The Dutch surveyor and town planner Adriaan de Leeuw who designed streets in Pettah in 1659 refrained from giving any particular name to the lake.

Philipus Baldaeus's map which describes the situation in 1656 referred to it as 'De Tangh' (The Tank). During the 17th century, the majority of maps identifies it as 'D' Tanck' (The Tank). A map prepared in 1796 indicates this as 'D' Lac, Colombo' (The Lake, Colombo). The Colombo Lake only came to be referred to as Beira apparently on the maps of Colombo drawn after 1927. The lake covered a large extent of land before its surroundings converted to a settlement in the 16th century.

There were several outlets to carry the spill water of the lake to the sea.One of them was opened to the harbour through a stream flowing across the land on which the present St. John's Fish Market stands. The other was the Lotus canal and the last was in Mapane or the Galle Face. The lake is about1.8 m. above sea-level and the overflow was made to run along the eastern side of the rampart and reach the harbour through the Lotus canal. This place was called Klein Mutwal or 'Small Mutwal' in Dutch times. The largest island of the Beira Lake, the 'Slave Island' had been connected to the mainland by filling a section somewhere in the present Union Place.

However, the area retained the original name, throughout the 17th century as it became a place of segregation for the slaves of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) because of the crimes committed by these slaves who were given accommodation in the Fort. One night a slave of a Dutch household in the Fort had murdered an entire family. As a result all the slaves in theFort were lodged in huts just outside the Kasteel or Fort.

This slave population, Aegidius Daalman says, was concentrated in a 'Black Village' or Niggery.

It was Francois Valentijn who first made a reference to this place using the term 'Slave Island'.

The slaves after carrying water, firewood, and attending to janitorial work in the households in the Fort, were at the end of the day rowed to Slave Island every evening through steps of the Sally Port which lay between Bristol Hotel ( it caught fire a few decades ago) and the Registrar General's Office (the empty land adjoining Hemas building). York Street was the rampart of the Dutch Fort and the road along the lower level while Lotus Road indicates the former banks of the Beira Lake.An old Dutch painting giving a view of the Beira Lake The officials of the Dutch East India Company preferred to identify the Slaves' Quarter as 'Slave Island' . For the locals, it was Kompanne Veediya. During early British times the 'Slaves' Quarter' provided a homefor the Gun Lascars of the Rifle Regiment. The name Rifle Street retains this legacy, even to date.
Steps were taken by the Governor Stewart Mackenzie (1837-41) to completely abolish slavery and this was finally realised in 1845. But the name Slave Island still adheres to this division of Colombo because there the Dutch provided shelter to their slaves.

The Dutch had a contingent of Ooosterse Militie or 'Eastern Soldiers' brought over from Java and they were settled in the Malay Quarter of Slave Island now called Malay Street.

Christopher Schweister in his Account of Ceylon (1676-82) refers to this community and states that 'they lived in the town altogether with their huts made a very pretty street'. The Slave Island community comprised a colony of Kaffirs as well. They were offspring of slaves from Africa. The Kaffir slaves were mustered at the Kaffirs Veldt (Kaffirs Ground) and had to answer roll-call. James Cordiner in 1807 says that there were 700 Kaffirs in Colombo. This entire community of Kaffirs was extinct beyond recognition within one generation. Captain Thomas

Ajax Anderson in his 'Wanderings in Ceylon' (1819) writes;

"Hence, let the eye a circuit take
Were gently sloping to the lake,
A smiling, lively scene appears,
A verdant isle, its bosom rears,
With many lovely villa grac'd
A mid embow'ring cocos plac'd!
Have once, to all but int'rest blind,
The Colonists their slaves confin'd;
But now the name alone remains,
Gone are the scourges, racks and chains!"
(Quoted: Ferguson's Ceylon in 1903)

The Kompanna Veediya Railway Station In the 1870s, a railway line was constructed across the Slave Island as the first suburban line leading towards the south, together with a stationabout a mile from the Fort connecting Maradana and Fort.

The station was comparatively small but reflects British colonial style architecture with a small platform and booking office situated at the terminus of Rifle Street. Sinhalese and Tamils called it 'Kompnne Veediya' and 'Kompnne Tervu' respectively and preserved its historic flavour.

The English retained the old Dutch name and called it 'Slave Island'. From the railway station this name passed to the post office, to the public offices and ultimately to the entire ward perpetuating the unsavory name.

Recycling Plastic:

The Slave Island the Malay Kampong       
The Slave Island That We Have Forgotten
Everyday Sri Lanka  - Asiff Hussein

Ever wondered how Slave Island, one of downtown Colombo’s major hotspots today, got its name? It has neither slaves nor is an island as far as we can see. But then again, place-names rarely lie. They often reflect the reality that once was, capturing a loop in time as cleverly as Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. And so it is with Slave Island, which was once an island in a lake, or a sort of peninsula. And yes, it had slaves, plenty of them!

Black Island

“The Lake and the Slave Island from the glacis” by John Deschamps (1845)

A bird’s eye view of history gleaned from vintage maps and quotations of long dead writers prove just one thing, that Slave Island was indeed an island or an island of sorts. Many writers of old testified to this, among them Reverend James Selkirk, a British Clergyman who lived in the middle part of the nineteenth century. Says Selkirk in his monumental work Recollections of Ceylon which was published in 1844:

“A lake almost insulates the fort. In the centre of this lake is a tongue of land called Slave Island, being the place where the Dutch used to keep their slaves”

Selkirk described Slave Island as a tongue of land in the Beira Lake, by which we may take to have meant something like an inland peninsula, where the land is surrounded by water on three sides. The renowned surveyor, R.L Brohier, in his Discovering Ceylon  (1973) also held this view, inferring that it was a jagged peninsula that was miscalled in old Dutch maps as Ije meaning ‘island’.

However, one could argue that at a certain point in history, it was indeed an island fully surrounded by water. This is suggested by some interesting stories left for us by a few writers of old and by the plain semantics of the term, for an island simply means an island!

The writer Alan Walters says in his charming book Palms and Pearls or Scenes in Ceylon published in 1892:

“Making first for the native quarter of Pettah, or Black-town, we pass picturesque Slave Island, which gets its name from the following incident. One night in the old slave times before the year 1844. the Kafir slaves in a certain house in the Fort, in consequence of cruel treatment, rose and murdered a whole family. Thenceforth, the slaves were every evening put into punts at sunset, and rowed to what was then an island, where they were kept under safe guard until the morning”.

As Walters noted, prior to the abolition of slavery in 1845, slaves were not uncommon in Ceylon, especially during the days of the Dutch colonials. These black slaves were sourced mainly from East Africa, such as the Portuguese colony of Mozambique, and were used as servants and gardeners, among other things. The Dutchmen, after the incident related by Walters, could not enjoy a sound sleep, thinking that a Kafir (as they called their black slaves) might knife them in the dead of night, and so confined their slaves to an area called Kaffirs Veldt (Field of Slaves), which is the present Echelon Square whence the twin towers of the World Trade Centre rise skywards today. Come eventide, they would be rowed to the island in the lake to spend the night before being rowed back to the mainland and put to work. No slave dare escape as the Dutch stocked the lake with a few hungry crocodiles ever ready to make a meal of men. As a warning to their enslaved subjects, the Dutch also erected a high gibbet on an island in the lake known as ‘Captain’s Island’, where it could be seen from all sides.

Thus, it is possible that at a certain point of time in our colonial history, Slave Island was really an island, or a jagged tongue of land jutting out into the lake on its southern side that was dredged to allow water to surround it like a large moat,perhaps even for the specific purpose of confining the slaves of the Dutch.

Slave Island, Colombo, c. 1890

If so, it would have been later filled to connect it to the mainland. From what we know, the point at which it was joined to the mainland was once called Union Place. Leafing through Geoff Ells’ book on the origin of the city’s place names, Colombo Jumbo, this writer was surprised to learn that it was so called because in the olden days, Slave Island was connected by a road to the mainland by filling in a section somewhere where Union Place stands. This is a fascinating account of lost history, especially since Union Place has now been renamed Colvin R. De Silva Mawatha after a leftist leader who thrived thereabouts. And to think I once fondly believed that it was the place where the trade unions of old picketed for the rights of the working class as they do even today ‒ there really is so much history in place-names!

Leisure Spot

Little is it known that Slave Island was once a very scenic spot much frequented by foreign visitors. That was during British times, when it earned a much better reputation than it did under the Dutch slave masters. Those were the days when pleasure barges, skiffs, and ferry boats operated by the Boustead Brothers sailed the Beira lake and overflowing families picnicked on its grassy banks.

General’s Lake Road, Slave Island

Even before the Boustead Brothers entered the scene, it had already gained fame as a pleasure spot in early British times. Says Reverend James Cordiner in his Description of Ceylon (1807):

“Ferry-boats cross over from each side of the lake to the peninsula called Slave-island, and pleasure barges and canoes are continually sailing on this sheltered bason. Several gentlemen, whose habitations are situated on its borders, adopt this mode of going into the fort in the morning, and return home in the afternoon in the same manner. Many persons, whose duties confine them to the garrison, enjoy, occasionally, a pleasant recreation in accompanying their friends across the lake, and partake of a hospitable dinner, at four o’ clock, with particular relish in so charming a situation”.
Nearly thirty years later, we have Simon Casie Chitty, the compiler of The Ceylon Gazetteer (1834) saying of Slave Island:

“It is numerously covered with cocoanut and other trees, which afford an excellent shade. That part nearest to the Fort is very cool, being separated from the sea by an isthmus, usually called the Galle face. Communication from this place with either the town or the Fort is very easy by land, passing over a very pretty little stone bridge, which opens to the south end of the Galle face, near the village of Colpetty, or by boats which cross the lake in all seasons”.

And almost another thirty years later we have H. L. Cowan in his History of the Ceylon Regiment in Colburn’s United Services Magazine (1860) observing:

“Pass out that sultry and much to be shunned Fort of Colombo, bend your steps by its outworks towards the east, and you will come upon a piece of ground, jutting into, and nearly surrounded by a large fresh water lake, grass-planted and well-shaped with rows of tulip trees. This is Slave island, so called from its use during the Dutch dynasty in Ceylon”.

The places where the ferries took off was until recently reflected in two street names of the area, Old Ferry Lane and New Ferry Lane. New Ferry Lane still exists, but one wonders what became of Old Ferry Lane.

Giant Garden

Slave Island was once the site of the country’s first botanical gardens, the Royal Botanical Gardens which was established in 1810, not very long after the British had taken Colombo. It was called Kew Gardens after the more famous garden of London. Perhaps the only reminder of this is Kew Road which seems to have been connected to the gardens and who knows, our Kew variety of pineapple which must have been first grown here.

Says A. M. Ferguson in his grand work Souvenirs of Ceylon (1868):

“The name “Kew” applied to a little peninsula jutting out into the lake, on which the quarters of the married sergeants of the Ceylon Rifles are situated, is due to the fact of a botanic garden having once existed here, traces of which still remain in the shape of large and handsome trees. Indeed Prince Soltykoff, the Russian traveler, described Colombo as one vast botanic garden, and the idea is not an unnatural one to men from cold northern regions, who see the blazing “flambeau tree” of Madagascar, the “cabbage tree of Java”, the graceful casuarinas of Australia and such convolvuli as the “morning glories” and the “moon flowers” of night intermingled”.
There was also a large house named Kew here. John Deschamps, a British army officer, in his Scenery and Reminiscences of Ceylon (1845) described Slave Island as being pleasant and commodious, with some elegant residences by the lake, foremost amongst which was the one called “Kew”.

Gourmet’s Paradise

Slave Island gained a considerable reputation as a food lover’s paradise in the olden days, thanks again to its Malay heritage. It was well known for its cylindrical rice cakes known as pittu and honeycomb tripe known as barbat, which was eaten together with the rich white milk of the coconut. Tudor Jones observed in his charming paper These People make Ceylon published in the Times of Ceylon Christmas Number of 1935: “

“Slave Island’s fame is for manipittu and bat. Manipittu is rice-flour baked inside a bamboo, and steamed. Babat is tripe in curry form. Indeed, Slave Island is quite a place for gourmets. Curry and rice is made most deliciously in the lowest eating shops”. He also refers to the “taste shop” under the command of an Amazon of a woman “where the bibber can stimulate his palate or break his hunger with prawns fried, liver boiled, gram roasted or boiled, pappadam (it feels and sounds like that when you eat it), eggs, tripe perhaps, boiled potatoes, chicken or duck. And there are draughts to play for those who linger on”.
This writer remembers a time in the early 1980s, when his father would take the family out to dinner at this Malay eatery down Malay Street in Slave Island where they would enjoy a delicious mouth-watering meal of pittu with its traditional accompaniments of barbat, and coconut milk served us by a small-made, hunchbacked man. They also served a hot beef soup oozing with oil. The big bone that invariably came with the dish of soup had a yellowish marrow which one got at by sucking or scooping it out with the handle of a spoon.

To this day, the Sappideens in New Ferry Lane off Malay Street still make great barbat and pittu  and large patties filled with honeycomb tripe, bovine intestines, and potatoes, a snack known as pastol, another Malay favourite that has its origins in the Dutch term for patty or puff pastry, pasteitje

Malay Kampong

Slave Island was once a thriving Malay settlement, a fact that is still reflected in the street names, Malay Street and Java Lane. Rifle Street, now Justice Akbar Mawatha, was where the Ceylon Rifle Regiment was based until it was disbanded in 1873. The regiment, which was formed out of the Ceylon Malay Regiment, had a good number of Malay infantry soldiers in the service of the British.

In fact, the Sinhala name for Slave Island, Kompanna Veediya,  testifies to its Malay heritage, which may mean either company (of Malay soldiers who were stationed there) or the street of the ‘Kampong’, kampong being a Malay settlement. There is a belief that the street takes its name from the old company, Ceylon Cold Stores, or rather its predecessor, Ceylon Ice Company, which was founded way back in 1866 by Albert Von Possner, a German who put the fizz into drinks in Ceylon. The company, which started in Glennie Street in Slave Island where Possner lived, pioneered the manufacture of ginger beer in amber glass bottles and had soon grown to be a large food and beverage company, manufacturing under the Elephant brand. Thus, it is possible that the area was named after this company, since in the Sinhala language, kompanna may also mean ‘company’.

The Sappideens, a Malay family of Slave Island. The Malays have, for several generations, lived in Slave Island, which they called Kampong Kertel. Image courtesy writer
However, this does not necessarily have to mean a commercial company. E.B. Denham in his Ceylon at the Census of 1911 (1912) observes that both the Sinhalese and Tamil names for Slave Island mean ‘The Company’s Street’ (Kompannavidiya in Sinhala and Kumpani Teruvu in Tamil) “probably from the company of gun lascars who had their lines there”. Thus, it is quite possible that it took its name from the company of Malay soldiers of the Ceylon Rifle Regiment who were stationed there. We have it from An Officer who says in his paper on the Ceylon Rifle Regiment published in the Colburns United Service Magazine of 1860, that the regiment was formed from several companies of Malay soldiers found in the pay of the Dutch East India Company at the capture of the maritime provinces of the island by the British in 1795-96. He records to their credit that “they were the only troops who offered any determined opposition to the British forces”. 

Very interesting is his observation that when the Ceylon Rifle Regiment was officially constituted in 1827, it was only the Malay portion of it that was armed with rifles, but these were not issued to the Sepoys of Indian origin until 1842 and the Caffres of African origin until 1848. Even until 1854 the Regiment was still dominated by Malays, who formed 11 companies, while two were formed by Sepoys and one by Caffres. In Slave Island, he says, stood a line of detached buildings, some improved, but some still of mud walls with roofs of the leaf of the coconut tree: “the barrack rooms of the single men of the Ceylon Rifle Regiment”. The married soldiers, he says, lived apart, but not far from their bachelor comrades, also in Slave Island, being provided with what were called ‘lines’: “blocks of brick and tiled buildings, divided into a number of separate rooms, one being allowed to each man, in which he resides with his wife, olive branches and heaven knows how many of his poor houseless relatives”.

It is also possible that the name may be linked with the Malay kampong. In fact, until recently, the Malays called Slave Island Kampong Kertel, the term kertel  itself being a corruption of the Portuguese quartel meaning ‘barracks’. The kampong itself was divided into a civilian area and a military area much like a cantonment. The military area was called Kampong Kew and the civilian area Bai-Kandi. The military area called Kampong Kew obviously took its name from Kew, the garden of that name that once occupied that locality, and ‘Bai-kandi’ is perhaps a Malay corruption of the Sinhala wekanda meaning ‘bank of a lake’, since Malay lacks the v or w sound (which is why even common loan words like bangsa or ‘race’ which derives from Sanskrit vangsa have a b instead of v). This is very likely, since the Wekanda area to this day stands in close proximity to the Beira Lake.

The Wekanda Mosque, built in 1786

At Wekanda stands a very old mosque dating back to 1786, which is still run by Malays. The Wekanda Jumma Mosque was, according to legend, built in the closing years of Dutch colonial rule in Sri Lanka by one Pandan Bali, a brave prince from Java who was exiled by the colonial power. A devout man, he married a local girl. As he had no offspring, he made a vow that he would build a mosque if he were blessed with a child. The happy couple was blessed with a baby girl and Pandan fulfilled his vow by building the mosque. The man may have been of Balinese origin as suggested by his name. The Pallie family, a well-known family of Slave Island, traces its origins to him, but who knows ‘Pallie’ may also mean ‘mosque family’ since in local parlance palli means mosque or church, and we certainly know that Pandan Bali did build a mosque, according to the legend.

Though a civilian area, Wekanda gave rise to some militant types every now and then, a throwback to the martial qualities of the Malay race. One such was a Malay woman named Maimoon, who lived in Wekanda in the 1930s and 1940s. A daring and dynamic speaker of the Ceylon Communist Party, she worked at Hendersons and was well known for rousing up workers during the World War II years.

Today, Slave Island lives on, having outlived its days as a slave prison, military station, and botanical garden to become what it is today, a thriving cosmopolitan hub of leisure and commerce where life can be enjoyed in all its vigour and colour.

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