One of the most diverse neighbourhoods of Colombo
Slave Island is one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in Colombo with its multi ethnic and multi religious population. Within a limited area you will find places of worship of all major religions, modern commercial buildings, street vendors, low income shanti houses, five star hotels, army and air force camps and entertainment on the lakeside; the ‘couleur locale’ is one of multi colours. It is the neighbourhood which is going to change dramatically in the near future, if the new government decides to continue the policy of the former government. A walk through this part of Colombo is a discovery tour of the extremes.
Slave Island development project
Slave Island is not only undergoing a huge re-development regarding entertainment and tourism facilities, but also for the low income families. One of the projects is the replacement of 500 former shanti dwellers that earlier used to live along the railroad and the shores of the western Lake Beira, whose dwellings have now been removed by the government. The construction of this housing project has started in May 2014.
History of Slave Island
The word ‘Island’ explained
Slave Island is neither an island, nor are there slaves to be found here, at least not today. However, after the Portuguese had built the Beira Lake in the 16th Century to protect Fort from inland invasions, Slave Island as an ‘island’ was born; actually the lake used to be much bigger than today’s size. Nowadays there are three Beira lakes left: the northern bigger Beira Lake with warehouses on the north shore and the southern smaller Lake Beira, which is currently situated on the southern edge of the Slave Island suburb and the Western Beira Lake, situated behind Galle Face. As masters in canal construction, in the 17th Century the Dutch built a connection to the sea, as well as a connection to the Kelani River, the St. Sebastian Canal. The Kelani River was connected by the Hamilton Canal with Negombo and the north Western coastal area. This was very important for the transportation of cinnamon to Colombo harbour during the south west monsoon, when transportation from that area over sea was too difficult. The cinnamon was stored in the warehouses along the big Lake Beira.
The word ‘Slave’ explained
Situated immediately south of Colombo Fort, which was the administrative and commercial capital, as well as the residential quarter for the colonizers, Slave Island was used to house slaves. They were taken from Africa by the Portuguese and Dutch, to work in the mansions of the colonizers and were called ‘kaffirs’, an ugly name for non-believers. Most of the Africans returned to Africa, but a small number have stayed and are integrated in the Sri Lankan population.
Slave Island today is a highly diverse neighbourhood with a mixed ethnic and religious population, a commercial district, as well as home of some of the five star hotels in Colombo. It also houses the headquarters of the Sri Lankan Air Force. In the 18th Century Malay people were brought to Sri Lanka by the Dutch from Indonesia as workforce, mainly in jobs, such as soldier and police man and were housed at Slave Island. Because of the low payment, they partly left their government job to start more lucrative businesses. ‘Malay Street’ and ‘Java Lane’ still remind to this historic migration. The Malays integrated quite well with the Sinhalese and therefore they remained in this neighbourhood.
This is the Sinhalese name for Slave Island. ‘Kompannya’ comes from the word ‘company’ and refers to the Elephant House Company from 1866, the first ice cream company in Sri Lanka, located in Slave Island. Ice cream was such a luxury product that it had to be ordered in advance. The popularity of the ice cream company became so great that the street where Elephant House was situated had been named Company Street. Later the entire area was called after Company Street or Kompannya Veedya.