The Colonial Era

(1505 AD – 1948 AD)


The colonial period had lasted almost 450 years in Sri Lanka. Firstly Sri Lanka was colonized by the Portuguese from 1505 AD to 1656 AD, followed by the Dutch who kept control over the coastal areas from 1656 AD to 1796 AD and finally it came under British rule from 1796 till 1948.


Portuguese Era (1505 AD – 1656 AD)

When Lourenco Almeida landed in Sri Lanka, he was determined to stay there. It was the period of great global discoveries by naval-farer nations in Western Europe, in which the Portuguese took the lead. Almeida took advantage of the declining situation in the kingdoms; fighting wars with each other to gain power was going on island-wide. In 1507 the Portuguese captured Colombo and built a fort. Soon afterwards they managed to get control over all coastal areas. Many locals were forced to accept the Roman Catholic religion from the invaders, while the Muslim population was persecuted. The Kandyan king protected the Muslim and the Buddhist people from the aggression of the Portuguese. The Portuguese were unable to conquer Kandy, so the Kandyan Kingdom stayed independent. The kings of Kandy were not exactly happy with the occupation of the land, surrounding their kingdom. After the Portuguese invaders left, not much was left which could be reminded to the Portuguese era in Sri Lanka, except for a number of Portuguese names, some Portuguese words in the Sinhalese language and the Roman Catholic religion.


Dutch Era (1656 AD – 1796 AD)

Vimaladharmasuriya meeting with the Dutch explorer Joris van Spilbergen in 1602.        (source: Museum van Land & Volkenkunde, Rotterdam)File:Vimala.jpg

As it seemed impossible for the king of Kandy to conquer the strong Portuguese naval army he asked for help from the Dutch in 1602 to defeat the Portuguese. At that time the Dutch were also in war with Portugal in Europe when the Kingdom of Spain controlled the Iberian Peninsula and occupied large areas in the Netherlands, so there was mutual interest in defeating the Portuguese in Sri Lanka. Moreover the VOC was very much interested in cinnamon trade. In 1602 the Dutch United East India Company (VOC) was founded. As it was a chartered company, its main activity was to do business. The Dutch government, however, had granted monopolistic power to the VOC to carry out colonial activities for 21 years, comprising the power to wage wars, to negotiate treaties and to colonize regions. The Dutch signed an agreement with the King of Kandy with one copy in Sinhalese and one copy in Dutch, but the content differed on essential points. The implications were miss communication and a troubled relationship between the King of Kandy and the Dutch. In the Dutch version there was a clause about the compensation for the cost of the war, which was not mentioned in the Sinhalese one. Moreover the two parties also played a double game. At the end the consequences were that all the forts in the coastal area fell into the hands of the Dutch. The Dutch VOC was not interested and prepared to fight a war against the king of Kandy; the costs were too high to gain benefits from it. Ultimately the VOC was a commercial enterprise, not a government army. Traces of Dutch architecture and constructions are still to be found all over Sri Lanka in the coastal zones, though not as much as the British ones, but more than from the Portuguese period. The most spectacular example is the Galle Fort, originally built by the Portuguese, but extensively improved by the Dutch. 

Dutch people were Protestant and persecuted the Roman Catholic Portuguese who had stayed behind, particularly because the Protestants in the Netherlands had just had a victory over the Roman Catholic Kingdom of Spain in a religious war, which had lasted for 80 years. Like the Portuguese during their occupations, several Dutch colonists married local girls, which were converted to Protestantism (Dutch Reformed Church). They and their descendents were called Burghers, who enjoyed special privileges within the Sri Lankan society.

The British Era (1796 AD – 1948 AD)

At the turn of the 18th Century Napoleonic wars were spreading all over the continent of Europe; The Netherlands had also been invaded by Napoleon Bonaparte and the British feared that Sri Lanka would fall into French hands. In a peaceful agreement the governance over Sri Lanka was temporarily trusted to the British. However ‘temporarily’ was made ‘permanently’ by the British and they made Sri Lanka (Ceylon at that time) a British crown colony. The British were the only ones who colonized the entire island in the history of Sri Lanka. In 1815 the Kingdom of Kandy fell and the king and his family were deported to India. It was the era of the Industrial Revolution and great prosperity was noticed within the upper class of the British society. Railways and roads were constructed, such as the railway between Colombo and Badulla to transport tea and other cargo to be shipped to Britain. The first tea plantation was established by Sir James Taylor in 1876 and it became together with rubber a booming business. The Sinhalese people, however, refused to work for the British colonizers, so labour had to be recruited from South India. Most of those labourers and their descendants remained in the upcountry up till now and are still the major workforce in the tea business. Between 1971 and 1981 more than 50% of the one million Tamils were repatriated to India and were given Indian citizenship.

During World War II, Sri Lanka, as a part of the British Empire, stood on the side of the Allies in the war against Japan. It had the position of front line British base, but it had never been occupied by the Japanese. Colombo was attacked several times by Japanese navy bombings. Lord Mountbatten had chosen Sri Lanka as the British headquarters in the battle against the Japanese.

Many buildings in Colombo still remind of the British Era, such as the famous Cargills Building in Colombo, the Grand Oriental Hotel and the Plantation Building, all in Colombo Fort. The Galle Face Hotel is still a landmark from that time. The Up-country became a famous place to stay, away from the hot coastal areas. Nuwara Eliya was the hotspot for the colonizers to relax. The place still reminds visitors of that era, because the architecture is quite similar to the buildings in rural England.



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