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 area continued 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 ‘Afghan Town’ 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 1945 an 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 the water’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 about 1.8 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 the Fort 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 home for 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 station about 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 unsavoury name.


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