Sri Lankan history goes back more than 2500 years, in which the little island has witnessed a myriad of events over the years. Regardless of whether it was the kingdoms that thrived, the culture, the economy, or the subsequent European conquests, the island has so much vibrancy. One easy way of understanding its history is by retaking the footsteps of the old colonials that occupied the land, especially in the west coast of the island. For this, four major cities will be taken to give a brief history of the country’s trade relations.
As you leave the Bandaranaike International Airport, head over to the nearby town of Negombo, as it is the ideal place to start the trail on discovering the trade routes of old. Find a respite like the exemplary Club Hotel Dolphin as your base, and explore the town’s intriguing history. Many who come to the coastal town are often attracted to its great atmosphere and adventure opportunities, especially in the evening hours. However, one thing that is overlooked is the history that it holds, especially in the sphere of the economy.
Long ago, in the 16th century, when the Kingdom of Kotte was at its height of power, the island was flourishing with commercial activity, and most of it came from the west coast. Negombo was one of the main cities in which many Arab and African traders would purchase spices for various reasons. As a result, the spice industry in the island was booming, and was quickly noticed by the Portuguese empire. The Portuguese seized the town and controlled the monopoly of the spice trade. The fortress, which now serves as the city prison, is just one of many monuments of the colonial stronghold that once was. With the occupation came the change in the culture of the city, as the community became a primarily Catholic practicing faith, and still shows in the form of many churches and cathedrals scattered around the town.
With one city covered in finding the trading hubs of old, continue down south towards the commercial capital…
Reaching Colombo, you would easily be distracted by the cosmopolitan nature of the city, as it is filled with urban projects and other developments. But if you look closer, you can still see vestiges that once established the dominance of commercial activity. The Colombo Fort and the suburb of Pettah are the perfect places to understand why Colombo was and still is a hub for trade.
The Dutch and the British who occupied the island in the 17th and 18th centuries understood that Colombo was a hub for not only spice trading, but many other goods too. As a result, many settlements were built near the harbour. The Dutch Governor’s residence, which is now the Dutch period museum in Pettah, along with other buildings like the Miller’s Building and the Dutch Hospital are proof of how important the west coast was for the colonials.
Travel further down south, and you would come across a town that is known for its golden sun, sand, and azure waters. However, Bentota was once an important town that proved to be significant to the colonials, especially to the Portuguese.
The ‘Parangi Kotuwa’, which is now a magnificent respite restored by renowned architect, Geoffrey Bawa, was a stronghold that had a primary purpose of protecting the trading activity of Colombo and Galle.
Galle is a rather fitting end to exploring the historical west coast of the island. The centrepiece of the city is the Galle Fort that instantly transports you to the cobblestone streets of an old European town. Built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and further expanded by the Dutch and the British from the 17th till the 19th centuries, the exemplary fortress is an edifice that was utilised solely to protect any invader attempting to take over the commercial activity thriving in the Galle harbour.
While you can go even further down south to explore more of how important the trading activity was in the western and southern coast, it is these four cities that often took most of the limelight back in the day, and still does today.