From Pettah to Cotta: A brief history of a not-so-brief transformation

15 January 2019 12:09 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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One of former Colombo Municipal Council Chief Medical Officers, Dr. Pradeep Kariyawasam’s policies in his manifesto as the Podu Jana Peramuna’s candidate for Mayor of Colombo was the extension of the city to the suburbs. This, he surmised, would ease the pressure on transport and sewer systems, infrastructure and healthcare, and would attract investments to Colombo beyond the city limits. Dr. Kariyawasam did not become the Mayor of Colombo (it was a person who proclaimed that Colombo was the heart of her party who took on that role), but as far as manifesto policies are concerned, it was, I think, a rather pragmatic solution for a ballooning problem, which incidentally has a history of its own going back to the last two centuries. 


Colombo has always faced a conflict between an almost endless set of high-rise buildings on the one hand and poorly-constructed streets on the other. As far back as 1907, it was observed that “large improvements would have to be carried out in the direction of widening” such streets, while legislation by the Municipal Council should be enacted to “fix the line of streets and prevent encroachment thereon,” which would have saved money spent in buying buildings “the erection of which ought never have been allowed.” The gap between the affluent and depressed wards became a cause for worry: the “native wards” were all “deficient,” with the exception of the European and chief residential quarters, which were “well provided” (Wright 1907: 407). 


There was, of course, a Colombo that existed before Colombo. The Rajavaliya referred to it as “Kalan Thota” or “Kelani Ferry” and as Tennent notes, the Moors, who took over the possession of the coast and harbour in the 12th and 13th centuries, renamed it as “Kalambu” or “a good harbour.” It gradually gained prominence: Ibn Batuta would describe it as “the finest town in Serendib.” The town remained under Muslim control, specifically the control of a Vizier named Jalestie. Tennent observed that this was because the Sinhalese were uninterested in trade and commerce, which is true: as K.M. de Silva notes in A History of Sri Lanka, the principal source of royal income in Kotte was not trade, but land revenue. 

 

Colombo has always faced a conflict between an almost  endless set of high-rise buildings on the one hand and  poorly-constructed streets on the other


Kotte would, of course, bear witness to two wars of succession compounded by Portuguese presence in the island. The latter were concerned with two things: gaining a monopoly over the cinnamon trade and establishing trade in Colombo. The second objective, according to de Silva, was less important than the first, but it nevertheless was crucial for the ambitious imperialists to gain control over the area; to this end they established an unfortified fort in Colombo for trading purposes. It is with the advent of the Portuguese, moreover, that Kalambu became Colombo: a name that “approached that of Columbus” (Tennent 1999: 152). But it was more than a change of name: as the Census of 1946notes, under the Portuguese the city transformed from “a small stockade of wood” to “a gallant city fortified with a dozen bastions.” 


But the Portuguese and Dutch after them had to contend with two never-ending conflicts in the country: between the Kotte Kingdom and the colonial authorities on the one hand and the Kotte Kingdom and the competing rulers and sub-rulers from Sitawaka and Kandy on the other. The wars of succession weakened Kotte, and the Sinhalese rulers, whose interest in trade depleted, in effect handed over commercial matters to the colonial authorities. Despite this, however, authorities were never able to expand the city beyond Pettah “between the lake at one side and the rocks, which form the harbour, on the other” (ibid: 151). It was left to the British to develop Colombo into more than just an enclave of military outposts. 


To begin with, the British capitalised on what the Portuguese and the Dutch had left behind. The former especially had turned Colombo into a fortress. After the conquest of Kandy in 1815, the British began tapping into the region’s commercial potential in a way that their predecessors had not. Once again, it was the port which facilitated this shift in policy; by 1907 it had become “one of the principal ports of call of the world,” and was described as “the Clapham Junction of the East.” The British added a railway system to the shipping line; here too Colombo became the head centre. Over the years, the Fort area thus changed: it became a hub for government establishments, banking houses, and places of business for Europeans. 


Interestingly, despite its veneer of sophistication and grace British officials were not impressed with the new capital. “Colombo presents little to attract a stranger,” noted Tennent in 1859, and he had much to complain about: “the prevalence of damp,” “the nightly serenade of frogs,” and worst of all, “the tormenting profusion of mosquitoes” which would lead to outbreaks of Dengue that would never visit the better developed areas of the municipality. Through all this, incidentally, a rift between the centre and the periphery, between the affluent and the indigent wards, emerged. 


At first, it was the areas developed by the Portuguese and Dutch which became hotspots for the colonial officials and the native elite. The entire area from Fort to Hulftsdorp, which James Cordiner described as “a more comfortable residence for a garrison than any other military station in India,” would in four decades turn into what Prince Alexey Saltykov grandiloquently described as “a botanical garden on a gigantic scale.” This was facilitated by several factors: the breakdown of the traditional order, the shift from the interior to the littoral, and the emergence of a plantation economy; moreover the period in which Prince Saltykov made his remark about Colombo was one in which the old elite was yielding place to a new bourgeoisie. 


The transition from a mercantilist to a semi-feudal economy in the first half of the 19th century accompanied the rise of a new colonial bourgeoisie. While the traditional elite had been reliant on the patronage of the British officials in terms of land bequests and perpetuation of familial dynasties (which led to the concentration of power within the Bandaranaike-Obeyesekere clique), the bourgeoisie took advantage of favourable economic conditions and prospered through quasi-capitalist enterprises. 

 

Kotte would, of course, bear witness to two wars of succession compounded by Portuguese presence  in the island. The latter were concerned with two things: gaining a  monopoly over the cinnamon trade and establishing trade in Colombo


Liquor and arrack renting became the main avenue of growth for the nouveau riche; by 1876 the annual rents from this trade amounted to £ 218,600 (£ 24,746,600 or Rs. 5,786,474,300 when adjusted for inflation). Profits from the arrack trade, however, were never invested in productive enterprises (as they were in other colonies) and were instead invested in coffee, coconut, graphite, and plumbago on the one hand and items of conspicuous consumption which helped distinguish them from the rest of the country on the other. Property in this regard was paramount; it had a say in how the “posh neighbourhoods” shifted from Pettah, Hulftsdorp and Maradana to Cotta, Colpetty, and Cinnamon Gardens. 


Initially, the elite purchased land in Pettah-Maradana-Kotahena-Mutwal areas. Even in the last few decades of the century, these places were at the forefront of British colonial activity in terms of commerce and education: all the major credit institutions were in the Pettah, while the two biggest schools in the country (one public, the other private) were established there: the Colombo Academy in Hill Street (the first batch of which consisted of 21 students from elite Burgher families within the neighbourhood, among them Richard Morgan, Charles Loos and Christoffel de Saram) in 1836, and S. Thomas’ College in Mutwal 17 years later. This is not to forget the Medical College and the Law College, built respectively in 1870 and 1874. 


All this was reflected in the lands purchased and palatial residences built during the period: Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, S.C. Obeyesekere and G.G. Ponnambalam all built their manors in Hulftsdorp. Vinod Moonesinghe contends that before Cinnamon Gardens became popular, “the prime residential areas were Mutwal (for Europeans) and Kotahena (for locals), plus Grandpass for ‘country homes.’ ” According to Vinod, land values in Cinnamon Gardens rose after the Race Course moved from Galle Face and the “process of gentrification” in the area culminated when Royal College shifted to its current location in 1912. But even then this process was not fully complete: as Denham notes in Ceylon at the Census of 1911, while land in Cinnamon Gardens fetched Rs.5,000 per acre, land near the Slave Island, Maradana and Pettah stations fetched more than four times that amount. It would, in other words, take another 30 years for the shift from one part of Colombo to another to be complete. 

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