Colombo has been a trading port for over 2,000 years. It is situated on the mouth of the river Kelani. This allowed goods to be moved down river for export and traded imported goods to be moved upstream to inland markets. Historians have found references to the port of Colombo in documents around the world. It was visited regularly by the Romans, Arab, Indian, African and Chinese traders. Marco Polo recorded that he visited the island on behalf of the Chinese Imperial Court. Many of these traders set up warehouses in Colombo.
The first European Colonial power discovered the islands by accident. The Portuguese were blown off course in 1505. They liked what they saw and decided to stay. They were particularly interested in cinnamon which was in demand in Europe and could fetch a high price. They entered into a contract with the Sri Lankan King Kotte Parakramabahu VIII and obtained the trading rights along the whole southern coast line. They built a fort and expelled their competition, the Muslim Arab traders. The Sri Lankan island at that time was not one unified kingdom. There were other kingdoms that took exception to the involvement of the Portuguese. This resulted in armed conflict and a number of sieges.
The Dutch, who coveted the riches of the island, profited by this conflict. In 1656 they promised King Rajasinha II military help with his war against the Portuguese so long as they were awarded the monopoly on all Sri Lankan trade. The Dutch at that stage were not interested in land, unlike the Portuguese. The Dutch won the last battle when the last remaining 93 Portuguese soldiers surrendered the Colombo fort after a long siege. The Dutch gave the newly captured land to the Sinhalese King but in reality they controlled the commercial interests, especially the cinnamon plantations and the port. The Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie VOC) used Colombo as its Maritime capital
The British Navy took control of the Colombo Fort and Port in 1796. The Dutch had been weakened after being conquered by Napoleon. The Dutch leaders had fled to London and as they could no longer control the trade based in Colombo they reluctantly transferred ownership to the British. The Dutch had not been powerful enough to win a war against the central Kingdom of Kandy and thus take ownership of the whole island.
The Kingdom of Kandy was offered the chance of being a British protectorate. This was refused. The British only controlled the whole island after they defeated the king of Kandy in 1815.This new colony of the British Empire was called Ceylon. Trade that passed through the port of Colombo increased dramatically. The British introduced more plantations throughout the island for products like coffee, spices, rubber and most importantly Ceylon tea. They even introduced European vegetables to the highland regions.
Sri Lanka obtained its independence in 1948 from the near bankrupt British Government who was recovering from World War Two. Trade has continued to increase in the port, especially after the introduction of containerisation. It is pleasing to see money being put into a museum that with pride tells the story of the Port of Colombo.
The walls of the Colombo fort that faced the coast were first built by the Portuguese and then fortified by the Dutch were pulled down in 1870 by the British who ruled the waves and perceived military threat during the 19th Century. Modern Victorian warship cannons would soon demolish any stone built walls so they were really redundant. They were considered a hindrance to development. The whole emphasis was on trade. During the 1870s the breakwaters were built and Fort was created by flooding surrounding wetlands.
Colombo was peacefully handed over when Sri Lanka achieved independence in 1948. A new parliament was built in Sri Jayawardenepura-Kotte, an outer suburb of Colombo, in 1982.
From the early 1980s Colombo and the rest of the towns in the nation experienced a gradual decline due to the ethnic conflict and more so the war between the Sri Lanka Government and the Isolated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who carried out deadly bomb attacks such as in Fort during the 1990s which caused Colombo’s major businesses and institutions to disperse across the city. These days Colombo is again developing in leaps and bounds stretching the city skyline heavenwards with giant skyscrapers emerging everywhere in the city.