Negombo’s beach is very wide in places, but can feel rather shabby if you’ve visited any of the more pristine resorts further south (although if you’ve just arrived from Europe or North America, you’ll appreciate even Negombo’s rather down-at-heel tropical charms). With the influence of Portuguese, Dutch and English, Negombo has become one of the biggest Catholic bases in the island. Popularly known as the ‘Little Rome’, it was a humble fishing village half a century ago.
The 100 km canal network running through the city is still used in the fishing industry. Outrigger canoes and modern water-craft ply this route daily, for fishing industry and tourism. With a stash of star class hotels and restaurants to suit all pockets, a friendly local community, an interesting old quarter and a reasonable (though polluted) beach, Negombo is a much easier place to experience the real Sri Lankan- colonial mix culture, then anywhere else.
Negombo is also the heartland of Christian Sri Lanka, as borne out by the enormous churches and florid wayside Catholic shrines scattered about the town and its environs. The people of Negombo are Karavas, Tamil fishermen who converted en masse to Catholicism during the mid-sixteenth century under the influence of Portuguese missionaries, taking Portuguese surnames and becoming the first of Sri Lanka’s innumerable de Silvas, de Soysas, Mendises and Pereras. The Dutch made the town an important commercial centre, building a canal (and a fort to guard it) on which spices – particularly cinnamon, which grew profusely in the surrounding areas – were transported from the interior to the coast prior to being shipped abroad. The Dutch captured the town from the Portuguese in 1640, lost it again in the same year, then captured it again in 1644. The British then took it from them in 1796 without a struggle. Negombo was one of the most important sources of cinnamon during the Dutch era, and there are still reminders of the European days.
Thanks to its position between the rich ocean waters and the Negombo Lagoon inland, Negombo has also developed into one of the most important fishing ports on the island. Fishing still dominates the local economy, with the sea providing plentiful supplies of tuna, shark and seer, while the lagoon is the source of some of the island’s finest prawns, crabs and lobster. The Karavas are also famous for their unusual fishing boats, known as oruwas, distinctive catamarans (the word itself is derived from the Tamil ketti-maran) fashioned from a hollowcd-out trunk attached to an enormous sail. Hundreds of these small vessels remain in use even today, and are an unforgettable sight when the fleet returns to shore.