Negombo’s colonial charm | Sunday Observer

Negombo’s colonial charm

21 May, 2023
The traditional fishing craft ‘Oruwa’ in the Negombo lagoon
The traditional fishing craft ‘Oruwa’ in the Negombo lagoon

One gloomy morning, I was in Negombo, the country’s fourth largest city, to see its colonial legacy inherited from the European conquerors - Portuguese, Dutch and British. Even today, one can find an assortment of monuments they left.

There are several stories about the origin of the place name “Negombo” which is different from the Sinhala name “Meegamuwa”. The Sinhala name is apparently derived from a bee hive (Mee Gomuwa) found in the city by a King’s bodyguards.

According to one story on the English name, a white colonial Government official was riding his horse to Negombo and asked a local with a yelping dog what the town was called. The local had thought that the foreigner was chiding him for the behaviour of the dog whereupon he replied “Nikam Buranne Sir” (barking for no reason). The foreigner naturally interpreted this as “Negombo”.

Walking along the busy road on the bank of the Negombo lagoon which leads to the remnants of the Dutch Fort, I imagined how a fleet of Dutch canoes bearing VOC flags with tall masts had been paddled in the Negombo lagoon centuries ago. Today, I tried to compare it to fishing Oruwas which still sail across the lagoon with busy fisher folk.

The quaint coastal town of Negombo is nestled on the A3 road some 40 kilometres from Colombo, just a few kilometres away from the Bandaranaike International Airport, the country’s main gateway to the world. Negombo can also be accessed in around 30 minutes from Colombo, thanks to the Airport Expressway. It is also accessible via a less used road to the sea, which follows an old 19th century Dutch canal (Hamilton Canal) for several kilometres. The canal runs to the Southern end of the Negombo lagoon and winds through the middle of the town and to its Northern end at Puttalam, more than 120 kilometres away. There are plans to develop the entire canal as a tourist attraction.

Spice port

Like many other coastal towns in the country, Negombo was an important spice port long before the Portuguese set foot on the island. Cinnamon flourished in the hinterland (though now it is only cultivated in the country’s South) and Negombo was an important Port for Moorish traders until the Portuguese took possession of the coastal areas of the country around 1600. The Portuguese then built a small fort there.

According to historical notes, the Negombo Fort was perhaps the next most important fort after Colombo, Jaffna and Galle. The original Portuguese fort was a weak structure which was captured in February 1640 by a Dutch force commanded by Philip Lucasz, a Director General of the VOC. The Portuguese then made a desperate attempt to retake it and succeeded in December 1640.

Thereafter, the Portuguese greatly strengthened the fortification and succeeded in keeping the Dutch out until Francois Caron’s forces recaptured it in January 1644. Later, the Dutch also strengthened fortifications adding strong walls, well-fortified ramparts and bastions.

However, in February 1796, it was occupied without opposition by the British who drove South to capture Colombo. In the late 1800s, the British authorities decided to demolish the Fort and build in its place the jail that still stands on the site.

All that survive today are the main gate and parts of two bastions. On the Northerly stretch of ramparts is a granite clock tower to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. A banked-up roadway spans the moat which was once accessible only via a drawbridge.

This leads to the main arched gateway which is deeply recessed into the rampart and lies midway between the two bastions. Above the arch is a rectangular slab of granite bearing the date 1678, the whole structure being surmounted by a particularly high decorated gable.

Courthouse and prison

I entered the Fort premises through its remaining magnificent archway and found the city’s courthouse and prison premises inside. Observing the structure itself, excluding its surrounding environment, the past had been preserved well except for a few cracks here and there.

Returning from the Fort I strolled through the beach of the Negombo lagoon which is a good place to watch fishermen at work. Negombo is a predominately Catholic town with a large number of churches. Many bear impressive ornate facades and belfries. The town also has a large Catholic Tamil community of fisherfolk from the Karawa clan.

They are reputedly a warrior clan who migrated from South India centuries ago and took to fishing to survive. During the Portuguese period of colonization, the Karawas in this region embraced Catholicism almost without exception. The Karawa fishermen fish both in sea and lagoon.

They use two types of ancient, traditional fishing craft, the dug outrigger canoe (Oruwa), the Western ‘catamaran’ and the true catamaran, which is a raft of logs lashed together. This is known as a teppam in Negombo but its Tamil name, Katti-maram, denotes this precisely. Many of these fisherfolk live on the small island of Doova (literally “island”), across the lagoon from Negombo. Doova is now connected to the mainland by a causeway.

These fishermen and their fleet of catamarans offer glimpses of a living culture as old as Taprobane, the name by which the Roman historian Pliny knew Sri Lanka. There apparently had been such fishing fleets off its coast in the 1st Century AD. He remarks on how common the outrigger sailing craft were then. Sri Lanka’s fisherfolk call them Oruwa and it is said that the prehistoric evolution of the craft can be traced from the Comoros Islands, off Mozambique in Africa, to the South Seas. These virtually unsinkable craft are as much fun to ride in as they are elegant to observe in fleets offshore, with their triangular sails unfurled.

Fish market

Negombo’s ‘Lellama’ fish market is one of a kind in the island and one that you should not miss if you visit Doova at dawn. Deep sea fishermen bring their catch to one of the largest fish markets in the country. You will also witness the fishermen bringing their daily catch of crabs and prawns, seer and other fish, to the fish market where they auction their fish to traders early each morning.

Doova’s Roman Catholics host the island’s only ‘Passion Play’ throughout the Christian Holy Week, from Palm Sunday to Easter. A lot of Portuguese surnames such as Fernando, Pereira, Perera, de Silva, de Mel and Mendis are what remains as a legacy of those times. Negombo leads a cluster of around 36 villages in the area.

Apart from the remnants of the Dutch Fort, a few other Dutch relics exist in the areas surrounding the Negombo lagoon. The canal system known as Hamilton Canal, which stretches over 100 kilometres from Colombo to Puttalam, is the most evident. A Dutch cemetery is opposite the Fort walls and to the left of the gate. The old Dutch Church which was near the fort has disappeared due to the ravages of time. The present church adjoining the remains of the fort, is of more recent origin.

Little Rome

After visiting the Fort and lagoon, I thought of exploring a little bit of ‘Little Rome’. (This is a reference to the many churches and more recently, the mansions built in the city by Negombo expatriates living in Italy). There are lovely Catholic churches in town full of stained glass and old wood and a legacy of mass baptisms in the Portuguese colonial era. St. Mary’s Church, one of the oldest landmark architectural edifices in Negombo’s colonial past built in 1874, stands over the busy streets of the Negombo town.

St. Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya which was damaged by the Easter Sunday bomb attack in 2019, is yet another prominent church etched in history, as is the Church of Our Lady of Good Voyage in Doova which banks the ocean and fills the area with the aura of reverence. Amidst the churches, a Buddhist temple in Angurukaramulla built in 1868, signifies the city’s unity and cultural realm.

Although Negombo is predominately Roman Catholic, which is quite self-explanatory with all the churches in almost every nook and corner, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus take part in their own religious practices. It is a truly multicultural town with a unique character of its own that demands days of your time for proper exploration.

The Dutch Fort of Negombo in 1753 a watercolour, from Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The fishing boats anchor along the Hamilton Canal in the Negombo town

The only surviving remnants of the Dutch Fort of Negombo and its clock tower

The fisherfolk at the Negombo beach

One of the Dutch period churches in the Negombo Fort