The History of the City

The Old Townhall As the largest city in Sri Lanka formerly known as Ceylon, Colombo is the financial and commercial capital of Sri Lanka. It has been ruled by the Portuguese, Dutch and British. Townhall Now...


Julius de Lanerolle points out, in an article in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Ceylon Branch, that "Kolamba" (Anglicised "Colombo") is a Sinhalese word; meaning port, ferry, harbour or haven.

Colombo was originally a small seaport used by Moor, Arab, Persian and Chinese sailing vessels.

Following the occupation of the coastal provinces of Ceylon by Portuguese, Colombo became the centre of the Portuguese rulers and after the annexation of Kandyan Territory by the British in 1815 it became the capital of the whole island.

When the Portuguese arrived in Colombo it was spread round the bay, which was not more than three fathoms in depth where it was deepest. The land between the fortress and the interior was at first unoccupied and covered with trees. The Portuguese were compelled to reinforce the garrison to resist attacks by Mayadunne and Vidiya Bandara. The new population needed houses and supplies.

The Portuguese occupation of Colombo ended with the siege of 1656 when the Dutch captured the city.

The Dutch occupied Colombo and other parts of the coastal Ceylon from 1656 to 1796, a period of 140 years.

The British captured Colombo in 1796 but it was not until 1815 that it became the capital city of the whole island.

The administration of the city was in charge of a Collector and John Macdowell of the Madras Service was the first to hold office. After 1833 the Government Agent of the Western Province administered the city until the Municipal Council was established in January 1866.

"They built houses" writes Queyroz , giving rise to the City of Colombo which had within it the mound of St. Laurance and was surrounded by Calapana (Kalapuwa) a lake of nearly three leagues and half in length.

Local Government was not unknown in ancient Ceylon. The great cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa had their own Mayors and Town Councils. In the 5th Century B.C, Anhuradhapura had a fairly complete and efficient system of administration presided over by a Mayor or "Nagara-Guttika" The Village Council is an ancient and familiar feature of rural Ceylon.

It also had the immediate and practical result of relieving the central government of the full burden of city administration and of providing efficient and adequate machinery for supplying the growing needs of an urban community.

Centuries of colonial rule saw a decline of indigenous administration and the Ordinance in 1865 which created Municipal Councils to Colombo and Kandy was conceived as a means of training the Ceylonese in the art and science of self-government.

The Legislative Council of Ceylon, by a Bill constituted the Colombo Municipal Council in 1865 and Council met for the first time on the 16th January 1866. The establishment of the Colombo Municipal Council was perhaps the first substantial step taken by the rulers to give the Ceylonese as a whole the feeling that Colombo was their city and capital.

At the time of the establishment of the Municipal Council, the population was in the region of 80,000.

The revenue of the Colombo Municipal Council in its first year was Sterling Pounds 6,429 and in the year 1872, when Ceylon changed over from sterling to a decimal currency, the Council's income had risen to Rs. 296,494/=. The main sources of revenue of the Council's income in 1866 were the assessment rates, taxation on vehicles and animals, the commutation rate, tolls in streets, bridges and canals, licences of butchers, carriers, wine and retail dealers, gun licences, stamp duty on the certificates of proctors, advocates and notaries, market and slaughter house fees, fines recovered by the Police and Municipal Magistrates and miscellaneous receipts.

Past Mayors of Colombo

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