Dutch elitist neighborhoods of Ceylon.
If you were an Elite in colonial Ceylon under Portuguese rule you lived within the fortifications. During the early Dutch phase you still lived within the fortifications. If you were an elite you lived at the best locations, best addresses and the best streets in town. You aspired for social exclusiveness and used architecture to indicate status as well as to reinforce it. You got most of what there was to get, rose above others in thinking, outlook, abilities and perseverance, set trends, held symbolic or actual power in your hands and flocked together with others of your kind to form elitist neighborhoods.
The first colonial elitist neighborhoods of Colombo were established by the Portuguese and largely confined within the Colombo Fort. They reflected the psychological insecurity of being continually under siege by Singhalese kings as well as the invading Dutch trying to get a foothold on “the large and pleasant island of Ceylon which is rich in cinnamon”
Then came the Dutch. Their elitist enclaves that were initially confined within fortifications but later spread out reflected the Dutch colonial policy. The Dutch were great believers in blending with the native fabric as much as possible without compromising their authority. Their architecture and town planning aimed at a close fit between the dwelling, the settlement and the environment. The result was a perfect symbiosis between the architectural traditions of the colonists and the colonized.
The Dutch fort Colombo through the eyes of Dr. Aegidius Daalman’s, a Belgium physician, “In the fort there are many respectable houses.. Of which the house of the governor with that of the secretary, which is close by is very large and with its garden forms a complete square. Its front faces the seashore. The fortification serves as a road to the said houses…within the fort are many pretty walks and nut trees set in a uniform order. The streets are very wide with a beautiful row of trees on each side. Between them and the house is a very smooth regular pavement”
Soon the Fort was not enough and it became fashionable for the European, Ceylonese and Hybrid elite to have addresses in Pettah, a fine densely built residential neighborhood whose ‘regularly planned streets intersected one another at right angles’ to form a grid pattern that was reminiscent of a medieval Dutch town arrangement. Talking about streets of Pettah; Main Street may have been ‘the most graceful street in the world’ but it was Maliban Street that was a fashionable promenade of the Dutch ladies, though one must remember that this was in ‘the good old days when carriages were not wanted and Pettah enjoyed all the privileges of gentility’. Yet this ‘neat, clean, regular arrangement’ that gave a Dutch character to the neighborhood was regularly beset with flood problems, which one might say also gave a Dutch character to the neighborhood. These flood problems coupled with further developments under the Dutch shifted the elitist enclaves to the hilly areas of northern Colombo and the flourishing and magnificent neighborhoods of Grandpass, Wolvendaal, Hultsdorp and St. Sebastian Hill came into being.
In the close knit, interactive elitist neighborhoods of the Dutch era one often saw that, ‘there was dancing and revelry within every other house’. Because open stoeps flanked it on both sides the street, which was narrow and winding also became, ‘alive with mirth and music’ and appeared to be wider than it was. The raised platform or the stoep which was an indistinguishable feature in the neighborhood initially met the needs of a foreign & therefore isolated community to make a cohesive neighborhood and later came to symbolize the princely hospitality dispensed at the ‘Walauwas’ of the indigenous elite that stood elegant and detached in large plots.
The North Colombo Elitist enclaves established under the Dutch out lasted that regime and continued to flourish under the British up until the late 19th century. Then, attracted by views of the port and outlook over the expanse of water, a fashionable suburb Mutwal became increasingly popular among European and native elite. In describing the elaborate and majestic elitist dwellings of Mutwal writers tended to wax lyrical about the magnificent views of the sea, the mouth of the Kelani River, the coconut palms and the tropical charm.
As the port and environs gradually became unhealthy the outflow of elite from Mutwal were attracted to Cinnamon Gardens and Colpetty. From there the elite neighborhoods subsequently spread along Galle Road to the Havelock Town environs and later out of the city limits toward Kotte and Nawala. But the elite never really left Cinnamon Gardens as they left their previous historical strong holds in Fort, Pettah and north Colombo. Even today Cinnamon Gardens is mostly ‘leafy vistas flanked by imposing and charming dwellings of palatial proportions’. However some of those dwellings of palatial proportions are wont to be occupied today by nonresidential establishments.