What’s in a name?
It is a name said to be born out of a history of slavery and violence. When slaves – brought down from Africa to Sri Lanka for labour during the Portuguese and Dutch administrations – rebelled against their taskmasters, they were imprisoned in a slum cut off from the rest of the city by the crocodile infested waters of the Beira Lake. The area was later officially renamed ‘Slave Island’ by the British to mark its dark legacy.
To this day, most of Colombo’s English-speaking residents use this official name. However a vast majority of the area’s locals have adopted a different one: Kompanna Veediya, or ‘Company Street’ – a moniker believed to have two possible origins. The establishment of The Colombo Ice Company or Ceylon Cold Stores – the modern day Elephant House – in 1866, inspired the local nickname Ice Kompaniya (Ice Company) for the building and Kompanna Veediya for the surrounding area. The same fate was to befall the street that housed a Company of the Ceylon Rifle Regiment, comprising mainly of Malays.
Ironically however, the area – which is officially recognized as Colombo 2 and which has the recently introduced postal code of 00200 – is neither an island nor a street. Still, its names aren’t wholly inappropriate: the Beira Lake forms part of the boundary of Slave Island, giving the area the feel of a peninsular; and, being home to myriad office spaces, sky rise building and hotels, the region is one of Colombo’s busiest and most central commercial hubs, lending meaning to the appropriated name of ‘Company Street’.
Still, bad reputations are hard to shake – and Slave Island’s is perhaps as sinister as its name. It has been referred to as a den of vice, where shaded alleyways give underground crime and thuggery the cover it needs to survive. However, locals feel that things have vastly improved: the police have recently come down hard on drug dealers in the area, and criminal activity has since plummeted.
An Island of Contrasts
The Slave Island of today may be vastly different to when it was nothing more than a prison, but it is an area whose transformation is far from complete.
The promise of development by the country’s highest authorities is proving a threat to the look, feel and entire way of life of Slave Island and its residents. Many of these residents live in a network of maze-like settlements almost invisible from the main roads – accessed only by tiny alleyways tucked between glassy office buildings. Thousands of families have made their homes in these crowded pockets of humanity – most living in impossibly small spaces but managing to survive through sheer will and resourcefulness. As land prices in the heart of Colombo skyrocket however, these settlements are seen to be a waste of precious space – space that could be used to accommodate new businesses mushrooming each day, to take advantage of a new post-war economy.
The result – many Slave Island residents have been given a year’s notice to leave their homes and a vague promise that their loss will be compensated for. Still, promises of new homes and months of rent are only a temporary solution for a community who have made their surroundings very much a part of their livelihoods: whether they drive trishaws by night, rent spare rooms, or create trade businesses with people and shops in their locality.
Even the architecture of Slave Island is showing signs of change. Most of the larger buildings in the area have taken on a commercial edge, but there are still landmark establishments that have remained unchanged for decades – perhaps even centuries. The dilapidated Rio Cinema still operates, albeit with a dwindling number of patrons. The quaint Railway Station still sounds its bell as old trains shudder through to their destinations. These all hark back to a different era and lend a distinctly old-fashioned charm to Slave Island itself. Today however, even these are being affected by plans for the city’s metamorphosis. The famous pink of the stately Nippon Hotel is being painted white, the customary mustard yellow of the Castle Hotel, a combination of orange and green. The old-style block of shop buildings on Justice Akbar Mawatha have changed too; one panel sporting a brilliant lime green to advertise Elephant House to passing traffic.
Adding another dimension of change is Slave Island’s proximity to Sri Lanka’s Army and Air Force Headquarters. Despite much of the area being named a high security zone as a result, rubbing shoulders with the military hasn’t always kept Slave Island safe. In the past, bombs have been detonated near the Army headquarters, Air Force headquarters, the railway station and the Nippon Hotel – all targeted at military personnel. With the war over however, there now are plans to move the Army headquarters out of the city centre to make way for further development.
Today it is a coat of paint, a year’s eviction notice, and word that even the military hasn’t secured a permanent place in the city.
Who knows what tomorrow will bring?