Colombo, December 6 (Sunday Observer): The Colombo Port is hailed as the best port in South Asia and is the best performing State sector enterprise in Sri Lanka, albeit with substantial private sector participation. In the nine months up to September 2019, the Colombo Port handled 5.427 million TEUs, up 3.9 percent from a year earlier. The Colombo International Container Terminal, particularly, has won laurels internationally. The Port of Colombo is one of the largest and the busiest in South Asia. It is considered a maritime hub and handles transshipment from Europe, East Africa, the Persian Gulf and Southeast Asia.
But there was a time when the idea of building a port in Colombo to replace Galle, was stoutly opposed by a number stakeholders. Ceylon Governor Hercules Robinson and his successor William Gregory (1872-1877) had to fight tooth and nail to get the plan accepted and proceeded with.
In the 1860s and 1870s, when tea plantations had established themselves as the main foreign exchange earners for Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was called then), there was pressure from the British planters to shift the island’s main harbour from Galle to Colombo. The British Government in London, however, did not favour the idea on financial grounds as building a new port would be too costly.
The major international shipping lines, such as P and O; Messageries Maritimes and Llyods also favoured Galle as it lay on the main West-East shipping route.
But the then Governor of Ceylon William Gregory, who was already deeply involved in the development of the plantation sector in the island, understood the rationale behind the planters’ demand for a harbour in Colombo rather than continue using Galle, which had rocks blocking the harbour. As Gregory’s biographer. B.Bastiampillai, put it, the vessel “Peshawar” which had brought Gregory’s personal luggage from London to Ceylon had hit a rock off Galle and Gregory himself could see the masts of the ill-fated vessel spitted on a reef.
Earlier, Gregory’s predecessor Hercules Robinson, had already proposed to the Colonial Office on building a harbour in Colombo with a system of docks or a breakwater. En route to Ceylon to take up his posting as Governor, Gregory pressed the Colonial Office to sanction the project. The Colonial Office agreed and its Consultant Engineer Sir John Coode also favoured the idea. In May 1873, John Kyle was appointed Resident Engineer and work on the breakwater commenced in July 1873.
However, the project hit a major barrier. The Imperial Treasury refused funds. It accepted the Admiralty’s view that Galle would be preferable to Colombo as it lay on the main East-West shipping route and therefore, of strategic importance. It advocated spending money on improving Galle port, instead of building a new one in Colombo which only had a commercial value of serving the plantation sector.
But the Board of Trade felt that it was impossible to improve Galle because of the rocks and preferred Colombo. Governor Gregory backed the Board of Trade’s case and told the Imperial Treasury that landing in Galle was perilous because of the rocky bottom. Spending on improving it would be an utter waste, he said. And he had had a personal experience of witnessing a disaster.
Gregory also said that the Colombo Port could be entered round the clock because of its safety. While ship wrecks abounded in the approach to Galle, wrecks were rare off Colombo, he said.
Gregory also said that it was important to have a British port between Bombay and the Indian Ocean as, at that time, there was no such port on the Arabian Sea – the next British port being in Trincomalee on Ceylon’s Eastern coast in the Bay of Bengal.
Construction of Colombo Port
Without waiting for finances from the Imperial Treasury, Gregory went ahead with the construction of the Colombo Port. The fact that this would meaning borrowing from other institutions at commercial rates did not deter the Governor. Under no circumstances would he hold up the project.
But fortunately for Gregory, by then, the Colonial Office, under which he worked, was in favour of building a port in Colombo. It was pointed out that Colombo was connected by rail and a network of better roads than Galle, and therefore, it would suit British commercial interests better. Galle got its railway connection only in 1894. While in the case of Colombo, a rail line had already been built in 1864 between Colombo and Ambepussa and the line was getting extended to the Hill Country rapidly. On the other hand, Galle was 65 miles away from the railway terminus.
The Colonial Office was also touting the line that since the larger shipping lines, such as P and O were building larger steamships, building a suitable harbour in Colombo would be better than struggling to make Galle a safe place. The Admiralty, which was previously for Galle, also accepted the logic of shifting Ceylon’s main port to Colombo. The Imperial Treasury finally relented and agreed to finance the project.
By 1877, when Gregory completed his term of office as Governor, 300 metres of the breakwater had been completed. In 1876, the shipping line Messageries Maritimes had agreed to use Colombo port. In 1884, the breakwater were completed and Ceylon got one of the best harbours in the Eastern hemisphere. Fortunately for Colombo, the Suez Canal had been opened in 1869, revolutionising shipping between the West and the East.
(Picture: Colombo harbour in the 1880s)