Colombo, February 3: Sri Lankan Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena on Thursday ordered the authorities to officially change the name of an important area of Colombo called “Slave Island” to “Kompagngna Veediya.”
Slave Island is already called Kompanna Veediya or Kompani Veediya by the common folk. But a formal change was considered appropriate at this juncture because Sri Lanka is celebrating the 75 th. anniversary of its independence from colonial rule this month. The name Slave Island is a relic of Portuguese rule (1597 to 1658) when the area housed black African slaves called Kaffirs whom the Portuguese brought from Mozambique.
Asiff Hussein, author of The Great Days of Colombo quotes James Selkirk, a British Clergyman and author of Recollections of Ceylon in 1844, as saying that the place was used by the Dutch to keep their slaves. Alan Walters, writing in 1892, said that the slave connection could be traced to the murder of a Dutch dignitary and his wife living in the fort by a Kaffir slave. Following this horrific episode in the dead of night, the Dutch community in the fort decided to ferry all the Kaffirs to the Island in the Beira lake in the night and ferry them back to the fort at daybreak. And to prevent the slaves from escaping from the island they also put crocodiles in the lake.
Slave Island might have been an island at some point, but for the most part, it was a peninsula jutting into what is now Beira Lake. According to Roar Media’s 2017 article entitled The Slave Island That We Have Forgotten, the place the Kaffirs were sent to was called Kaffir Veldt or Field of Slaves (the present-day Echelon Square). The Field of Slaves was connected to the mainland at what is now Union Place.
The eminent historian of Sri Lankan Malays, Prof.B.A.Hussaimiya, says that Slave Island ceased to be an abode of slaves during the Dutch era (1658-1796) itself. The Dutch East India Company ( Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC) was using it to quarter the Malay soldiers it brought from Java (Indonesia) to defend its possessions in Colombo. Kaffirs and Indians who served as soldiers were also quartered there. The term Kompanna or Kompany Veediya reflected the area’s connection with the Dutch “company”. But there is also a theory that the term Kompanna comes from the Malay word “Kampong” meaning “village”. And according to the Colombo Cold Stores website, the term Kopanna Veediya emanated from its predecessor, the Colombo Ice Company, which was set up in 1860 by a German.
The over-crowded and untidy Slave Island of today was Sri Lanka’s first botanical garden named after Kew garden in Britain. But due to the problem of flooding the garden was shifted to Kalutara and finally to Peradeniya near Kandy. Its place was taken by the Ceylon Rifle Regiment (CRR) raised by the British. The CRR had 16 Malay battalions and two each of Indian Sepoys and Kaffirs. Currently, the CRR’s massive building surrounded by high walls is occupied by a school for Defense personnel.
In his book Orang Regimen: The Malays of the Ceylon Rifle Regiment Prof. Hussainmiyasays that Malays were recruited by both the Dutch and British because they were exceptionally warlike. He quotes an 1805 manuscript of British observer Robert Percival to describe the Malays: “They are all bold and warlike and prepared for the most desperate enterprises; they hear the commands of their superiors with the most profound reverence, and yield implicit obedience to their most rigorous orders.” Like the Gurkhas of Nepal, once the Malays took out their knives called Kris, they would not put it back without blood on its blade. Rifleman in the CRR carried a kris knife also because they were experts in personal combat.
When the Malays were incensed, they would go around killing people crying “amok amok”, a cry that got into the English language as “running amuck.” The Dutch tacked the problem of Malays running amuck by “excruciating torments.” But the British found that the Malays were running amuck primarily because of the manifest injustice meted out to them by the Dutch. So, the British let the Malays be disciplined by their own Malay commanders, who were often from the respected Malay Princely families.
The Malays proved to be better and more reliable than the Sinhalese, South Indian Sepoys and African Kaffirs. They took part in all the battles waged by the Dutch against the Portuguese and helped take Colombo, Galle, Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Jaffna. When the British challenged the Dutch in 1795-96, they found that only the Malay troops were fighting hard. The British decided to recruit them when they took over the Maritime Provinces. The Malays proved very useful in the wars against Kandy because the they were able to match the Kandyan guerillas in jungle warfare and close combat. When the British in Madras had to fight the Polygar rebels (like Kattabomman), Malay troops were sent to subdue them.
But for all their sacrifices for the British, the Malay troops lived in squalor in their “Kampong Kertel” (village quarters) on Slave Island. Husseinmiya says that these quarters were just 12 ft by 12 ft, mud-walled, thatch-roofed and lacking ventilation. Fever and sickness were common. In 1860, CRR surgeon H.L.Cowen wrote: “I knew about black troops in Jamaica but I do not recollect that they were worse housed or worse fed than the Malay soldiers of the day.”
Even the married quarters lacked separate kitchens. Food was cooked communally to cut down costs. The average pay was only 8 pence a day in 1820. Fifty years later, it had risen only by 3 pence. The British were so stingy that they asked the soldiers to make their own uniforms. “After meeting all the expenses, a soldier was left with only 2 shillings and 6 pence in a month to spend on his family,” Husseinmiya points out.
However, there was a Malay Boys’ Regiment composed of the sons of soldiers. These soldier boys were paid half the salary of an adult soldier per day. Most importantly, soldiers were entitled to a pension after 20 years of service. The Malays also had the advantage of getting an English education in schools run by the CRR, which proved to be very useful when they went for employment in the civil administration in 1833, more so after the CRR was disbanded in 1873. From 1833 onwards the soldiers joined the newly established police department which paid more than the CRR. For decades, the Lankan police force was a preserve of the Malays.
Though squalid in parts, a part of Slave Island was truly scenic. Pleasure boats of a British company plied on the Beira lake which was much larger than what it is now. The banks of the Beira lake were favored picnic spots for British families.
Today, Slave Island is a crowded and ethnically mixed area, though still predominantly Malay, Moor and Tamil. It has an old-world look with dilapidated buildings and crowded, narrow, messy streets and lanes. Its houses are tiny and overcrowded. From its many eateries waft the distinctive smells of Malay and Moor cuisine. But all this is destined to disappear as Slave Island becomes a swank business district due to the construction of the Colombo Financial City and the expansion of the Fort area.