The Port of Colombo lies on Sri Lanka’s southwestern shores on the Kelani River. With one of the world’s biggest artificial harbors, the Port of Colombo handles most of the country’s foreign trade and is a major Indian Ocean seaport. In 2001, over 642 thousand people lived in the Port of Colombo.
As the commercial center of Sri Lanka, the Port of Colombo contains head offices of both foreign and local banks, insurance companies, government offices, and brokerage houses. Manufacturing is based on processing raw materials for export through the Port of Colombo. Some of the leading industries in the Port of Colombo are makers of jewelry, chemicals, glass, textiles, leather goods, cement, and furniture. The Port of Colombo is home to South Asia’s second tallest building and the center for many commercial interests.
More than 2000 years ago, the Port of Colombo was known to Roman, Arab, and Chinese traders. In the 8th Century, Arab Muslim traders settled there as a base for their trade in that part of the world. Today, they make up the local Sri Lankan Moor community.
The Portuguese first discovered the Port of Colombo in 1505 when they made a treaty with King Kotte Parakramabahu VIII giving them the right to trade in cinnamon, the island’s plentiful coastal crop. The Portuguese received full authority of the coastline in return for protecting the coast from invaders. They also established a trading post in the Port of Colombo. They soon expelled the Muslims and began building a fort in 1517.
Knowing that controlling Sri Lanka was vital for protecting their coastal interests in India, the Portuguese took advantage of royal rivalries to control much of the Kingdom. When Sinhalese King Mayadunne invited the Kotte Kingdom, he forced the Portuguese into retreat in the Port of Colombo, besieging the city many times. However, after the kingdom fell, the Portuguese were able to control the entire coast, making the Port of Colombo their capital. That area of the city is still called “Fort,” and it is home to the presidential palace and many five-star hotels. The area outside Fort, called Pettah, is the commercial hub of the city.
The Dutch signed a treaty with King Rajasinha II in 1638 promising help in his war with the Portuguese in exchange for a monopoly over Sri Lanka’s trade goods. While the Portuguese resisted, they were gradually overcome. In 1656, a terrible siege ended with only 93 Portuguese survivors leaving the fort. The Dutch gave the area they captured back to the Sinhalese king, but they never really surrendered the area and continued to control the rich cinnamon lands. Until 1796, the Port of Colombo was the capital of the Dutch Maritime Provinces controlled by the Dutch East India Company.
The British took the Port of Colombo in 1796, but it remained a military outpost until the Kandyan Kingdom was surrendered in 1815. They then made the Port of Colombo the capital of their new crown colony called Ceylon. The British, rather than making the city a military center, began to build houses and civilian buildings around the fort, giving birth to the modern Port of Colombo.
In 1865, the British decided to create a Municipal Council in the Port of Colombo in order to teach the local population self-governance. This Legislative Council of Ceylon was basically the Colombo Municipal Council, meeting for the first time in 1866 when the region’s population was about 80 thousand. While ruling Port of Colombo, the British planned much of today’s city. In 1912, the Port of Colombo was converted into a sheltered harbor, and the Colombo Port Commission was established the following year.
In 1948, Ceylon and the Port of Colombo won independence from Britain, and the ensuing changes were dramatic. In 1954, the Queen Elizabeth Quay was opened, and 16 alongside berths with transit sheds and warehouses were completed. The Port Corporation was founded in 1958. Centuries of colonial rule had repressed the local culture. With independence came an entirely new culture, with different laws, customs, clothing, religions, and even names. The island economy began to improve, although the influences of Portuguese, Dutch, and British cultures remain visible.
In the 1980s, the Port of Colombo ceased to be the capital of Sri Lanka, although it is still the island’s commercial heart. The capital moved to nearby Sri Jayawardanapura Kotte, but most countries’ diplomatic missions remain in the Port of Colombo.
The Sri Lanka Ports Authority was created in 1980. By the end of the 1980s, two container terminals had been built, and three more were completed in the early 1990s. In 1996, the main channel was deepened to 15 meters, and the Port of Colombo reached the one million mark for annual handling of container TEUs. The Oil Berth was opened in 1997, the same year that container traffic reached 1.5 million TEUs. A new container terminal was opened in 1998, and a new container yard began operating the next year. The year of 1999 was a busy one. The Oluvil Lighthouse was commissioned, and the Oluvil Maritime Training Center opened. The South Asia Gateway Terminal began operations, and a new 50 thousand DWT berth was constructed.
In 2000, a third berth at Galle Port was started, and the Peliyagoda Container Freight Station was opened. The North Pier development’s second phase started, and the port opened a one-stop documentation center opened its doors.
In 2002, the multi-purpose Ashraff Quay was inaugurated, as was the new Customer Service Center for LCL and breakbulk cargoes. In 2003, the Unity Container Terminal and the SLPA Maritime Museum were opened. In 2004, the Port of Colombo handled 2.2 million TEUs of containerized cargo, and it reached 2.45 million TEUs in 2005.