This page includes my grandfather's postcards from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka); the majority of them are from the capital Columbo.

Sri Lanka
Aerial view of Ceylon (now The Republic of Sri Lanka) [1]
Click image for enlarged view

Brief History of Ceylon

The island has been inhabited by humans for at least 38,000 years based on archaeological evidence. The earliest historical records come from chronicles from about the 3rd century CE which describe the various rulers and religions before the arrival of Europeans.

The first Europeans to grab territory on the island were the Portuguese who found it ruled by seven warring kingdoms and unable to unite to defend themselves. They gave it the name Ceil√£o - there seems to be no agreed reason why they chose this name but the British later transliterated this to Ceylon. The Portuguese built a fort at Colombo and gradually expanded their territory - especially the coastal areas. They ruled a substantial part of the island between 1597 and 1658 - around the times of the reigns of James I and Charles I in the UK. The native Sinhalese founded a new capital at Kandy near the centre of the island which they found easier to defend.

The King of Kandy made a treaty with the Dutch in 1638 in which they would grant the Dutch a trade monopoly in exchange for getting rid of the Portuguese. The Dutch remained largely in control, with on-and-off wars with the Kandyans, until 1795 when the British, fearful of the French taking over, did so themselves starting with Trincomalee. Under Treaty of Amiens, signed in 1802 at the end of the French Revolutionary Wars, the parts of Ceylon controlled by the Dutch was ceded to Britain and became a British Crown Colony. The British invaded Kandy in 1803 without success, but finally annexed the territory in 1815.

In 1840 the British enacted the Crown Lands Ordnance - in effect a land grab rather like the Enclosure Acts in Britain. They then established coffee, tea and rubber plantations on the uplands that had been the property of the Kandyan peasants.

In 1909 constitutional development began with the establishment of a partially elected assembly but it wasn't until 1920 that elected members outnumbered appointees. Universal suffrage was introduced in 1931 despite opposition from the elite classes. Ceylon became the Republic of Sri Lanka in 1972.

Ceylon Postcards

Most of the postcards show aspects of the Pettah district of Colombo - in the top left section of the map below.

Map of the Pettah district of Colombo [18]

Main Street Pettah Colombo

The unused monochrome postcard from Ceylon publishers Plate & Co. provides a view looking along Main Street in the Pettah district of Colombo. The only vehicles that can be seen are trams and ox carts. Street lighting is installed and there are a small number of telegraph or telephone lines along the left-hand side of the street. Some of the larger cables on the right-hand side appear to be for electricity supply. The first power station in Colombo was built in 1895 but serious supplies were not available until 1899 when the Pettah Power Station was built. It was taken over by the Colombo Electric Tramways and Lighting Co. Ltd. in 1902. The first tram routes ran from the Fort Terminus with one running to River Kelani past Grandpass - shown on a postcard further down the page.

Main Street Pettah
Main Street Pettah - Date unknown but after 1902 [38]
Cutting from 'The Graphic' 10 June 1899 captioned 'Western Civilisation in the East, the first electric tramway in Ceylon' [19]

Pettah Street Colombo

The unused monochrome postcard marked 'Skeen Photo' on the front but without a printer's name shows a view along Pettah Street. This looks more of a backwater than most of the other postcards and the buildings are much more modest. Ox-drawn carts and pedestrians move along a pretty narrow street.

Main Street Pettah
Pettah Street Colombo [38]

Colombo Street

The unused monochrome postcard below with no printer's name shows a busy Colombo street scene. After much searching online, I identified the bell tower on the right to be Kayman's Gate Bell Tower which once stood at the entrance to Colombo Fort and is located at the foot of Wolvendaal Hill in the Pettah district. It stands at the intersection of Main Street and 4th Cross Street and is now much neglected. The fort was actually the second Colombo Fort and was constructed by the Portuguese in 1554 as a fortification of their trading post at Colombo. It was captured by the Dutch in 1656. Rows of rickshaws stand by the gate and many bullock carts carry passengers and goods through the street.

I was struggling to identify the white building on the top right. The location suggested it should be the Old Town Hall, but it didn't match with other images. I eventually discovered that the building shown was the gothic-type Dutch Town Hall built in 1873, to the design of British architect J G Smither who also designed furniture to match. It was the first civic building to be opened in Colombo and in use as the municipal headquarters for over 50 years, until new premises on another site opened in 1925. The building was in a bad state and renovated in 1984 but once again looks dilapidated.

Colombo Street Scene - date unknown. [38]
Kaymans Gate and Main Street Colombo from Google Earth 2022 [1]

Typical Street Scene Colombo

The unused monochrome postcard from Ceylon publishers Plate & Co. captioned 'Typical Street Scene Colombo' actually provides another view looking along Main Street from the direction of the Old Town Hall. You can make out the Kayman's Gate Bell Tower just behind the approaching tram. The street is very busy with many pedestrians including a man pushing a sack barrow, many people holding parasols and a man in a smart white suit strutting along the tramway looking like he owns the place.

Street Scene Colombo [38]

Town Hall Colombo

The unused monochrome postcard from Ceylon publishers Plate & Co. provides a view looking along Sea Street towards the Old Town Hall also shown in the previous postcard. Wooden-wheeled ox carts, reminiscent of the wagons in which settlers crossed America towards the West in the 19th century, carry goods. No motor vehicles can be seen in either this or the previous postcard - there is not even a bicycle. The second image from Google Earth shows the same view in 2022 and the third a closer view of the dilapidated Old Town Hall building in 2022.

Town Hall Colombo
Town Hall Colombo - date unknown. [38]
Sea Street Colombo
Sea Street Colombo from Google Earth 2022 [1] [38]
Colombo Old Town Hall
Colombo Old Town Hall from Google Earth 2022 [1]

General Post Office Colombo

The unused monochrome postcard from Ceylon publishers Plate & Co. provides a view looking along Kings Street towards the Colombo Fort Clock Tower. The building was designed by English architect/engineer Herbert Frederick Tomalin (1852-1944) and built in the Colombo Fort by Arasi Marikar Wapchi Marikar (1829-1925). Incidentally, Marikar also built the Old Town Hall and the Clock Tower featured in this postcard collection. Work started on the Post Office in 1891 and was completed in 1895 using a workforce of 375 men. The building has a steel framework and granite stonework. As well as serving as the General Post Office, it housed Ceylon's first telegraph and telephone exchanges.

Although the General Post Office moved out in 2000, the building has been well preserved - unlike some of the other colonial era buildings. The second image from Google Earth shows the building as it is in 2022.

General Post Office Colombo
General Post Office Colombo- date unknown. [38]
Former General Post Office Colombo
Former General Post Office Colombo from Google Earth 2022 [1]

Queens Street, Fort

The unused monochrome postcard from Ceylon publishers Plate & Co. provides a view looking along Queens Street towards the Colombo Fort Clock Tower, which was designed by Emily Elizabeth Ward, the wife of the Governor and completed in 1857. The clock mechanism was built by Dent - the English clockmakers who had built the clock on the Palace of Westminster that is Usually referred to as 'Big Ben' - though that name belongs to the largest of the bells rather than the clock itself.

In 1867, the tower became a lighthouse with the addition of a revolving light by Chance Brothers - who had also provided the glazing for the Crystal Palace, the Palace of Westminster and some of the windows in The White House. The light could be seen from up to 17 miles in clear weather with the original light using kerosene which was replaced by gas in 1907 and electricity in 1933.

The growth of Colombo required the construction of a new lighthouse as the light became obscured by buildings. The new lighthouse was switched on in 1952 and the tower reverted to being just a clock tower. The structure has been well preserved. The second image shows the clock tower as it is in 2022.

Queens Street Fort Colombo
Clock Tower on Queen Street Colombo- date unknown. [38]
Clock Tower Queen Street
Clock Tower and former Lighthouse Colombo from Google Earth 2022 [1]

Colombo Breakwater

The unused monochrome postcard from Ceylon publishers Plate & Co. provides a view looking across the breakwater with a large wave breaking over it and is captioned Colombo Breakwater South West Monsoon. The southwest monsoons bring rain to the south-west of Sri Lanka between May and September.

I thought there was insufficient detail in the image to identify the ship but, on looking at an enlarged version, you can see that it has a tricolour ensign with the top and bottom bars dark and the middle one light. Not expecting much joy in terms of identification I asked my friends on the SeaTheShips forum if they could identify the likely company. Chris Allman not only did that, but provided an almost certain identification of the ship as Koningin der Nederlanden, completed in 1911 by Nederlandsche SB and owned by the Dutch shipping company NV Stoomvaart Mij Nederland.

Below the image of the postcard is an enlargement of the part showing the ship, and another postcard (not part of the collection) showing Koningin der Nederlanden.

Colombo Breakwater
Colombo Breakwater in South West Monsoon- date unknown. [38]
Colombo Breakwater
Enlargement of section of previous image showing the ship and its ensign [38]
Koningin Der Nederlanden
Postcard showing Koningin Der Nederlanden before WW1 (not part of this collection) [20]

The vessel was seized by the U.S. Government in March 1918 at San Francisco, California and commissioned in early April as a U.S. Navy ship. She was taken to the Panama Canal Zone in May to undergo conversion for transport service, continuing on to Norfolk, Virginia, in July 1918. During the remaining months of World War I, USS Koningin der Nederlanden made three voyages to France carrying U.S. troops to participate in the Western Front's fighting. After the 11 November 1918 Armistice, she began the work of bringing American service personnel home, completing five trips for that purpose between then and mid-August 1919. USS Koningin der Nederlanden was decommissioned in November 1919 and turned over to the U.S. Army and was later returned to her owners, who employed her under the Dutch flag until she was sold for scrapping in 1932 [20].

USS Koningin Der Nederlanden
USS Koningin Der Nederlanden as an American troop ship in 1919 [20]

Sunset Colombo

The unused monochrome postcard from Ceylon publishers Plate & Co. provides a view simply showing palms on the seashore in Colombo.

Sunset with palms - Colombo - date unknown. [38]

Rickshaw Colombo

The unused monochrome postcard from Ceylon publishers Plate & Co. shows an elegant-looking lady holding a parasol and being conveyed in what seems to me to be a top-of-the-range rickshaw with solid wooden wheels, sprung suspension and a canopy that can be raised - presumably for use in rainy weather.

The passenger is barefoot, wearing a sari and is adorned with elaborate earrings and bangles. The rickshaw driver seems to have a darker skin and may well have been a peasant who moved to Colombo for employment - rickshaw driving often being the first job that someone moving into a city in Asia could get. In close-up, the rickshaw driver's legs are either heavily tattooed or he has many varicose veins - I am inclined towards the latter as one of the causes of the condition is long periods of standing.

Lady in Rickshaw - Colombo - date unknown. [38]
Enlargement of part of previous image showing the rickshaw driver's legs [38]

Negombo Canal

The unused monochrome postcard from Ceylon publishers Plate & Co. is captioned 'The Negombo Canal, Ceylon' but where along the canal is not stated. The official name is the Hamilton Canal, though it is also known as 'The Dutch Canal'. When in control of the island, the Dutch attempted to grow rice in paddy fields in the Muthurajawela wetlands to the north of Colombo, but the fields were frequently inundated by the sea. They built dams and canals to try to control this but were not very successful. A new canal was constructed by the British between 1802-1804 from Colombo to Negombo.

The marsh is notable for its unique and highly diverse ecosystem and is listed as one of 12 priority wetlands in Sri Lanka. 'Muthurajawela' translates to 'Swamp of Royal Treasure'. It is now a major local and tourist attraction, primarily for sightseeing and boating tours, and the area also supports local agriculture and forestry.

Negombo Canal
Negombo Canal - date unknown. [38]
Clock Tower Queen Street
Modern view along the Negombo Canal in 2012 - photo by Tbachner [18]

Grand Pass

The unused monochrome postcard from Ceylon publishers Plate & Co. is captioned 'Fruit Sellers at Grand Pass'. Properly 'Grandpass', it is a suburb of Colombo which was first named 'Grande Passo' by the Portuguese before being anglicised during British administration. It was also known as Groote Pas, Pas Nacollegam and Pas van Goensdorp to the Dutch. It is about 2 miles north-east of Pettah.

There were a number of postcards made of Grandpass depicting fruit sellers and a fruit market, but I have found no particular reason why this was a speciality of the area. In this one there are a number of people seated and selling fruit on the left and many people walking along the road in our direction with baskets on their heads. I am inclined to think that the main market is behind us and people are approaching with baskets of fruit to be sold.

Fruit Sellers Grand Pass
Fruit Sellers Grand Pass Colombo - date unknown. [38]

Loading Tea Carts

The unused monochrome postcard from unknown publishers, but using a Skeen photograph, is captioned 'Loading tea carts Ceylon'. Nothing is said about the location, but it must be in the uplands area - possibly part of the former kingdom of Kandy mentioned in the introduction to this page.

To the left of the photo is presumably the packing shed in which the processed and dried tea is loaded into tea chests for export. The workers are carrying the heavy tea chests on their heads to the ox carts which will take them to be sold - a lot of it being sent by sea to Britain in all probability.

Loading Tea Carts
Loading Tea Carts - date unknown. [38]

Sacred Elephants

These two unused monochrome postcards from Ceylon publishers Plate & Co. show elephants belonging to Buddhist temples near Kandy. Elephant are used in the annual festival which takes the form of whirling dancers, elaborately costumed elephants, stilt walkers and fire throwers. There has been some controversy of late about the way the animals are treated but they seem well cared-for in these images.

Sacred elephants
Temple Elephants at Katugastata River near Kandy- date unknown. [38]
Sacred elephants
Temple Elephants at Kandy- date unknown. [38]

Click on the link below to go to the page on Fremantle - the first port of call in Australia.