This article is part of HWO’s series on The Political Environment. The series explores how environmental change has been created and contested in the past, and asks how this history might widen the scope of our political imagination in response to global ecological crisis today. You can read an introduction to the series here.
The political environment can go missing in a neighbourhood one knows well, for the human eye is often blind. Close to where I grew up in Colombo, Sri Lanka, the Kirulapone Canal enters the sea at Wellawatte, a district in the south of the city, which – charmingly, but now without a correspondence to reality – translates from Sinhala as ‘sandy garden’. This district is also sometimes referred to as ‘Little Jaffna’: a reference to the city in the north of the island, a pressure point in the country’s civil war. This is because the minoritized Tamil population comprises a sizeable proportion of Wellawatte’s residents. Given how Colombo has grown around the canal, polluting and congesting it with buildings and then hiding it from view, it is not a waterway that I know well. One moment when it suddenly arose in my consciousness was in 2017, when The Excellency – a multi-storied ‘banquet hall’ built on its banks – suddenly collapsed ‘like a pack of cards’, killing three people and bringing the waterway, bleached green in pollution, to view. Another context which has periodically awakened me, quite literally, to the canal is night-time familiarity with the mosquitoes that breed in its waters.
The history of this waterway is an indicator of how nature was manipulated, habited, regimented and industrialised. In turn, such processes – which made it into a bit-piece in a capitalist economy – could never undo the environment’s power (studied elsewhere in Sri Lanka by Tamara Fernando) or make it fully vanish. The building’s collapse, for instance, points to the instability of the earth so close to a human-made waterway, as much as its poor construction. This canal’s history is also a telling tracer of the challenges facing global South cities, especially those in the Indian Ocean. Given the extent of its coastal populations, low-lying cities at the sea face and on-going changes to the monsoon, the Indian Ocean may be a key zone to watch for how the climate emergency unfolds.
The canal – though often mistakenly called ‘Dutch’ – was in fact built in 1874 by the Briton C. P. Layard, Government Agent of the Western Province, as a flood outlet. It was a much-told and romanticised colonial story that Colombo was sited next to a well-known mango tree; tellingly, this canal was also allegedly situated next to a noted tree, a banyan, and close to the 1820 memorial for a woman called ‘Sophia.’ The memorial noted: ‘O traveller, if from milder climes you rove/ How dearly will you prize this Indian grove [the banyan].’ Despite Layard’s expertise, it was soon discovered that ‘the canal bed was much higher than the [city’s] flooded area’; so its intended function as a flood outlet didn’t immediately come to pass. It was consequently dubbed Layard’s Folly or Moda Ela (Foolish Canal).
A sequence of work stretching into the twentieth century was undertaken to deepen and widen the canal, to make it drain floods more effectively and also to make it more commercially useful. Romanticism and high optimism about the potential of the work carried this long programme. Sticking with romanticism, the canal was depicted in postcards from the early twentieth century; one showed swimmers in the water.
Motivating this work was a systematic modelling of the movement of water across the western province of the island, where Colombo lay. Nihal Perera’s pioneering work on the planning of Colombo shows that urban space was a site of contestation; between colonial elites as well as colonised subjects. Such an argument may also be taken from land to water and from inland to sea, so that the environment of a wetland city such as this is not taken as stable or ending at its beach. Much of Colombo is low-lying as is clear from the cartography that accompanied the planning of flood outlets. A major headache in the period was how a sandbar formed at the mouth of the Kelaniya River to the north of Colombo, which in turn prevented its smooth outflow to the ocean and contributed to the flooding of Colombo. Major floods occurred just prior to Layard’s work in 1872, then again in 1891, before a further bout of work on the canal, and once again in 1913.
To make the canal work, it was necessary first to understand the reef around where it entered the sea. At Wellawatte, there was allegedly ‘never any obstruction to [the canal’s] free action’, meaning that the nature of the reef on this stretch militated against the formation of a sandbar that obstructed outflow. A fragment of a much-damaged map from around 1892 shows that further work on the canal was discussed: a widening to 40 feet in the last leg before it reached the sea, as well as a direct connection to the Kelaniya River. On this map, the canal is marked in red as ‘Ambattelle & Killepane Outlet’ and the river appears right at the top of the fragment. The outflow from the river as well as the flood outlets was modelled against the seasons of the monsoon and rain patterns, which could see inflow into its waterways rather than exit out to the ocean; the opposite of what was desired.
This modelling was undergirded by a capitalist programme. Wellawatte was envisaged as a territory ripe for the creation of a commercial area, with navigation for ‘padda boats’ coming down the canal to the railway line along the sea and taking ‘copra, timber, building materials, fruit, vegetables &c.’ to the port to the north. Wellawatte was the site of a coconut plantation and the canal provided a base-line for the survey and sale of lands by the colonial state. Yet this was not stable land. This is evident in the 1888 letter of one resident, Mr. Muttiah, living close to the canal, asking to purchase an unused plot of land next to the canal:
More than three quarters of its extent is piled up with loose sand and dug out of the adjoining canal and spread out in an uneven manner… In fact it is a hillock extending throughout the whole length of the land and burying down for some 10 feet the stems of some old cocoanut and cadju [cashew] trees. No house can be built by any purchaser on the land..
In 1883, one of the first to buy close to the canal was the Wellawatte Spinning and Weaving Mills. This was the first mill of its kind in Sri Lanka. Opening in 1888, the mills produced: ‘Colombo cloth, Lanka tweeds, drills, shirtings, sheetings, towels, tarpaulins, tents, awning, and many other kinds of cotton goods.’ The export of garments in today’s Sri Lanka accounts for a sizeable chunk of the economy and appears in clothing shops in the West. This, then, was one critical point for their emergence. One early twentieth-century image in a collage shows workers standing for the photographer, both men and women. Another shows a column rising to the sky – a reminder of the pollution that the mills would exude into the surroundings and into the canal.
The modelling of sea and land stretched along the coast to the port and to the Kelaniya river. One community which felt the effect of this rearrangement were fishermen. The Sinhalese Roman Catholic, John F. Perera, was Fisher Mudliyar (the colonial title for his role as headman in charge of fishing communities), and his many letters across several decades of service demonstrate the difficulties he encountered in keeping peace between the different communities. They are not an indicator of his faults, though they were read as such by his colonial superiors; rather they are primarily an indicator of the difficulties of inhabiting a coastline experiencing repeated colonial intervention. In 1894, in protest at the changes on the coast, fishermen laid their boats across the railway-line that linked the port to the plantations of the hinterland where tea was grown. In the words of a 1906 petition signed by 172 fishermen:
The Petitioners beg to submit that if they would be so ousted and placed out of the beach, they will not be able to carry on their usual occupation – and simultaneously they will, with their families and dependents, be exposed to imminent danger.
The uncertainty for fisher livelihoods was accentuated by the harbour works and the erection of breakwaters, on which I’ve written elsewhere, and the evacuation of fishermen to a new harbour in Mutwal. In another petition of 1906, it was noted that the beach they were allotted was unsafe in the monsoon, when much of it was also washed away. It was in this context that there arose more ethnicised conflicts between fisher communities in Mutwal in 1912. One petition with nine signatories in Sinhala script asked that ‘Tamil’ fishermen be expelled from Mutwal. It noted that their numbers had greatly increased here because of rules governing fishing elsewhere on the coast.
It is no surprise that a story of hard work, bondage and resistance also characterised the mills on the banks of the canal. The place where water and land met generated particular challenges in Colombo. Given the way land was ‘opened’ to the market here, how the terrain was changing, and how commercial activities were located here in the rapid expansion of the city, the beach as well as canals were critical arteries. The mill was expanded in 1922; with a workforce numbering 2000. Many of these workers came from South India and descendant communities continue to live in the area. It was further expanded in the later twentieth century: incorporated as a private company in 1949, it became a public company in 1957 and was taken over by banker and industrialist N.U. Jayawardena and nationalised in 1976. It was finally closed down in 1984. At this stage, all remaining workers were compensated with ‘a meagre one-time payment of Rs. 20,000.’
Across this time, the mill was a space of sustained strike action. One reason for this sustained protest is because of how the mills were tied to housing, generating acute precarity for the workforce, who lacked the freedom to move away from their workplace. As was recently expertly-argued by the sadly-deceased Vijay Kumar Nagaraj : ‘the housing provided by the Mills was integral to holding this urban working class ‘captive’ in an enclave without physical boundaries.’ Another reason for the sustained strike action witnessed here is the level of organisation which became possible over wages and work conditions. Under A. E. Goonesinha, the Ceylon Labor Union led strikes in 1923, 1926 and 1929. There was then a parting of ways in 1933, when a Wellawatte Worker’s Union was formed under the Marxist Colvin R. De Silva, which led to the founding of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP). Later, the Communist Party of Ceylon-Peking was active at the mills.
When the site finally closed in 1984, the mill workers found themselves without legal title to their long-held residences. Their houses were bulldozed in 2014. A newly authoritarian post-civil war urban programme led to a renewed programme of building right on the banks of the canal. High-rise buildings were imposed in a complex now called Havelock City, including a mall and luxury apartments, where residents look down on the canal from above.
Today the canal is heavily polluted. But I was surprised to find a Buddha statue next to a tree close to the likely spot of Sophia’s banyan tree. I also found several birds dipping into its waters. In some parts – for instance in the Dehiwela outlet near the sea – people continue to live close to the banks of the canal. To simply write the canal off as polluted is to under-estimate nature’s powers and the means that people use to inhabit a city. But it continues also to be the case that heavy governance devises schemes of wishful and stalled improvement for this stretch of water. The latest plan drew the canal once again, like the British did repeatedly, into the city’s wider hydrological geography, in a bid to transport passengers on its waters and beat the traffic on the roads. This has now been abandoned. Elsewhere, the grand programme financed by China to develop the port city once again dramatically and frighteningly, changes the coastline through heavy engineering. It is reminiscent of the colonial harbour work that caused pain to fishermen, generating tussles between communities.
The twisted histories told here encompass how the environment is colonised and marketised, but how it in turn creates its own paths, through winds, waves and waters as well as unstable earth. It is impossible to tell a tale of the canal without the reef and it was constructed within a flood plan that encompassed the whole city. The canal’s history also encompasses the labour that has gone into livelihoods close to the bridge of water and land. This threshold has been a place of many kinds of human politics in the making of a city built in a wetland liable to flooding. The canal was also a boundary of a district, Wellawatte, and for this reason was a critical marker in the expansion of a city. Understanding each of these elements without reaching for a singular ‘political environment’ is central to our present predicament of the climate emergency.
Sujit Sivasundaram is Professor of World History at the University of Cambridge, Director of the Centre of South Asian Studies, Cambridge and Fellow in History at Gonville and Caius College. His latest book is Waves Across the South: A New History of Revolution and Empire (2020), which was a History Workshop Journal Radical Read 2020.