On a road less travelled
What’s in a name, asked the Bard but for octogenarian Frederick Medis who has pored over books and documents and trod down dusty streets all his life, everything is in a name. It is, however, not the Bard he picks on but Lord Byron not only to indicate how the tree-lined Horton Place got its name but also the family issues and the poetry behind it all.
Sir Robert Wilmot was a British Governor of Ceylon who when he married was told in no uncertain terms by his father-in-law that he would have to take on a double-barrel surname if he wished to keep the inheritance bequeathed on him, the Sunday Times learns during a lengthy chat with Mr. Medis.
This is how the Governor, after his nuptials, became Sir Robert Wilmot-Horton, adding his wife Anne’s surname and ultimately lending that name to the road in the heart of Cinnamon Gardens. But according to Mr. Medis, the story does not end there, for the cousin of the Governor’s wife was none other than the celebrated poet-Lord Byron who wrote the famous ‘She walks in beauty like the night’ as a tribute to her, after seeing her in a black gown.
Easily and from memory, names, dates and trivia roll off the tongue of 87-year-old Mr. Medis, not only during the interview with the Sunday Times on Wednesday but also during a talk on ‘An anecdotal survey of street and place names’ organised by the National Trust — Sri Lanka before a large crowd at the HNB auditorium on August 30.
From poetry, Mr. Medis dabbles in the politics of the British period in Sri Lanka and talks of the wielder of the powerful pen, Irishman Dr. Christopher Elliott, adding as an aside that the name-board of the road dedicated to him is spelt wrong. Generous Dr. Elliott who lived in Borella and was the Editor of the Colombo Observer not only carried out a campaign against the many taxes, dog and gun included, that the British imposed but also incited mobs to protest against British rule.
“He refused to pay the dog tax and addressed large crowds of locals, both in English and Sinhala, from a makeshift platform,” says Mr. Medis, going on to detail the drastic consequences of his actions.
It was July 26, 1848. Rattled by a big demonstration that Dr. Elliott organised, the full strength of the British troops, both infantry and cavalry, descended on Borella from Pettah and Maradana to quell the disturbance. The mob retaliated and the British opened fire leaving many people dead. Martial Law having been declared in the colony of Ceylon, it was across the oceans that the administration running the mighty British Empire was under pressure, the Sunday Times learns.
“Questions were raised in the British Parliament, with serious implications that Prime Minister Lord John Russell had appointed his close relative, Lord Torrington, as Governor. This being construed as an act of nepotism, not only were Torrington and other high officials recalled from Ceylon but the British Cabinet was also dissolved,” says Mr. Medis.
Next he creates the startling image of the Beira being a huge swamp from the Kelani Ganga through Borella, Dematagodawatte to Kolonnawa. When wind-whipped torrential monsoon rains lashed the area, a turbulent mass of water, ‘bora-ela’(later turning the area to Borella), would surge through this area, downwards to Narahenpita ending in a slimy swamp, where wild elephants which came from the Deduru Oya jungles along the Kelani Ganga disappeared in the bog, according to Mr. Medis.
There is a belief, he points out, that the original name was ‘na rahathpitiya’ in Sinhala, with ‘na’ being elephant, thus indicating that the area was “where the elephants disappeared”.
The turgid waters would then move onto Nawala which was a dense forest, Kotte having been abandoned after the shooting of Buvaneka Bahu, Mr. Medis elaborates. The Dutch historian, Valentine, later mentions that the area became a “howling wilderness where even elephants were kraaled”. Passing Nawala, the waters flowed to the Diyawanna Oya, past Pagoda (parll-goda, the terminus for padda boats).
Did you know that there was an elephant corridor in these areas in those days, asks Mr. Medis, linking up Nawala, Nawinna (nahinna) where there was a scrubland with elephants, to Padukka, Sinharaja forest and south to Panamure. “This proves conclusively that there was an elephant corridor.”
Back in the environs of Cinnamon Gardens, he points out that Rosmead Place is named after Sir Hercules Robinson who was Marquis of Rosmead; Guildford Crescent after the first British Governor of Ceylon, Frederick North who was Earl of Guildford; and Stanmore Crescent after Sir Arthur Gordon who was Lord Stanmore.
Without taking them at face value, this lover of antiquities has gone not one step but many leaps into history to unveil the little secrets and stories behind 900 place-names across the country. It had been while he was studying at St. Peter’s College, Colombo 4, that Mr. Medis immersed himself in this interesting subject, for his father was an antiquarian. “My father had a private museum in our home at Nugegoda,” he says, adding that the pieces included mainly bronzes, porcelain and ivories.
Back to his favourite topic, ‘Colombo’ or ‘Kolontota’ gets a long explanation from Mr. Medis.
The Fort area had a mango tree with only leaves but no fruit, which resulted in ‘Kola Amba’ which the Dutch engraved on their Wapen (heraldic emblem). “Not fully satisfied, the Dutch put a double pun or cant by introducing a dove for which the Latin usage by the Dutch was ‘Columba’. His fascination with place names engulfs those around him, as he picks out Bagatalle Road.
“Bagatelle” means “next to nothing”, he says, pointing out that it was the Italian name for a board game which was played for a pittance. During the weekends, menfolk would gather in a house in that area, swig beer and play this game. “It was a slanting board game like billiards where little balls were pushed around with a rod in attempts to strike some pins. Later the name had been Sinhalised.”
Next under the magnifying glass is Milagiriya in Colombo 4. Originally there had been the Portuguese church ‘Nossa Senora dos Milagres’ (Our Lady of Miracles), which when the Dutch ruled turned into a Dutch Reformed establishment along with a Sinhala school. The Headmaster was a local by the name of Jacinto Graro who was also a Tombu-keeper or Registrar of Baptisms, Marriages and Deaths. The family history follows. Graro’s wife was Nona Baba and their daughter was baptised as Wirithamullage Dona Isabella Cornelia Perumal who later achieved fame as Gajaman Nona, the Poetess of Matara.
Colombo in Dutch times also had a maze of streets and cross streets, he says, zeroing-in on Main Street which was Koning Straat (street) or King’s Street. There was also Prince Street named after a Prince of Orange in Holland.
Referring to “hybrids”, Mr. Medis brings into focus Malwatte Road, which his research has shown had nothing to do with flowers. ‘Mall’ is market in Dutch while ‘watte’ is garden, resulting in the Dutch-Sinhala hybrid of ‘Market garden’.
Sedawatte on the outskirts of Colombo is a Portuguese-Sinhala hybrid, he says, explaining that ‘seda’ in Portuguese means silk. The Portuguese intended to have sericulture in the area by cultivating mulberry with imported Chinese labour. Although the mulberry plantations misfired, the name stuck. Even the Dutch called silk ‘soida’.
Maliban Street next to Malwatte Street stems from the Dutch ‘mall’ meaning market and ‘bahn’ meaning road, while Bankshall Street in Porutguese times was packed with storehouses with cinnamon, spices and other products and was actually ‘Bankershala’, a hall or store house. The Colombo harbour area in those days was dangerous for navigation, so ‘East Indiamen’, their ships, called at these warehouses from the north of Colombo during non-monsoon times. That’s why Mutwal is Modera or ‘muva dora’ which is the gateway, mentioned in the maps of Claudius Ptolemy while Colombo is shown as Jovis Extremum (the farthest point) or the Cape of Jupiter, named after Jovis (Jupiter), the father of the Roman gods.
In the vicinity of Bankshall Street in the time of the Dutch was Visschers Straat where the fish market was, says Mr. Medis accepting as a matter of fact that he knows a “little Latin, Greek and Pali’, pointing out that ‘v’ is ‘f’ in Dutch.
The clock-tower in the area was built in British times by philanthropist Framjee Bhikajee Khan after whom it takes its name.
Dispelling the notion that Pettah or Pita Kotuwa is Sinhala, he says that during his numerous journeys abroad he has come across Pettahs not only in Chennai, Mumbai and Kolkata in India but also in Kingston, Jamaica. For the Dutch the Pettah had been Oude Stadt or Old City. Making a quick detour to Fort, he says a certain point had been referred to as ‘Galle Facio’ or looking towards Galle, while some records indicate that Kollupitiya was known as ‘Konupitiya’ where there were many coffee mills in early British times and Polwatte as Wassermandorpen or washermen (dhobi) quarter by the Dutch.
During the Dutch occupation, Koning Straat was a well-maintained road leading to St. John’s river, now St. John’s Road, with drawbridge and all. It was to St. John’s river that the broad drains brought not only the waste but also the swill from the city which in turn lured the crocodiles (kayman) which gathered and fed there, giving the name Kayman Poorten (gate), he says.
Close-by is the bell-tower erected by the Dutch who in their anger against the Portuguese demolished a church in Kotte and installed that bell here. Mr. Medis transports us back in time when entire Dutch families in their Sunday best – breeches, pantaloons, top hats, bonnets and crinoline dresses — would congregate along with their children and African slaves carrying the heavy Bible boxes and smelling salts, at the church at Wolfendhal.
The Dutch manifested their hatred towards the Portuguese in many ways, he says, explaining that this church under the Portuguese was Roman Catholic and known as ‘Nossa Senora de Guadaloupe’ (Our Lady of Guadaloupe). Using the Biblical injunction, “Be not like wolves in sheep’s clothing”, the Dutch mysteriously altered Guadaloupe to Aguadaloupe which means valley or ravine of wolves in Latin which ultimately became Wolvendhal, he adds.
There is an interesting tale about slaves that Mr. Medis weaves in. Having brought both men and women from slave-markets in East Africa and Mozambique, they served Dutch homes and enterprises. But one night when a slave murdered the entire family, most probably on Maliban Street, a Plakaart (proclamation) was issued, enjoining that all slaves should be taken at sundown by pontoons to the island on the Beira, released there, picked up at sunrise and taken back to the households on the mainland. The embarkation point was close to Philip Neri’s Church and the disembarkation point New Ferry Lane at Slave Island. Close-by was also Kafir Lane, smiles Mr. Medis, also known as Kapiri Mudukkuwa.
It is from slaves to mews that he goes next, stressing that Mews Lane had nothing to do with cats or kittens but was the place where the Dutch stables were for horses, carriages and horse-traps. Kew Road, of course was where the British established Ceylon’s first botanical gardens with help from the curators of Kew Gardens back in England.
Ginthupitiya becomes Mr. Medis’s final entry for the day. Here was a Persian-Nestorian Church which later became a Portuguese church dedicated to St. Thome in San Thompiddi. This church is believed to be one of the oldest in Asia. But the matter of interest lies in the churchyard which held three separate graveyards – for Catholics, converts and slaves or non-believers.
The non-believers were Gentiles and over time the area metamorphosed into Ginthupitiya, says Mr. Medis, as we reluctantly end the interview and bid him goodbye.
He, however, holds out a promise for those fascinated by place and road names – a book by this repository of knowledge may be in the pipeline under the auspices of the National Trust.
In memory of George Wall
The beautiful Wall monument with the Hindu-Saracenic architecture at the Eye Hospital junction hub was gifted by the grateful people of Sri Lanka in memory of George Wall, a pioneer member of the Colombo Municipal Council, points out Mr. Medis, explaining that he was an outstanding figure in the plantation trade.
It is very distressing, however, to see a monument of national importance being leased out to a private organisation, which blatantly displays its name he laments.