The 16th-17th century: Brutish conquests

During the 16th to 17th centuries, transport centred largely around inland waterways. Understanding how our transport system developed into the chthonic entity it is right now, like many other aspects of present Sri Lankan culture, requires that we trace its development back to colonial rule.

While not as well documented as the British era, we need to look at the spice trade and the Dutch influence on our transport infrastructure.

In his book, Links Between Sri Lanka and the Netherlands: A Book of Dutch Ceylon (1978), R L Brohier writes rather lovingly about the contributions of the Dutch hydraulic engineers who developed the canals to transport cinnamon to the main ports of Negombo and Colombo.

An image of the Hamilton Canal (Dutch Canal) from the early 1900’s

Brohier writes that the canal-cuts linking up the streams, lakes, rivers, and lagoons contributed to the ‘splendid prosperity’ of the districts they served. Colonial nostalgia aside though, these waterways were an integral part of the lucrative spice trade and Dutch ambitions for empire in the East. According to Professor Amal Kumarage, at its peak, this network extended from Beruwala in the south to Negombo in the north, totalling about 200 kilometres of waterways.

This transport connectivity fuelled by empire and trade positioned the Western province to become the economic powerhouse of the country, and that’s where our story really begins. Back when our grubby overlords set in motion the mechanics of a military machine configured towards furthering the acquisition and control of Kandyan territories.

War efforts aside, the transportation of goods from the interior to Colombo was also achieved through the use of ‘coolies’. A term which here refers to a very low wage labourer when, in actuality, it was a fancy word for a slave. Coolies were eventually replaced by bullock driven carts.

Bullock carts circa 1900’s

18th century: Coffee and crossroads

Coffee planters were instrumental in developing the roads to move product from the central highlands to their consumers. The cost of transport at the time was steep and reduced prices hinged on technical innovations that hadn’t arrived yet. Which is why the arrival of the railway and motorised transportation were game changers; following the British conquest of Sri Lanka in 1815, Kandy soon became the centre of the plantation economy, while Colombo remained the primary node for exports and imports.

1840s - 1860s: Cafe Nation

The prospect of a railway carried enormous appeal in the wake of its success in India. Coffee estate owners, worried by the boom of Brazilian coffee production, supported the development of the railway because it promised to increase their revenue. Thus, 1858 ushered in the Ceylon Government Railway, which has since grown into what we know today as Sri Lanka Railways.

The railway’s road to completion was coloured by certain financial anxieties within The Ceylon Railway Company, because the colony had to default almost completely to London to acquire the necessary capital to break ground on the project. The railway was constructed with the aim of constructing a link between Colombo and Kandy. Moreover, it was hoped that the railway would yield a few very pretty pennies.

1860s - 1920s: Everything’s on track, we promise

Completed in 1867, the railway to Kandy initiated a process that resulted in a sprawling network of railway lines that endured into the latter half of the 19th century. It wasn’t an easy task, and carried considerable financial risk, but seems to have been a truly impressive feat back in the day.


Traditional means of transportation kept pace with technical innovations. Some remained genuinely independent while others, carts for example, functioned as feeders to the railway. Sometime between 1883 and 1893, we saw the introduction of the rickshaw.