Present-day Slave Island, Colombo, Sri Lanka
Present-day Slave Island, Colombo, Sri Lanka

Digitally preserving Dutch-Sri Lankan colonial heritage: ‘Virtual Slave Island’ website launched

June marked the launch of the “Virtual Slave Island” website, a collaborative effort between Sri Lankan and Dutch researchers, among others Radboud historian Dries Lyna. Faced with drastic urbanization, demolition and evictions, this project aims to preserve and share the layered history of Colombo’s Slave Island neighborhood through a blend of images and stories.

A turbulent history

Slave Island (or Kompanna-veediya as it is known locally) is a neighborhood in Colombo with a turbulent history, with roots that go back to the VOC’s occupation of the city. The Dutch legacy is anchored in the quarter’s patchwork street pattern and multi-cultural character. However, Colombo is one of South Asia's fastest-growing urban centers and rapid urbanization is dramatically altering this historic neighborhood. 

This growth, while symbolizing progress for some, threatens the historical and social landscape of areas like Slave Island. Many historic buildings have been demolished, and long-time residents have been relocated to the city’s outskirts. Through an online StoryMap, the narratives and images of Slave Island’s inhabitants from the 18th to the 21st centuries are now available to the public. 

Bringing history to life

Historian Dries Lyna collaborated with Sri Lankan sociologist Iromi Perera and architect Varuna de Silva (University of Moratuwa) as well as Leiden professor Alicia Schrikker to create this interactive online map. Visitors of the website are able to dive through five layers of Slave Island’s life, from current evictions to its colonial past. Lyna: “Iromi and her team conducted interviews with older inhabitants of Slave Island, who had been living there for 50 years and more. These people generously shared their childhood memories and photographs of growing up in Slave Island, which we used to bring the history of the neighbourhood to life”.

The project responds to growing concerns about urban changes by preserving the historical experiences of Slave Island's residents. It supports existing heritage initiatives  by focusing on the everyday lives of the suburb's inhabitants from the 18th century to today.

Virtual Slave Island website map


The project has several key goals, including documenting Slave Island’s multi-ethnic community from its Dutch colonial past to present-day changes, raising awareness of Colombo's diverse history, and stimulating further research and projects. Lyna: “By offering new historical narratives in both English, Sinhala and Tamil,  our project wants to digitally preserve and respect the neighborhood’s evolving landscape. The launch of “Virtual Slave Island” is a significant step in preserving and sharing the rich legacy of Colombo’s Slave Island with a global audience.”

Visit the Virtual Slave Island website