Towards a Virtual Slave Island

Contested Space and Everyday Life in Colombo, ca. 1700 – present
1 January 2020
Project member(s)
Dr D.B.G.W. Lyna (Dries) , Alicia Schrikker (Leiden University)
Project type

In the past decades, the Colombo Metropolitan area experienced unprecedented urban growth, with downtown Colombo as one of the fastest-growing cities in South Asia. The ongoing high rise developments and urban regeneration efforts perhaps herald modernity for a share of the population, but also pose a continuing threat to both the spatial and social fabric of downtown Colombo. In Slave Island - despite heritage initiatives and activism - countless historical buildings were already demolished to make way for a new high rise. Families that have lived for generations on Slave Island are dislocated to apartment buildings at the city’s outskirts.

In close collaboration with local partners, this project will create an online interactive map of Slave Island’s current and historical transformations. Five layers with ‘snapshots’ of Slave Island's daily life will form the backbone of this long-term narrative, from the present-day evictions via early days of Independence over the industrialisation under the British to the settlements of Indian Ocean slaves, soldiers and exiles during Dutch rule. This project will move beyond the mere changes in the built environment, by foregrounding the untold life stories of past and present inhabitants of the suburb.


  1. Visualising Shared Heritage and Creating Narratives of Everyday Life
    The main objective is to document and visualise the forgotten layered history of Slave Island, which houses a multi-ethnic community with roots in the Dutch period. The unique multicultural history of this quarter will be narrated and visualised in a StoryMap, from the present-day evictions and demolition of colonial buildings to its Dutch origins of exiles, slaves and soldiers. Through mapping and historical life writing we will uncover the transformations that the built environment and the social fabric of Slave Island experienced, through processes of (de)colonisation, industrialisation and urbanisation.
  2. Raising Awareness of Colombo's Multicultural and -religious History
    The StoryMap of Slave Island will create awareness of the often neglected multicultural and -religious origins of the city among Colombo citizens and visitors. In doing so, this project at the same time will digitally preserve a city that is rapidly changing.  This will not be done out of mere nostalgia for a vague (colonial) past, but out of respect for the everyday histories of ordinary people, whose combined genealogies trace back to Colombo's Dutch past.
  3. Stimulating Curiosity and Follow-Up Projects
    In addition, this pilot project will produce new historical narratives accessible to a broader audience, generating curiosity and fostering new projects, both from local heritage organisations and professional historians. Towards that goal, the narratives on the website will be made available not only in Dutch and English, but also translated in Sinhala and Tamil. We consciously aim at cross-fertilisation with current heritage activities and local public history activities. During the scheduled meeting in Colombo during the Summer of 2020 the team together will explore further funding opportunities for a possible follow-up to this pilot, include other neighbourhoods with a shared Dutch heritage, such as Pettah and Fort.


DutchCulture Shared Cultural Heritage


  • Varuna de Silva: Architect and Industry Professional; Member of the State Arts and Sculpture Advisory Board of the Arts Council of Sri Lanka;  Senior Lecturer at the Department of Architecture of the University of Moratuwa.
  • Iromi Perera: Urban Development Policy Researcher, formerly Senior Researcher at Centre for Policy Alternatives; Founder and Curator of Right to the City Sri Lanka.
  • Dr. Vagisha Gunasekera: Political Scientist, with Expertise in GIS-mapping; Senior Lecturer at the Department of Social Studies of the Open University of Colombo; Executive Director of the American Institute for Lankan Studies.
  • Ramla Wahab-Salman: Historian, expertise in 19th-century (muslim) history of Colombo; Director of Programming at the American Institute for Sri Lankan Studies.

Contact information