Attracted by the island's spices and gem stones, the first Europeans arrived to Sri Lanka in the early 16th century. The Portuguese established a number of coastal trading settlements, converted some of the Sinhalese aristocracy to Catholicism and built fortresses to protect their ports.
Few traces of the Portuguese still remain as their fortifications were absorbed into fortresses later built by the Dutch. However, the Catholic faith still remains strong, and a number of Portuguese words have been absorbed into local languages. Even more striking is the use of Portuguese names such as 'de Silva, Fernando & Pereira among many Sinhalese.
When the Dutch received the monopoly of the spice trade in return for getting rid of the Portuguese in the mid 17th century, they renamed the island Zeilan. Remainders of the Dutch can be seen in 300 year old forts along the coast and in the churches and homes of Galle Fort, a remarkably preserved UNESCO World Heritage Site built entirely within walls & ramparts.
In a narrow street in the heart of Colombo's seething bazaar of Pettah, sits an imposing white washed mansion, its terracotta-tiled roof held up by eight massive unadorned pillars. Built in 1780 as the residence of the Dutch governor, this is now home to the Dutch Period Museum. The heavy wooden furniture such as cabinets, hanging oil lamps and four poster beds are somewhat sober in style.
However, colonial furniture has changed over the years as local carpenters copied the original furniture brought by the Dutch, using local wood. The Dutch left behind more than just furniture, in upmarket antique shops in Colombo, in crowded dusty treasure houses along the west coast and in Galle, a host of Dutch homeware await discovery. Porcelain tableware, cutlery, glassware, hanging glass oil lamps, candleholders, stoneware and water filters can be easily found.
The British took control of the coastal ports at the end of the 18th century, and renamed the country Ceylon. They literally changed the face of parts of the island, introducing large-scale planting of tea in the 1870s, a crop which flourished and went on to become the finest tea in the world. Many charming bungalows built for tea estate managers have recently been converted to unique guest houses or boutique hotels.
The British, established hill resorts in Nuwara Eliya with complete English garden settings, grew strawberries and introduced trout fishing, horse racing and golf. They also introduced the railway system and above all, cricket. Now a consuming passion among Sri Lankans, this is arguably one of the most enduring and cherished legacies of Sri Lanka's colonial past