The Portuguese ousted the Moors from Negombo towards the end of the 16th century and took over the cinnamon trade, even building a fort to protect their interests. Although the Portuguese just cut the cinnamon growing wild in this region, it was the Dutch, who on capturing Negombo in the 1640s, encouraged planting in commercial groves to maximize production. Under their rigid control of the western coastal areas, Negombo became a busy commercial port. And, since the soils of Negombo are so fine and sandy, the cinnamon produced in the area was considered the sweetest and therefore most prized.
Today, however, Negombo is renowned for its fishing. Many of the fishermen belong to the karava caste that traditionally used non-mechanised craft such as outrigger canoes (oruwa) and wooden craft (teppam). The karava – who mainly comprise converted Roman Catholic fisher-families – are allegedly descendents of a North Indian warrior of the same name who first arrived in Sri Lanka over a millennium ago.
The fishing vessels of the karava are constructed without the use of metal. This was because they feared a lodestone (magnetic mountain) in the Indian Ocean that would unleash an uncontrollable force on any craft fitted with metal. Palladius, a 5th-century Greek, claimed that the lodestone was located adjacent to Serendib, and that vessels sailing for the island should be fastened with wooden pegs instead of iron bolts. Tennent (1859) was convinced that the legend was “an invention belonging to an earlier age” and was connected with the local and regional method of boat construction in which the components are lashed together or secured with wooden pegs.
The oruwas fitted with their large sails characterize Negombo, making for an incredibly picturesque sight. On their return from fishing their trademark creamy-brown sails dot the horizon, becoming bigger as they make their way to the shore. You can even arrange to go out in one or, at least inspect its meticulous and clever design. you can even dine in – though unfortunately this one remains on land!
Today, many of the fishing boats are fitted with small engines that power them out to sea in the early morning. Larger ones go out all night and return in the morning to sell their catch. Negombo’s fish market is quite possibly the island’s best. Large catches of fish – tuna, seer, marlin, shark, barracuda and swordfish – nestle beside lagoon prawns, crabs and lobster, for which Negombo is prized.
Due to its significant Catholic population, Negombo is dominated by shrines and picturesque churches. The biggest is the impressive, candy-coloured church of St Mary’s, built over a period of 50 years from 1874, which exhibits some amazing ceiling paintings.