Constructed by the British in 1804, the Hamilton Canal was conceived by George Atkinson, then Colonial Surveyor General and spans some 14.5 kilometres, connecting the coastal resort town of Negombo with Colombo.
The Canal’s early objective was to drain salt water out of the Muthurajawela wetlands and its name is credited to Gavin Hamilton, the then Government Agent of Revenue and Commerce.
Negombo, given its strategic location was linked by a network of canals under the aegis of King Veera Parakramabahu VIII, that connected outlying villages with Colombo and Negombo so that produce such as arecanuts, cloves, cardamom, pepper and cinnamon, could be more easily transported to the kingdom of Kotte’s main seaport at Negombo.
“Near Columbo the Fathers embarked on a canal by which they entered into the River Calane, and going down the river they proceeded into another canal as narrow as shady, so that the oars, although they were very short, could scarcely fulfill their office. By this they went as far as Negumbo, which is six Chingala leagues…”
Portuguese missionary, Father Manoel Barradas 1613
The Dutch are said to have attempted to grow rice in the surrounding marshes of Muthurajawela alongside early Portuguese waterways, but soon discovered that coastal tides inundated the fields with sea water.
The Dutch also transported their prized cinnamon in barges through to the port at Negombo via this canal. This endeavour resulted in a continuous line of waterways between ports and remote sections of territory under the Dutch.
Hamilton Canal as established by the British, ran parallel and West of the old Dutch Canal, closer to the sea, from the mouth of the Kelani Ganga at Hekitta to the southern edge of the Negombo Lagoon at Pamunugama.
Despite the British aim of draining the saltwater from the marshes of Muthurajawela, the opposite took place with increased salinity not only from the Negombo Lagoon but also from the Kelani Ganga River.
Cinnamon was hauled to Colombo on ‘padda’ boats, essentially flat bottomed boats made of wood with a removable roof made of coconut or cadjan leaves. Padda boatmen were famous for singing folk songs as they punted their boats up the canal.
In recent years many attempts have been undertaken to rehabilitate and restore the Canal to its former glory and the results of these efforts can be seen today in certain stages.
Visitors to Negombo can travel along the canal, however today it is only a shade of its former glory with fishermen and their boats lining the congested canal bank and the canal being continuously inundated with garbage and pollution.
The canal cuts through the heart of Negombo city before reaching the Maha Oya. After a detour of several hundred metres down the Maha Oya, the Hamilton Canal continues for another 15 kilometres beyond Negombo Town, ending at the Gin Oya Lagoon.