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Galle Fort in Sri Lanka: A UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Galle Fort, or Dutch Fort as it is also known, is a fortification first built by the Portugese on the Southwestern coast of Sri Lanka. The initial fortifications, which were built in the late 16th century, were quite basic. However the fort underwent extensive modifications in the 17th century by the Dutch, making it one of the most important archeological, architectural and historic monuments to illutrate the European influence in South East Asia between the 16th and 19th centuries. According to a statement by UNESCO the site was recognized as a World Heritage Site for its unique exposition of an urban ensemble which illustrates the interaction of European architecture and South Asian traditions from the 16th to the 19th centuries which is the criteterion number four for such recognition.

Galle Fort in Sri Lanka: History

Early History of Galle

• The earliest records of Galle trace back to its mention in Ptolemy’s World Map in the 2nd century AD.
• It is said to have been a busy port trading with some of the biggest powers of that time; such as Greece, Arabia and China.
• Galle is also mentioned in records of the 6th century traveller Cosmas Indicopleustes as a port of call of the ship Levant during his visit to Sri Lanka.
• Another historically famed traveller, Ibn Batuta who lived in the 14th century also mentions having passed through the port on his visit to Sri Pada and Tenavaram Temple which were then some of the most famous sites of Sri Lanka.

The Fort of Galle and the Portugese

• Galle is the place where the Portugese made their initial landing in 1505, when made their first foray into the unknown (to them) lands of Sri Lanka.
• They used their alliance with the king of the time and made notable changes in the area; this included the initial fort construction and also the construction of a Franciscan chapel in 1541. (The ruins of the chapel can still be seen today)
• The small initial fort called ‘Santa Cruz’ was constructed of mud and palm trees; it was later extended with a fortalice, watchtower and three bastions.
• The Portugese moved to Colombo with their increase of influence, but had to return to Galle in 1588 when their Colombo base was attacked by the Sitawakan king Raja Singha I (1581 – 1593).
• They used the fort as a prison camp in later years when the opposition against them increased.
• The fort fell into the hands of the Dutch after their combined attack along with the Sinhalese king of that time King Raja Singha II.

The Dutch Takeover

• The Dutch, with a force of around 2500 men led by Koster, captured the fort in 1640.
• The Sinhalese king, who had been desperate to get rid of the Portugese, had the locals assist in rebuilding the fort according to Dutch specifications as a form of thanks.
• The Dutch continued to make fortifications to improve the fort until the early 18th century as it was used as their main base.
• The fort included within its walls a Protestant church, the Commander’s residence, a gun house and arsenal, public administration buildings, residential quarters, warehouses, business structures, buildings for trade and defense such as smithy, carpenters’ workshop, rope maker’s workshop and etc.
• The Protestant church was built, ironically enough, with baroque architecture which was used to establish and show off the dominance of Catholicism.
• Another asset left from the time of the Dutch is their elaborate sewer system which floods at high tide, and takes the sewer into the sea as the tide goes down.
• The Dutch lost the Galle Fort to the British in 1796, a week after the capture of Colombo. As the British used Colombo as their main base, they paid little attention to Galle and the importance of the fort declined with the passing of time.

Galle Fort in Sri Lanka: The Galle Fort Structure and its Pattern of Change

The structure of the Portugese

The fort built by the Portugese was very basic and made of mud and surrounded by palisades or stakewalls. There were three bastions and a single rampart. The sea wall did not exist as they considered the seaward end impregnable.

The Dutch Renovations and Restructuring

When the Dutch took over they found the defenses highly lacking in terms of the old fortifications. Hence they decided to encircle the entire peninsula in the strongest fortifications to defend themselves against other colonial agencies. They had walls towering walls built with coral and granite. There were 14 bastions built over an area of 130 acres. Some of the names of the bastions that the Dutch built are Star, Moon, Sun, Aurora, Tremon, Kleipenberg and Emaloon. Most of the walls were built in 1663. The town that was created within the walls was built in a well-planned grid layout. The roads close to the outer edge of the city were built parallel to the forts ramparts, allowing for easier access for defense in case of an attack or breach.

The British Changes

After the fort fell into the hands of the British in 1796, they made it their southern headquarters and made many changes. These included the sealing of the moat, construction of houses and a lighthouse at the bastion Ultrecht, the addition of a gate between the Sun and Moon bastions and a tower erected in 1883 to commemorate thejubilee of Queen Victoria. In addition many changes were made to strengthen the fort during the Second World War.

Galle Fort in Sri Lanka: The Fort Today

The fort has two major gates, both huge portcullises. The portcullis that forms the first gate of entry from the port is inscribed with the year ‘ANNO MDCLXIX’, as well as the image of the Dutch Coat of Arms, the rooster and lion insignia and the inscription VOC (which stands for Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or United East Indian Company in Dutch).

The Main Gate entrance which is on the northern or landward side of the fort is very heavily fortified. A moat left from the Portugese era was widened by the Dutch after breaking the old fort walls. The moat is only crossed by a drawbridge which is also from the Dutch era; 1669 to be exact. There are records that date to 1897 in the British era, indicating renovations and additions being done on the gate area to facilitate traffic flow.

The Old Gate with its British and Dutch inscriptions can be seen if a visitor walks in a clockwise direction along the wall from the Main Gate. Further along in the same direction is the oldest bastion of the fort. The bastion which is called Zwart or Black bastion was built by the Portugese. This eastern wall of the fort ends up at the bastion, Point Ulrecht, where the remains of the powder house is also located. A more recent addition to this end is the 18m (59 feet) high Galle Lighthouse which was built in 1938.

The next section of wall has the Flag Rock bastion which was once used as a signalling station to warn ships of the dangerous underwater rocks as they approached. Warning musket shots were fired from the nearby Pigeon Island directing the ships. Another important bastion would be the next along the wall, Trion, which has the remains of a windmill that was used to draw water from the sea to moisten the dry roads. The location is also a great place to view some amazing sunsets. Many other bastions can be seen on the western curve of the fort wall back to the main entrance.

The town that came into being inside the fort at the time of the Dutch invasion is still in use today. With the streets laid in a rectangular grid and the low gabled houses and terraces in the Dutch Colonial style, the entire town gives a feeling of quaint but beautiful nostalgia. There are many things to see in the town; from historic churches and mosques to many government and commercial structures which have withstood the ages.

Some important monuments are:

1. The Dutch Reformed Church (Groote Kerk) which was built in 1640 with its historic belfry built in 1707. The bell rang every hour in its hayday. There are also other antiques to be seen within the church.
2. The 17th century New Orient Hotel which was once the exclusive use of the Dutch Governor and his staff before it was converted to a hotel in 1865. It is now a modernized franchise of Aman Resorts, and called Amangalla.
3. The old Dutch Government House.
4. The Residence of the Commander.
5. The National Maritime Museum which was once the Great Warehouse built in the 17th century by the Dutch to store spices and ship equipment.
6. The Old Dutch Hospital.
7. Meera Mosque built in 1904.
8. The Buddhist temple which was once the site of the Portuguese Roman Catholic church.
9. The All Saints Anglican church built in 1871.
10. The Clock Tower built in 1882 and the Galle Lighthouse mentioned above.
11. Some of the streets still retain the original Colonial Era names; such as the Moorish Pedlar Street or ‘Moorse Kramerstraat’, Lighthouse Street or ‘Zeeburgstraat’or ‘Middelpuntstraat’ named after the lighthouse destroyed in 1936, Hospital Street, where the Dutch Hospital, the House of the Surgeon and the Medical Gardens are, Leyn Baan Street or ‘Leyenbahnstraat’, Old Rope-Walk Street where coir rope was created, Parawa Street, Chando Street and Church street.

The Fort of Galle is a historic location that has seen many communities and ethnicities and, despite the changes made throughout the centuries, managed to hold its sense of glory and history. It has been praised as the ‘best example of a fortified city with a fusion of European architecture and South Asian traditions built by Europeans in South and Southeast Asia’. It has many secrets to tell and even more to hide. With its ruins and monuments; boutique hotels and pretty little shops, the Fort of Galle has much to offer whether you are a lover of history and archeology, or whether you are looking for a peaceful and fun holiday.