Galle Fort built on the Backs of African Slave Labour

Jeevan Thiagarajah in Daily News, 25 March 2019with this title“Slaves built Galle Fort” … …. with highlighting emphasis imposed by The Editor, Thuppahi

The topic of the piece today was triggered by a conversation with the current High Commissioner in Colombo from South Africa, Ruby Marks, who has also posted on her Facebook page this passage, “Calvin Gilfillan, Head of Die Kasteel, affirmed what we suspected-the Dutch conceptualized and supervised, but it was the labour of an estimated 15,000 Africans brought from Portuguese and Dutch colonies, that did the back breaking work of actually building the Fort and the other ones scattered across Sri Lanka. I was shocked by how little was known in Sri Lanka about this. I visited the cramped quarters where the slaves were kept, the dungeons where they were imprisoned, and the cemetery-now a car park where they were buried. And my heart wept.

“Today there are only about 30 Mozambican/Sri Lankan descendants left, and they still try to hold onto the culture through dance and language. In our meeting today, I proposed that the descendants of these African men, who were brought here as slaves and whose contribution has never been acknowledged, should be honoured. And so with their help, we will perform a cleansing ceremony at the dungeon and at the car park where they are buried. We will also unveil a plaque so that their sacrifice and tears will never be forgotten. We will also, with Die Kasteel, arrange a symposium between the Fort here and our Kasteel, and if we can, exchange researchers. I’m determined that the contribution of the people from our motherland, taken against their will to labour in Sri Lanka until they died, will not be forgotten”.

Slavery in Africa

The course of human history is marked by appalling crimes. But even the hardened historian is filled with horror, loathing and indignation on examining the record of African slavery. How was it possible? How could it have gone on for so long, and on such a scale? A tragedy of such dimensions has no parallel in any other part of the world.

The African continent was bled of its human resources via all possible routes. Across the Sahara, through the Red Sea, from the Indian Ocean ports and across the Atlantic. At least ten centuries of slavery for the benefit of the Muslim countries (from the ninth to the nineteenth). Then more than four centuries (from the end of the fifteenth to the nineteenth) of a regular slave trade to build the Americas and the prosperity of the Christian states of Europe. The figures, even where hotly disputed, make your head spin. Four million slaves exported via the Red Sea, another four million through the Swahili ports of the Indian Ocean, perhaps as many as nine million along the trans-Saharan caravan route, and eleven to twenty million (depending on the author) across the Atlantic Ocean.

Why the Africans rather than other peoples? Who exactly should be held responsible for the slave trade? The Europeans alone, or the Africans themselves? Even after the abolition of the slave trade in Africa, Colonial powers used forced labour — such as in King Leopold’s Congo Free State (which was operated as a massive labour camp) or as libertos on the Portuguese plantations of Cape Verde or São Tomé.

The great slaving companies were formed in the second half of the seventeenth century, when the Americas, and other parts of the world which the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) and various papal edicts had reserved to the Spaniards and Portuguese, were redistributed among the nations of Europe. The whole of Europe – France, England, Holland, Portugal and Spain, and even Denmark, Sweden and Brandenburg shared in the spoils, establishing a chain of monopoly companies, forts, trading posts and colonies that stretched from Senegal to Mozambique. Only distant Russia and the Balkan countries were missing from the pack – and they received their own small contingents of slaves via the Ottoman Empire.

The Start of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

When the Portuguese first sailed down the Atlantic African coast in the 1430s, they were interested in one thing: gold. However, by 1500 they had traded already 81,000 Africans to Europe, nearby Atlantic islands, and to Muslim merchants in Africa.

The ‘Triangular Trade’ in slaves

For two hundred years, 1440-1640, Portugal had a monopoly on the export of slaves from Africa. It is notable that they were also the last European country to abolish the institution — although, like France, it still continued to work former slaves as contract labourers, which they called libertos or engagés à temps. It is estimated that during the 4 1/2 centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Portugal was responsible for transporting over 4.5 million Africans (roughly 40% of the total). During the eighteenth century, however, when the slave trade accounted for the transport of a staggering 6 million Africans, Britain was the worst transgressor — responsible for almost 2.5 million. (This is a fact that is often forgotten by those who regularly cite Britain’s prime role in the abolition of the slave trade.)

Information on how many slaves were shipped from Africa across the Atlantic to the Americas during the sixteenth century can only be estimated as very few records exist for this period. But from the seventeenth century onwards, increasingly accurate records, such as ship manifests, are available.

Slaves for the Trans-Atlantic slave trade were initially sourced in Senegambia and the Windward Coast. Around 1650 the trade moved to west-central Africa (the Kingdom of the Congo and neighboring Angola).

Slavery and shipping in Dutch Asia

Throughout the Vereenigde Oostindische Company (‘Dutch East India Company’, VOC) empire, mobility and coercion were key elements in mobilizing labour and maintaining imperial order. Throughout the Asian empire of the VOC, various circuits ensured the continuous mobility of coerced labour. These dynamics of slavery and the slave trade seem to have existed before European powers arrived in South and Southeast Asia.

The arrival of the Portuguese, the Dutch and other European trading companies meant the intensification of long-range slave trading networks. The trading companies of the Dutch, English, French and other European nations started to build upon existing trading patterns throughout the Indian Ocean area and Southeast Asia. In this way, European demand for both slaves and Asian commodities resulted in the intensification of the slave trade throughout the Indian Ocean world.

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the slave trade in Asia was conducted by both European and Asian traders. Gujarati merchants transported enslaved Mozambicans to Daman and Diu. The two major players in Maluku trade, including slavery, were the Chinese and the Bugis. As in Maluku, Chinese slave traders were the major players in the export of Balinese slaves, mostly to Batavia, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Ceylon could perhaps best be described as the second most important region in the VOC Empire. After Batavia, the Ceylonese port cities of Colombo and Galle were the most important destinations for the intercontinental shipping of the VOC between Asia and Europe. From the 1660s onwards, three to four ships per year would sail directly to Ceylon from the Republic, while 5 to sometimes 10 or even 15 ships would depart from Ceylon to the Republic via the Cape.

Presence of Slaves in Ceylon

Slavery is a little-studied subject in Sri Lankan history for the simple reason that slaves and slavery do not immediately surface in Sri Lankan memory, nor in colonial and indigenous texts. Slavery as such was not new to Sri Lanka, and at least from the Portuguese period onwards, slaves had been actively imported into the island. According to late seventeenth- century censuses, slaves formed the larger part of the urban inhabitants in the coastal port cities.

Tamara Fernando from the University of Cambridge has written on the historical aspects. She states that in 1660, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) transported more than 10,000 slaves from the Subcontinent to Ceylon and Batavia, and the slave trade was an incredibly lucrative side business for VOC officials. Slaves were used for construction work alongside prisoners, mostly as domestic workers for wealthy local and Dutch elites at a time when well-to-do families could have up to 20 slaves. Over time, these slaves were often absorbed into what the historians call the ‘urban underclasses. The proceedings from the Dutch Council of Justice in Colombo, preserve the lives and testimonies of many slaves. These cases were filed by the slaves for their manumission (freedom) or, more tragically, in the case of their murder, rape or abuse.

Commemorating the memory of the victims

In commemoration of the memory of the victims, the General Assembly, in its resolution 62/122 of December 17, 2007, declared March 25 the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, to be observed annually.

The resolution also called for the establishment of an outreach programme to mobilize educational institutions, civil society and other organizations to inculcate in future generations the “causes, consequences and lessons of the transatlantic slave trade, and to communicate the dangers of racism and prejudice.” This piece is captures some facets of the slave trade. An honest remembrance of their unfortunate time in Ceylon would require further committed work.

     *****  *****

COMMENTARY in 2021 and Extensions

The bronze sculpture “Redemption Song”, depicting a man and woman emerging from a pool of water, meant to wash away the pain of slavery is seen in Kingston on June 29, 2012. Jamaica will celebrate its 50th anniversary as an independent state on August 6, 2012. AFP PHOTO/MLADEN ANTONOV (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Galle Fort in the late 19th century — a rare image in the Australian National Gallery Collection, Canberra


I was born and bred in the Fort of Galle but this does not translate into deep knowledge on its historical foundations or subsequent history. Jeevan’s essay struck me as another in the stream of moral extremisms pursued by all manner of thinkers encouraged by such currents as those associated with “Black Lives Matter”. Jeevan is inattentive to (A) the inequities in precolonial Sinhala society [and also Tamil society of course] -exemplified by the Rodi, Ahikuntakayo, Oli, Hinna etc and (B) the presence of slaves in the households of the Dutch Burgher ruling classes and (C) the implications of such poetic productions as the Kappiri Hatana.

Be that as it may, Gerald Peiris and Ashley de Vos have sent me sharp criticisms of this article by email and I am prompting them to fashion publishable memorandum. Anticipating fuller accounts, let me not here that Ashley stressed that the fort was built in the 18th century: “the fort took 90 years to build. It was completed just in time for the English to take it over.

In addition he stressed that “the Galle fort is an earth fort. The stone is only a lining. ….. The fort was not strong enough and could not sustain a full fledged European style attack. So there was no case of large stone blocks being used. This type of construction absorbed any cannon fire without disintegrating. A solid stone rampart would have blown up, endangering everyone.”

Gerald Peiris made the same point about the fort being “a reinforcement of earthen embankments.” I am prompting both of them to present essays or concise Memorandum on the topic.

EMAIL COMMENT from CJ Van Twest in Vancouver, 14 January 2021:

“An earth / rock fort would more readily absorb the tidal wave of a tsunami than a rampart of large stone blocks. …………………………………..”let me note here (hear) that Ashley”  The engineers knew what they were doing.


Note from Nandasiri Jasentuliyana to Oliver Guruge et al  16 January 2021:  

“Thanks for sharing the interesting story. As soon as I finished reading your note, I reached for Michael’s sister Norah Roberts’s book “Galle as Quiet as Sleep” for any references to the slaves but saw none. The only thing I know about the Fort is that I played cricket with Michael (who lived inside the fort) on the Esplanade at the foot of the Fort where right now the Sri Lankan team is getting a walloping!

I also have a book Balakotu Saha Nauka (Fortresses and Ships) written by one of the most prolific writers of our times (125 books in English & Sinhala), Bhadraji Mahinda Jayatilaka. According to him, the first ship was in Galle because a storm brought it to shore which had Africans and none stayed behind in Galle. Every ship thereafter picked up Africans when passing the African coast and they all went to Colombo. He says it is quite possible that Africans were used in building the Fort though he had not come across any direct evidence of it.

I know of a community that descended from African residents in Chilaw. They are, of course, intermarried and now retain only few signs to indicate their separate identity from the rest.

Is the great Richmond sportsman Caxton Nijuki from Galle or did he come to Richmond straight from Africa?  ….. Nandi

 Rohan Jayawardhana to Oliver Guruge, 16 January 2021:

I recollect reading in Ananda’s Jayasinha’s book “Forgotten Years – RC” that the mad made harbour in Colombo came up much later than the natural harbour in Galle, which was used as a port of call by all ships passing by.  This was during the British rule.

The Dutch built ramparts in Galle was much before the British rule and even if any slave labour from Africa came to Sri Lanka, it is quite likely that they landed at the Galle harbour and subsequently moved to different parts of the country.

With regards to Caxton Njuki, I remember Kingsley Goonetilleke, who played for Richmond around the same time along with Joe Weerasooriya, Marsh Dodanwela, Shelton Wirasinha etc, mentioning that Njuki was an African prince.  So it is possible that he arrived in Sri Lanka for education.

Best regards

Professor Sanath Lamabadasuriya, 18 January 2021:

The Dutch planted a breadfruit tree within the Fort to feed the labourers, as it was an expensive source for carbohydrates. It is still bearing fruits and is located towards the left of the main entrance close to the law courts, adjacent to the ramparts.

Pamela Cooray in Email to Roberts, challenging  Jeevan’s Main Point re Kaffir Labour, 18 January 2021:

I do not think so, chiefly for the reason that there is hardly any sign of any progeny in that part of the country.  Unless of course, slaves were brought in for the specific purpose of building the ramparts and buildings within the Fort, kept incarcerated, and shipped out immediately thereafter.

Does not account for their having supposedly been used to build other forts around the maritime provinces.  However, there are vestiges of Kaffringha (Kaffir) people in and around Batticaloa where there is a large fort.

Slavery did exist in Ceylon as evidenced by Slave Island which still bears the name, where they were imprisoned after the day’s work on that Island.

A NOTE from Michael Roberts, 18 January 2021

Jeevan seems to have latched unto the popular world bandwagon generated by the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign to press this  type of theme for an audience that is also  likely to buy into any anti-colonial drum. He seems unaware of the hatan kavi (war poems) relating to the kappiri (kaaberi) and the implications of (A) the writings of Shihan De Silva Jayasuriya and (B) one Michael Roberts on Sinhala Consciousness — where the war poems are dealt with in detail and hwere it is indicated that both the King of Sihale and the British armies had black mercenary troops fighting for them –so that British documents speak of “our Kaffir” and ‘their Kaffir,”


Filed under accountability, architects & architecture, authoritarian regimes, British imperialism, caste issues, centre-periphery relations, commoditification, discrimination, economic processes, governance, heritage, historical interpretation, human rights, Indian Ocean politics, island economy, landscape wondrous, legal issues, life stories, military strategy, politIcal discourse, population, Portuguese in Indian Ocean, power politics, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, transport and communications, trauma, travelogue, unusual people, working class conditions, world events & processes

4 responses to “Galle Fort built on the Backs of African Slave Labour

  1. Hugh Karunanayake

    It is difficult to imagine how an importation of 10,000 to 15,000 slaves from Africa to Galle occurred four centuries ago leaving no anthropological or genealogical evidence among the population of Galle as it stands today.The typical negroid attributes like curly hair, thick lips, and dark skin are not visible in Sri Lanka except in that village near Puttalam where some Mozambique people who had come as mercenaries settled down.The History of Ceylon over the past 5 to 6 centuries has been subject to close scrutiny and study ny many specialists like Rebeyro, Father SG Perera and Paul E Peiris on the Portuguese occupation,Valentyn, KW Goonewardene, Sinnapah Arasaratnam on et al on the Dutch period. Nowhere has it been recorded that the Fort of Galle was built by slave labour. I wonder whether this is a subtle aattempt at disparaging the significance of the Galle Fort as a World Heritage site.

  2. K.K. de Silva

    In this regard, please access the following links for some useful information african migrations across the indian ocean

  3. Pingback: About the Kāberi in Colonial Ceilao and the Fort of Galle | Thuppahi's Blog

  4. Ivan Amarasinghe

    On 17th Jan 2021, I sent the following message to Ms Juliet Coombe, and am waiting for her response and allied references on the matter:

    Dear Ms Coombe,
    Thirangie Jayatilake, in an article entitled “MEETING THE RESIDENTS OF SRI LANKA’S 16TH CENTURY GALLE FORT” states that “…African slaves had been bought during Imperial rule to build the fort. “History is usually written by winners,…..” She said, but the slave-pits reminded her of the people who had been a hidden part of the Fort’s history. ..” (

    Meeting the Residents of Sri Lanka’s 16th Century Galle Fort | The Gazelle
    The stone-lined clock tower struck noon, looming over the walls of Sri Lanka’s old Galle Fort. Initially constructed by the Portuguese in the 16th …“)
    Jayatilake refers to yourself as the “She said…..” in the article.

    Could you please furnish documentary evidence on the veracity of this statement w.r.t. African slaves being brought for this construction?
    My Best wishes and appreciation for your research in situ and publication.
    Yours sincerely
    Ivan Amarasinghe

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