Galle: Four Hundred Years Ago

Chandra R. De Silva

The political and military history of the port city of Galle, located on the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka, is well documented. This brief report is merely an effort to fill in a gap in the records relating to the history of this port in the half century between the 1580s and the 1630s.

The popular belief is that the name of the settlement comes from the Sinhala word Gaalla or cattle pen, but in his description of Galle in the Saragossa manuscript probably finalized in the 1630s Constantino de Sa de Miranda suggests that the name comes from the word Gal (stone) (Flores p. 130) of which there was plenty around Galle harbor. The Portuguese historian de Queyroz (p. 31), writing in the late seventeenth century, also suggests that the name comes from the word Gal (stone) or Galgue (stone house).

We know that sometime after 1565, when the forces of King Mayadunne of Sitawaka conquered the coastal areas from the Kingdom of Sitawaka, the Sinhalese built a fortification in Galle to control the area around the port. This was the fort that was destroyed in 1587, by a Portuguese naval raiding party during an attempt to divert the Sitawaka forces from the siege of Colombo (de Silva p. 99). De Queyroz (who never visited Sri Lanka), in his somewhat confusing account of the location of the Portuguese fort of Galle, states (De Queyroz p. 828) that it “stood on the North side of the bay, where the ground rises to a high point so steep by nature that it admits of no ascension the side of the sea and thence the land slopes to the interior of the island.” This might indicate that it was built in the vicinity of the current location of St. Aloysius College and St. Mary’s Cathedral on a hill to the north of the Galle International Cricket Stadium.

However, since de Queyroz (p. 497) also insists that when the Portuguese constructed ‘a stockade in Galle on the very site the fortalice stands today’ in 1597, he might well have been referring in the quotation given in the previous paragraph to the location of the Sinhala fort. It would have been logical for local forces to build a fort on a hill commanding the settlement of Galle and located beyond the reach of cannon on board Portuguese ships.

De Queyroz records that the building of the original Portuguese fort was begun by D. Fernando Mudaliyar, on the orders of Dom Jeronimo de Azevedo, the Portuguese Captain General of Ceylon and the construction continued under the direction of António de Souza Cayado, a casado (married Portuguese settler) who had come from S. Thomas Mylapore (currently part of the city of Chennai, India), to help in the conquest of Ceylon. When Cayado wished to return home, construction continued under António de Miranda Azevedo (de Queyroz 500).

It is likely that the first fortification was a small stockade at the southern end of the promontory. It was designed to keep rebellious indigenous forces in check. As it faced the open sea to the south rather the the bay to the east, its guns did not command the harbor. In 1613, António Martim, a casado (married settler) reported that it would have fallen to any single enemy ship. In 1619, Captain General Constantino de De Sa de Noronha ordered the demolition of the old fort and the construction of a much larger fort (De Silva p. 58).  A wall was to be built across the isthmus of the promontory, from the harbor on the eastern side to the sea on the west, thus securing what, in the present day, is known as Galle Fort from attacks from inland. The wall, built of mud (brick?), wood and stone, had three bastions. On the eastern side near the water was the bastion of Sant Iago (later called Sun Bastion). The bastion in the middle, called Conceicão in Portuguese times (today known as the Moon Bastion) projected from the wall to protect the wall from enemy attacks. From the Conceicão bastion, the wall extended to the sea where the bastion of Santo- António (called Star Bastion later) was built. Both these bastions and the wall were less sturdy than those built later in the same locations by the Dutch.

As de Queyroz explains (pp. 928-929), “The third portion of the wall [stretching] as far as the bastion of Santo-Antonio was of mud and was lined on the outside with a smaller wall of stone and mortar. From thence to the watch tower of the open coast of the wall was of stone and mortar only four palms thick and it was not 18 palms to the parapet. The bastion Santo-Antonio was recently built with sufficient height and a regular platform. The Conception had a large platform but low with a weak camiza (protective curtain). The Sant Iago was much smaller, low and its walls were weak. From this bastion up to the fortalice, which was called the Retreat, there ran, along the bay, a wall, altogether of mud, four palms thick and one fathom high which scarcely deserved the name of parapet.” Continuing his description, de Queyroz asserted that “Upon the bay was a breastwork, which, though strong on the waterside was unprotected on the land side and was only 7 palms high. At the extremity of the town and commanding the bar, there was a bastion on rock with wretched parapets and without any guns because in the whole praca [fort] were only 14.” This last bastion was called the Retreat (see sketch attached).

The initial stage of the construction of the new fort was supervised by Fernão Pinhão, Captain of Galle (1620-1623). Financial difficulties slowed the construction which, however, continued until 1623. When De Sa de Noronha visited Galle in 1623, the fort was still under construction. The wall on the isthmus was still being built and the bastion of Santa Cruz, intended to command the entrance to the harbor, still lacked long range artillery. However, de Sa soon turned to other tasks and fort construction continued under his successor Jorge de Albuquerque who strengthened the wall on the landward side (De Silva, pp. 59, 70, 77).  The bastions were supplied with seven small pieces of artillery. Contemporary documents contradict the statement of de Sa de Menezes that de Sa de Noronha completed the fort in 1625. De Sa de Noronha’s plan to construct a moat to strengthen defenses on the landward side was given up due to lack of funds and construction work continued until the late 1620s. Manpower must have been another factor in the difficulty of constructing and defending the fort. The Collector of Revenue, Antão Vaz Freire recommended in 1608 that Portuguese and locals receiving land should live within the fort (Abeysinghe 60) Yet, Galle in 1614 had less than 50 Portuguese settlers (Abeysinghe 62). João Ribeiro, however, reports that within a generation, there were 262 Portuguese settlers and some 600 local converts living in Galle (Ribeiro pp. 128-129). There is no evidence that the construction of a dockyard for ship repair that was proposed for Galle in the early seventeenth century (Abeysinghe 65) was ever attempted.

Galle fort soon faced hostile attacks from indigenous forces. After the defeat and death of de Sa at the battle of Randeniwela on August 22, 1630, Galle, (like other Portuguese forts such as Negombo,) came under attack. Andre Godinho, a former inhabitant of Colombo, now allied with the Kandyan forces, led an attack on Galle. The captain of the fort, João Teixeira Meireles had about sixty Portuguese including soldiers, settlers and priests supported by a few hundred lascarins (local soldiers recruited by the Portuguese). These kept the attackers at bay with the help of the fort’s artillery, but because Meireles was old he was replaced with common consent by a casado, António da Cunha. Da Cunha appealed to Colombo for help and Lançarote de Seixas, who had been acclaimed Captain General in September 1630 after the succession letter left by de Sa was opened, sent him 20 men with powder, shot and supplies (& saltpetre) in three fishing boats. In October 1630, after the arrival of Dom Filipe Mascarenhas, Captain of Cochin, with a relief ship of soldiers and supplies to Colombo, de Seixas sent another ten men with provisions and later, another twenty under Dom Lourenço Sotomayor. (De Silva p. 150).

However, the attacking Sinhalese forces also increased and as they saw the garrison being supplied by sea (and sending fishermen to catch fish for food), the attackers tried to stop fishing vessels from leaving port, but the Portuguese, using armed guards on fishing boats, continued to control the seaways. The attackers then tried to subvert the lascarins. Fr. Assumpcão relates how a Portuguese set off his gun accidentally and killed a lascarin. When the injured lascarin was being carried away, a palm leaf letter hidden in his clothes fell out and a plot to betray the fort was discovered, The leaders of the plot were executed.

By April 1631, Galle had received reinforcements and the garrison under Dom António Mascarenhas, Captain-Major of the forces in Galle, organized sorties. He, and the new Captain of Galle, Manoel Pinto also raided other coastal towns, but the Portuguese in Galle remained mostly confined to the fort till early 1632. After that, they gradually regained control of inland areas and collected revenue until the Dutch attacked and captured Galle fort in 1640.

Indeed, revenue was a key element that kept the Portuguese interested in Galle. Jorge Florim de Almeida, Collector of Revenue reported in his Revenue Register of 1599 that “It is said that in the time of Cota (Kotte) when vessels came, it yielded forty thousand fanams in custom together with the revenue of the shahbandar.” (The shahbandar was the Port Master who was in charge of traders and the collection of customs dues.) De Almeida further explains as follows, “Apart from the arecanut which is brought to the port to sell to the boatmen and which amounted to one thousand six hundred amunas and which paid ten percent at the juncao [border between the port and inland areas] and [a further] four fanams per amuna for that which was bought for export. The revenue is all from coconut palms and the rent of the houses of the inhabitants and of fishermen and when vessels do not come, in the time of the kings of Cota it yielded in all with the shahbandar, approximately twenty five thousand fanams (de Almeida p.113).

Up to 1598, the export duty on arecanut was identical in Galle and Colombo at four fanams per amuna. However, de Almeida found that “in the district of Gale arecanut cost four larins per amuna and in Columbo it cost up to 10 larins for each amuna.” Seeking to profit by this variation in price, De Almeida fixed the export duty at Colombo at one larin and that at Galle at ten larins per amuna. This might have diverted some of the trade in arecanut to Colombo, but the export duty differential did not last for long because in the early seventeenth century the Portuguese set up a state monopoly of the export trade in arecanut which was in great demand in South India for chewing with the betal leaf. (To better assess the value of currency one should note that 1 larim=20 fanams, 4 larims=1 xerafim and that the purchasing power of one xerafim in Colombo in 1630 was 240 coconuts or 12-14 chicken or 30 to 36 measures of rice or 3 large loaves of bread (de Silva p. 190).

The Portuguese also collected dues from fishermen, The tombo of 1614 records that fishermen with deep sea dhonies paid about 20 xerafims and that there were five pada boats that paid a fifth of their catch to the state. Chetti traders paid a rent for the boutiques they operated in Galle (Pieris p. 73).

A Portuguese document dated 1607 says that the captain of Galle was paid 2000 xerafims and there was a Portuguese factor or writer who with his aides was paid 280 xerafims by the state (Abeysinghe 187). We might note that the factor collected revenue, kept records and recorded all government regulations. He had minor judicial powers. By 1638, Galle had a separate juiz (magistrate) who might have worked under the ouvidor (judge) in Colombo (Abeysinghe p. 168) . Under Portuguese rule, the ouvidor himself had limited powers. He could confer fines and punishments on minor officials, but could not sentence Portuguese for major crimes without the concurrence of the Captain General.

The picture of Galle in those time will not be complete without the missionary establishment. Franciscan friars had the Church of the Conception (de Queyroz 716) located on the northeast area of Galle Fort. The Jesuit order was also active in Galle. They started building a church by 1621 though the Jesuit priest still had no residence and lived in the Casa de Misericordia (House of Charity). By 1621 the Dominicans had a house in Galle and were reported to have built another house, also in Galle, dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary (Perniola pp. 31, 34, 90).

Unfortunately, the lack of source material prevents us from picturing much of the social life in Galle during this period. The Portuguese archives are reported to have been destroyed in the Dutch siege of Colombo in 1658 and the Sinhalese sources for the Galle area – vitti poth (books of tales) and kadaim poth ( boundary records) have not survived. We are therefore unable to trace even the locations of the Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic religious edifices that could well have existed in Galle prior to Portuguese dominance. However, there is still room for a historian to find more information through a further analysis of data in the 1614 Portuguese tombo of Antão Vaz Freire available in the Arquivo Historico Ultramarino, Lisbon of which there is a copy at the Colombo National Archives.

“Siege of Galle fort 1640″ 

Point de Galle


Abeysinghe, Tikiri, Portuguese Rule in Ceylon, 1594-1612, Colombo: Lake House, 1966.

De Almeida, Jorge Florim, The First Portuguese Revenue Register of Kotte, 1599 by Jorge Florim de Almeida (translated into English and edited with an introduction by C. R. de Silva), The Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies, new series, Vol. V (1&2), 1975, pp. 71-153.

De Queyroz, The Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon, trans. S. G. Perera, Vols. I-III, Colombo, 1930.

De Silva, Chandra Richard, The Portuguese in Ceylon, 1617-1638, Colombo: H. W. Cave and Co., 1972.

Flores, Jorge Manuel, Os Olhos do Rei: Desenhos e Descricoes Portuguesas da Ilha de Ceilao (1624-1638), Lisboa, 2001.

Goonewardena, K. W. The Foundations of Dutch Power in Ceylon, 1638-1658, Amsterdam, 1958.

Pieris, P. E. (editor), The Ceylon Littoral, 1593, Colombo, 1949.

Perniola, V. (editor), The Catholic Church in Sri Lanka: The Portuguese Period, Volume III 1620-1658, Dehiwala: Tisara Prakasakayo, 1991.

Ribeiro, João, History of Ceilao with a Summary of Barros, do Couto, Antonio Bocarro and the Documentos Remettidos with Parangi Hatana and Kustantinu

Hatana, trans. P. E. Pieris, Colombo, 1909

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EMAIL COMMENT from HEMANTHA SITUGE, 18 February 2021 [appreciated by CR]:

“If one peruses Reimers’s map on Galle  Fort dated 1790 ‘s the place is known as “Romish Kerk”. History of Catholic Church has some references to this church. The hillock was known as “poraka godella kanda”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has not appeared in print elsewhere and, as a dinky-die Galilian, I thank CR for presenting Thuppahi with the task. The pictorial illustrations are my insertions.



Filed under architects & architecture, centre-periphery relations, commoditification, cultural transmission, economic processes, heritage, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, island economy, landscape wondrous, life stories, military expenditure, politIcal discourse, Portuguese in Indian Ocean, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, transport and communications, travelogue, unusual people, war reportage, world events & processes

4 responses to “Galle: Four Hundred Years Ago

  1. A COMMENTvia EMAIL from HEMANTHA SITUGE, 17 February 2021:
    “It is widely accepted that Portuguese has set foot in Sri Lanka in 1505.
    Contrary to this view fervently advocated by Queyroz and SG Perera he says in one of his papers that they set foot in Sri Lanka in 1506.
    I find that he has not touched this aspect in his article published in Thuppahi blog.”

  2. Chandra R, de Silva

    I argued that the Portuguese first arrived in Sri Lanka in 1506 in my article entitled, The First Visit of the Portuguese to Ceylon 1505 or 1506, Senerath Paranavithana Commemoration Volume, ed. by Prematilleke, Indrapala and Lohuizen van Leeuw, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1978, pp. 218-220. However, the first time that argument was made was by Donald Ferguson in his The Discovery of Ceylon by the Portuguese in 1506, Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol XIX, 1907, pp. 338-358. Ferguson correctly pointed out that if the Portuguese fleet under Dom Lourenço de Almeida had reached Sri Lanka in 1505, the news of the discovery would have reached Lisbon by late 1506 or early 1507 because news of events in the East would have been sent to Portugal in a Portuguese ship that left India in February 1506. That chronology makes it difficult to explain why the Portuguese King wrote to the Pope about the discovery, a discovery that was considered important enough to be celebrated by a procession in Rome only in September 1507. Ferguson also made the point that if the visit had been in 1505, it was difficult to explain why the Portuguese king in a letter in March/April 1506 asked the Portuguese Viceroy of India to seek the route to Sri Lanka. He wrote ‘ it appears to us that you can well take the course to Ceyllam which is a thing of such importance in India.’ The 1505 date also makes it difficult to explain why the Viceroy reported the ‘discovery’ of Lanka in his letter of 27th December 1507 to the king. Nevertheless, historians such as S. G. Perera and P. E. Pieris, concluded that the first visit was indeed in 1505 because the date of of the first visit was given as 15 November 1505 by the respected 17th century Portuguese historian, Fernão de Queyroz. This was despite the fact that Ferguson showed that one of the persons who was supposed to have been on the embassy to Kotte in 1505, Payo de Souza, could not have been there in 1505, because that year,he was still on his way to the East from Portugal. Many other Sri Lankan historians have continued to use 1505 as the date of the first Portuguese visit. In 1964, however, the publication of a document printed as a pamphlet in 1512, which dated the first Portuguese visit to August 1506, made it difficult to continue to argue for 1505.
    The first publication that mentions 1505 as the date of the first Portuguese visit is Fernão Lopez de Castanheda’s História do Descobrimentos e Conquista da India pelos Portugueses, Vol 1, Coimbra, 1924. Castanheda states that the Portuguese were blown off course and touched first in Galle. De Queyroz confirms this by stating that after encountering storms: “ . . by a dispensation of Heaven, when they least expected it, they came in sight of the port of Gale, at the extremity of the island of Ceylon.’ Castanheda also states that Dom Lourenço de Almeida negotiated with a ruler in Galle but evidence from most other sources indicate that de Almeida sailed on to Colombo and negotiated with the ruler of Kotte.
    One might also note that there was a second Portuguese visit to Galle soon after. De Queyroz (p. 188) reports that Governor Lopo Soares de Albergaria in his way from Cochin to make a fort in Colombo landed in Galle on September 10 1517, stayed a month and a half (other sources say one month) and after considering whether to build a fort there, abandoned the idea and sailed for Colombo. Other Portuguese documents such as those in V olume 1 of V. Perniola’s edition of documents on The Catholic Church of Sri Lanka refer to Portuguese activity in Galle in the mid-16th century but that is a topic for another study.

  3. Behind the S.Mary’s Cathedral there is a temple and several granite stone inscriptions strewn around indicating some sort of fortications would have been there, destroyed by the Portuguese. the legend has it that there were canons either side of the cathedral. The temple possesses a Deed written in Dutch signed by the Dutch governor asserting that the land was restored to the temple.

  4. EMAIL COMMENT from an OCTOGENARIAN in LANKA, 19 February 2020: “Michael, the story I have heard is that Galle was named after “Gallo” which in Portuguese means cock bird because the look out on the stranded Portuguese ship saw land and heard a cock crowing. The cock bird is a national symbol of Portugal. I like this version and related it to several people in Portugal during my tour of Portugal. They too liked the story and it made sense because almost all Portuguese tourist souvenirs’ had a cock on it.”

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