The Old and Sturdy Dutch Fort in Galle

“Everyman” writing for The World Heritage Sites of Sri Lanka, with this title “The Old Dutch Town of Galle” 
  Cricket in the 1980s –Pix by Nihal Fernando
Volleyball, it is claimed, is our national sport. However there is no doubt that Cricket is the most popular sport in Sri Lanka. That popular West Indies calypso ‘Cricket, lovely cricket.’,’ will always be ringing in our ears. From the villages where youngsters from around 16 to 26 or maybe even older, use ‘polpithi’ bats, to the towns where more sophisticated young men use willow bats, it is cricket, cricket and more cricket. Little wonder then that we have been correctly described as ‘ a cricket crazy nation.’ And when it comes to grounds for international matches the Galle International Stadium is the most favored by our cricketers, our coaches and our spectators. The reason is that as at today (03. 05 .21), 34 Test Matches [have been] played on these grounds of which Sri Lanka won 19 and lost only eight. In addition to this, in a press release datelined June 8, 2020, Yash Mittal an avid lover of cricket has listed five of the most picturesque cricket grounds in the world. And yes – you have guessed it – the Galle cricket grounds, cradled between the Galle Fort and the Indian Ocean, heads the list!

Galle has an ancient and interesting history. In pre-Christian times Galle, called ‘Gimhathitha’ which is derived from the ancient Sinhala script meaning ‘port near the river Gin’ ( Gin Ganga ) was a major port in our country. As early as 1400 BC cinnamon had been exported and Galle may well have been the main transshipment port in this part of the world, with Persians, Arabs, Greeks, Romans, Malays, Indians and Chinese doing trade. A trilingual Inscription on stone dated February 14, 1409 in Chinese, Tamil and Persian was erected by the Chinese Admiral, Zheng He, to commemorate his visit to Galle. This is now in the Colombo National Museum. A copy can be found in the Maritime Museum in Galle. So dear reader our country’s friendship with China is a centuries old one. Nothing new in that. Galle is also referred to by the famed Muslim Berber-Moroccan scholar and traveler Ibn Batuta, in his well documented book ‘Rihlah’ (Travels ) who visited the island in 1344 CE. He referred to Galle as Quali/Kali.
No doubt that all these references to the ancient port city of Galle and others as we will read about later on, contributed to UNESCO listing the Old Town of Galle and the Fortifications as a World Heritage Site in 1988. According to an article in the Ceylon Observer datelined November 26, 2017 by Dimuthu Attanayake and Manjula Fernando it is stated that, “The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS ) in its advisory body evaluation has recommended Galle Fort under its criterion IV Code. Galle provides an outstanding example of urban ensemble which illustrates the interaction of European architecture and South Asian tradition from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Among these characteristics that makes this an urban group of exceptional value is the original sewer system from the 17th century which is flushed with sea water and controlled by a pumping station formerly activated by a windmill in the Triton Bastian.”
According to the Galle Heritage Foundation the Triton Bastian (which is a projecting part of a fortification) is one of many gun Bastians [sic] built on a long rampart. Some having been built by the Portuguese but many by the Dutch. For the Dutch it must be remembered, such fortifications were necessary to defend the western approaches to Galle Fort, from enemy navies. In particular the British navy. In the article referred to above it is also stated that “the most salient feature is the use of European models adapted by local manpower to the geological, climatic, historic and cultural conditions of Sri Lanka. In the structure of these ramparts coral was frequently used along with granite. In the ground layout all the measures of length, width and height conform to the regional metrology. The wide streets were planted with grass and shaded with Suriyas and were lined with houses, each in its own garden and an open verandah supported by columns which is another sign of acculturation of an architecture which is European only in its basic design.” (AUTHOR’S NOTE: Suriyas were trees usually used for fencing and sometimes grew to a height of 30 feet).
Built first by the Portuguese in the 16th Century, Galle reached the height of its development during the Dutch colonial rule. Galle, it has been claimed is the best example of a fortified city in South and South–East Asia and is the last remaining fortress in Asia built by European occupiers. Since it was the Dutch that earned for Galle the honour of being listed as a World Heritage Site, it would be relevant to describe what they actually built. Among the heritage monuments there is the Dutch Reformed Church referred to at that time as ‘Groote Kerk.’ Located at the entrance to the Fort it was built in 1755 and is said to be the oldest Protestant church in Sri Lanka. The floor is paved with large gravestones taken from the old Dutch cemetery. The pulpit is made of calamander wood from Malaysia. This church is still in use.
On Church Road is All Saints Church. This is an Anglican Church built on the site of the former Dutch Courthouse. The Church was consecrated by Bishop Claughton, the second Bishop of Colombo on February 21, 1871. Prior to this the Anglican congregation used to worship in the earlier mentioned Dutch Reformed Church. Today the faithful still gather here for worship. An interesting fact is that a large bell was installed in the dome of the Church in memory of the first Vicar, Rev Dr. Schrader. However, for security reasons this bell was lowered in 1960, and now lies in the premises of the Cathedral of Christ the Living Saviour in Colombo.
Along Lighthouse Street is what has been described as a ‘quaint little’ Roman Catholic Church. It was built by the Dutch in 1893 (sic?) and is claimed to be one of the oldest Roman Catholic Churches in the country where services are held even today. Referring to Churches one cannot overlook another historic landmark, namely the magnificent St Mary’s Cathedral located on Prison Road, in the city of Galle. It was built in 1874, but not by the Dutch. It was by the Society of Jesus. There is no doubt that this too would have contributed to the inscription of World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Catering to the religious needs of the Buddhist population there lies along Rampart Street the Sri Sudharmalaya Temple which was built as far back as 1889.In the construction of this temple there is evidence of the impact of Dutch and European architecture. And then we come to the beautifully crafted, majestic, Meeran Mosque, built in 1904, it is located opposite the Galle Lighthouse and was and still is a place of deep veneration and prayer for the Muslims who form the largest religious group within the Fort.
Moving from the religious to the secular, there can be seen as one enters the Galle Fort through the Old Gate, the British Coat of Arms, with the inscription ‘ Dieu et Mon Droit (God and My Right). In the inner part of this fortified entrance is a 1668 dated inscription with the letters VOC (Verenigde Oostindinsche Compagnie – meaning Dutch East India Company). Further inside the Fort is the 87 ft. tall, Lighthouse, built by the British in 1939. However the earlier Lighthouse also built by the British in 1848 was destroyed by fire in 1936. Further into the Fort on Church Street was the old Government House. Built in 1683 it was used for administrative purposes and also served as the residence of the Commander. Regrettably however it is now closed, for visitors.
Near the Old Gate was the Great Warehouse built around 1669 which was used to store spices and ship’s equipment. It now houses the National Maritime Museum. One of the oldest buildings within the Fort is the Dutch Hospital built in the 17th Century, referred to as the Old Dutch Hospital, very aptly it is on Hospital Street and close to the harbor for the benefit of Dutch seamen. It was supposed to be built on a location where there was a Portuguese mint. In 1850 the British converted this to a barracks. It is now a shopping and restaurant arcade.
Then on Church Street there is another complex built in 1684 as the headquarters of the Dutch commanders and the staff. In 1865 it was converted to the New Orient Hotel catering to European passengers travelling between Europe and Galle. Today it is the five star Amangalla Hotel. Outside the Galle Fort on the southern side of Galle Bay in an island promontory. On it is Closenberg Hotel. It is a story of the transformation of an elegant manor to a star- class hotel. Once called Villa Marina, it was built in 1859 by Captain Bayley (sic), who was the local agent for the P & O Shipping Company. It changed ownership in 1889 to Simon Perera Abeywardena who was the son-in-law of one of the country’s greatest entrepreneurs and philanthropists, Sir Charles Henry de Soysa. In 1965 this home was reconstructed to be a hotel. It was named Closenberg. The name is derived from the Dutch name Klossenburg, which means a small fort on which the sea roars.
Yet another chapter in the colorful history of Galle began in 1796, when the British East India Company entered Ceylon from India where it had its stronghold. Quite naturally they nudged the Dutch out of Galle. Two large Sri Lankan conglomerates which had in those early years been British companies, had their beginning in Galle. One was Chas. P. Hayley and Company which was established in 1878 and much later became Hayleys PLC. The other was Clarke Spence and Company, which was established in 1868 and much later became Aitken Spence PLC.
From buildings and companies let’s move on to trees. In fact one particular tree – the breadfruit tree (Artucapus incisisus). Known in Sinhala as ‘del.’ It was introduced by the Dutch. In an article dated January 10, 2021 [and] titled ‘Historical Ancient Trees in Sri Lanka’ by Hem,i it is stated that this was planted by the Dutch. circa 1721. Located near the Akersloot Bastian. It is still in existence.
And then Alas! came the Tsunami on December 26, 2004. At 6.28 that morning a mega under-sea earthquake of 9.3 on the Richter scale erupted near Banda Aceh in Sumatra. This sent 100 ft high waves speeding across the Indian Ocean ferociously lashing Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Maldives, Myanmar and even Somalia –in that order. By 9.25 the waves smashed into the southern and south-western coast. Amongst the districts affected was Galle. The walls of the rampart which were built to withstand cannon fire now acted to withstand Nature’s fury. They became wave breakers. In addition the effective drainage system installed by the Dutch drained off the flood waters without much damage within the Fort itself.
  The cricket grounds and bus stand and thoroughfare area AFTER the tsunami …..
To quote Fr. Damian Arsakularatne, a highly respected Roman Catholic priest who was the former Director of Caritas which was one of the many organisations that did post- tsunami, reconstruction work: If the Fort had not been there, Oh my God!, I can’t even imagine the damage that would have been. It saved us.” However the adjacent Galle International Stadium and grounds suffered severe damage. In fact the stadium served as a temporary shelter for hundreds of persons who had lost their homes. In Galle town the old vegetable market built by the British in 1890 was in shambles.
Back to cricket. The Galle Cricket Grounds will hold pleasant memories for Sri Lanka’s greatest cricketer and gentleman. Mutthiah Muralidaran (that’s how he wishes his name to be spelt). It was here in 2003 that in the match against England that he weaved his magic spell of spin bowling and claimed seven wickets for 40 runs. But Muralidaran was also a philanthropist. When his Manager, Kushil Gunasekera, who is also a like minded philanthropist and is the Founder – Chief Trustee of the charitable organization called ‘Foundation of Goodness’ (FOG) Muralidaran also became an active Trustee. The vision of this charity was supporting local communities through projects such as catering to children’s needs, education, health care and psycho-social support. After the tsunami this organisation focused on one of the areas most tragically affected by the tsunami.
Here, Murali has obliterated Pissu Percy …. who happens to be an ancient Aloysian and Gallian ‘landmark’
This was Seenigama located 14 miles North/West from Galle. It was Kushil’s home town. Muralidaran that icon of cricket got a ready response to his call for funds for post tsunami reconstruction work which came pouring in specially from England and Australia.
Let’s revert to the historic cricket grounds. Renovations specially of the Stadium began on May 8, 2006. Out of devastation came development. It became larger, better equipped and more accommodative for cricketers, spectators and the media. On December 17, 2007, it was opened by President Mahinda Rajapasksa . The first test Match played here was against England which ended in a draw. Perhaps we should conclude from where we started. ‘Cricket, lovely cricket.’ After all we are cricket crazy aren’t we ?
two classic PIX by David Colin-Thome when England was playing a match
tennis ball(?) cricket beside the Fort …. and within the Fort ….
 . AND an panoramic overview to aid one in appraising the scales … and thereby imagining WHAT succour was provided by those Dutch walls when the tsunami hit on 26th December 2004


A SPECIAL NOTE by Michael Roberts, 6 July 2021

By 2004 the SL Cricket Board headed by Thilanga Sumathipala and his aides were preparing the way to build a new cricket stadium on the outskrts of Galle …. ………………………………..with Habaraduwa mooted as one possibility (see It does not require imagination to work out thepotential financial spin-offs for well-placed aides if such an enterprise had gained momentum and reached fruiton after the tsunami hit. We are deeply indebted to Lord Michael Naseby for effectively scuttling this scheme.

Lord Naseby was so committed to the island and its peoples that he and his doctor wife flew in immediately in January 2005. Among his ventures during this interventionist tour was a meaningful act of cricketing acumen: seeing the damage done to the cricket field, he presented a cheque for 50,000 British pounds to the government as one step towards its restoration.  With some wise head supplementing this grant with the suggestion that the new cricket pavilion should be named after one Mahinda Rajapaksa, the retention of ths picturesque cricket field as one of the island’s prestigious venues was gauranteed.


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One response to “The Old and Sturdy Dutch Fort in Galle

  1. K. K. De Silva

    2 minor corrections:
    Roman Catholic Church on Lighthouse St. built by the Dutch in 1893 – Possibly a typing error , if it was built by the Dutch.
    St. Mary’s Cathedral built in 1874 by the Society of Jesus – Jesuits arrived in Galle in 1895.

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