Jaffna Fort in Ruins: Evoking Its Chequered History

Dishan Joseph, in Daily News, 4 Septmber 2021, where the title is “Jaffna Fort: Reflections of Dutch History” … reproduced here with highlighting inserted by The Editor, Thuppahi

The Northern Province is embellished with history and culture. It is a land laced with mystic aura. Perhaps the most iconic landmark in the Jaffna town area is the massive Dutch Fort, which stands as a historic sentinel. This fortified superstructure is the second largest Dutch Fort in Sri Lanka.

For centuries this Fort has been associated with the strategic defence on the maritime boundary of our resplendent island. It is probably the most visited destination of the Northern Province by local and foreign visitors, the other being the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil. From the 13th century to the 17th century, the Nallur Rajadani featured prominently in ancient Ceylon.

I have made five visits to the amazing Dutch bastion that impresses me every time. It is one venue that yields its ancient beauty in different views. A cool breeze thankfully reduced the heat, as the sun defiantly dominated the Jaffna skyline. A group of tourists was busy taking photographs. Outside the main entrance, a few vans were parked selling ice cream and the vendors were engaged in conversation.

It is interesting to note that these ice creams were all local Northern brands. The arched main entrance is one of the two entry points for visitors, the other being from the left flank of the Fort. Walking past the arched entrance one enters the first line of the fortress defence.

This magnificent Fort was initially built by the Portuguese in 1618 under the command of General Philip de Oliveira, during the period of the Portuguese invasion of Jaffna. Realising the importance of sea routes, a smaller fort was also built on the sea along Karainagar, called Hammenhiel about which I have previously written.

The Portuguese managed to capture and wield their influence on Jaffna, but faced periodic resistance from local chieftains. A few years later, the Dutch set their eyes on our island. They unleashed their military might on ancient Ceylon, and decided to attack the Portuguese forts. By 1658, the powerful Dutch regiments outgunned and captured the strategic Jaffna Fort led by Rijklof van Goens. It is not clear if the Dutch assaulted the Fort from the lagoon and breached the defensive perimeter or raided from the land flanks. As with the other captured forts, Dutch engineers began to systematically enhance the defensive features of this fort and significantly increased her firepower.

Forty-five cannons

We came to the area of the moat. The water was almost green in colour. An oral tradition in Jaffna says that during the glory days of the Dutch, there were crocodiles in the moat to discourage anyone wanting to swim towards the walls. This may be true as I have heard of this security concept when visiting the Star Fort in Matara. Next to the moat of the Jaffna Fort was a sentry turret, one of the last few intact guard points on this Fort. Thankfully, there is a restoration process in action now and some ramparts are beautifully restored. We climbed some stone steps and got onto the first rampart of the Fort. From here we saw the white dome of the Jaffna Library and from another angle witnessed the serene beauty of the lagoon.

The polygonal structure of the Jaffna Fort has been laden with many defensive features that would awe the present day military engineers. From the outside inner circuit walls there are glacis – a bank which slopes down from a fort whereby it exposes the invading troops to the defenders’ cannon fire. The glacis offers a 180 degree view from which Dutch artillery gun crews could launch a barrage of suppressive fire. From the angle of the glacis you can see the corresponding entry points along the outer perimeter walls which have been built with limestone and black coral.


Another historic snapshot from that era is the hangman’s tower, which is almost intact. There are no records of how many were sent to their death here, but the solitary tower does have an eerie feel to it after sunset. The Jaffna Fort has five defensive bastions. They were the vital combat engagement points from which the British attacks on this fort were initially repulsed by the Dutch. The large bastions were named Zeeland, Gelderland, Holland, Utrecht and Friesland- provinces of the Netherlands. The Dutch Army General increased the firepower of the Fort by installing each bastion with six main guns and three guns on a shorter flank.

That would add up to 45 cannons (nine on each bastion into five bastions). Sadly, visitors cannot see a single cannon today.

Elephants and pearls

In addition, this is the only Fort in Sri Lanka that has three ravelins. A ravelin is a triangular fortification that forms part of the forward line of defence and these three ravelins extend outside the Fort.

So why did the Dutch build such a strong Fort? It was to secure and sustain trade. In that era, the Northern Province was famous for two things – elephants and pearls. Robust wild elephants were captured in the jungles of the Vanni. The elephants were held captive and tamed to a certain extent.

Subsequently, these pachyderms were transported by ship to India. Before reaching the ships, the elephants were driven down a shallow ford which became known as Elephant Pass. Interestingly, today, one does not see elephants in the Vanni. The second lucrative product for Dutch entrepreneurs was the radiant pearls from Mannar. The renowned explorer Ibn Battuta endorses the commercial trade of this area in 1344. It is recorded that soldiers (some were mercenaries) of Malayalam and African origins were also here. The climate of Mannar was conducive for large-scale pearl harvesting. These opulent pearls are in demand to this day.

Five tunnels

Climbing down from the rampart we entered a large open area where broken sections of the Dutch church were lying on the dried grass. This sacred Dutch Church is reduced to a historic memory. The sections of the wall measure four to five feet thick. The church is supposed to have accommodated nearly 600 Christians. A short distance away is another building with no roof. This was once the Queen’s House, a stately residence exuding grandeur. The rectangular residence is almost on the verge of collapse, and warning signs were posted not to get close to this ancient building. The broken plastering exposed large red bricks.

It is also said that the massive Fort had a prison, a hospital and other administrative buildings – none of which exist today. We walked to the right flank and found the entrance to a tunnel. But the tunnel didn’t go further than a few feet and had been filled with sand. It smelled of mildew. A few bats were perched on the walls. It is believed there were five tunnels built by the Dutch, with the purpose of transporting ammunition, to be taken to the bastions. After two hours of walking we exited the superstructure. This formidable Dutch Fort and her faithful defenders were subdued by the British and surrendered in 1795. After four centuries, this fort proudly remains as an endorsement to Dutch engineering genius. The setting sun accentuated the beauty of the Jaffna Fort.

1 Comment

Filed under ancient civilisations, architects & architecture, British colonialism, centre-periphery relations, cultural transmission, economic processes, heritage, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, island economy, landscape wondrous, life stories, Portuguese imperialism, Portuguese in Indian Ocean, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real, transport and communications, travelogue, world events & processes

One response to “Jaffna Fort in Ruins: Evoking Its Chequered History

  1. Daya Wickramatunga

    These are places of historic interest that people should visit and see. For the Romans, the Portuguese, Dutch and the English to have visited Ceylon confirms that we would have been the pearl of the Indian Ocean. I have made several visits to Jaffna AND it is a pity thatr I have not visited these places.

Leave a Reply