December 2010


Galle Fort: A Dutch Legacy
December 2010




The court complex within the Galle Fort

The port city of Galle is remarkable due to its extensive maritime history and threefold colonial domination. One of the colonial powers - the Dutch - left a valuable legacy, the best-preserved sea fort in South Asia. It's also a living fort, with a small town within, and one of Sri Lanka's most unusual tourist attractions.

Words: Richard Boyle | Photography: Waruna Gomis

Galle, located at the southwestern tip of Sri Lanka, the extremity of the Indian subcontinent, ensured the prominence of its port during the early history of east-west navigation. With only the Antarctic more than 8,000km beyond, it became the natural focal point at the southernmost part of the Silk Routes that connected Asia with the Mediterranean. Galle also provided an equidistant location for Arab and Chinese ships to converge and trade, thus avoiding much longer voyages.

The colonial era began in 1505 when a Portuguese fleet took shelter in Galle harbour. Although the Portuguese realised its strategic importance, only in 1587, after their invasion of Colombo, did they seize Galle and begin the construction of a small fortalice made of palm trees and mud on the northwest peninsula of the harbour.

The fort was wrested by the Dutch from the Portuguese in 1640. In the bloody denouement, the Dutch had to contend with some valiant Portuguese hand-to-hand fighting that left the streets littered with dead. Fortunately, this was the only occasion Galle Fort would witness such conflict.

The Dutch greatly improved the 36-hectare fort by constructing an encircling rampart with 14 massive bastions, the three most important being the Zon ("Star"), Maan ("Moon") and Ster ("Sun"), which isolated the peninsula from the mainland. Inside the fort they devised a grid system of straight but narrow streets. And they built houses with distinctive architecture; low-roofed with ornate gables, wide, hospitable doorways, street-facing colonnaded stoeps (verandahs), and plant-filled courtyards.

Galle Fort's architectural heritage remained unblemished after the town was ceded by the Dutch to the British in 1796, although at one time plans were mooted that involved the destruction of most of the fortifications. The only alteration was a new gateway tunnelled through a rampart.

The first detailed description of the fort by a Briton was by Maria Graham in Journal of a Residence in India (1812): "It is very neatly kept, and has a cheerful air from the rows of trees planted on each side of the streets. There are not above six English families resident here, but at present a much greater number are collected, as the fleet assembles here for convoy, and to take in spices on the voyage home."

Chinese junks first sailed to Galle ("Lo-le") for trade in the 4th Century AD. On their voyage to and from Galle the Chinese made landfall at the island now known as Phuket, but earlier called Ujung Salang, or "Junk-Ceylon". The Chinese brought with them silk, blue porcelain, and enamelware, which they exchanged for ivory, ebony, calamander, tortoise-shell, pearls, corals and crystals, but most importantly gems - star rubies, blue and yellow sapphires, amethysts, garnets and topaz.

Galle's revival, mainly as a passenger port, began in earnest in 1842 when the Peninsular and Oriental Navigation Company (P&O) commenced an agency. With the advent of tourism Galle became the gateway to the Orient, often providing Europeans with their first glimpse of the tropics. As many as 700 passengers landed on a busy day; the fort's streets were crowded with sightseers eagerly taking in the strange surroundings and the often fabulous merchandise on offer.

"Ten minutes sufficed us to walk through the fort's principal street," wrote William Maxwell Wood in Frankwei; or the San Jacinto in Seas of India, China and Japan (1859). "We rested under the verandah of a comfortable hotel, making a hundred inquiries concerning the island and its wonders, continually interrupted by tempting offers of carved ebony elephants, coffee-wood sticks, cinnamon paper cutters, Sinhalese lace, not to speak of diamonds, pearls, and sapphires."

Galle's fortune ended in the late 19th Century when the Colombo port was developed to service the new steamships and expedite the export of rubber and tea. Yet connoisseurs of the past have reason to be grateful that Galle's port suffered a dramatic decline at this juncture. If its ascendancy had continued, expansion may well have irreparably damaged the fort's heritage.

But without a thriving port, and no alternative commerce, Galle, and consequently the fort, languished for decades. It was, as local author Norah Roberts wrote, "As quiet as asleep". However, international recognition occurred in 1988 when the fort became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This has led to conservation work aptly funded by the government of the Netherlands. For instance, the fort's main physical feature, the massive rampart, has been painstakingly restored, and the architecture of Dutch houses conserved.

Since the mid-1990s Galle and its fort have experienced positive change. A number of foreigners - some well-known - began to purchase the fort's ageing Dutch houses and, for the most part, faithfully restored them. The Galle International Stadium, picturesquely situated at the base of the fort's tallest ramparts, became a venue for Test cricket in 1998. Thus numerous visiting cricket fans have been introduced to the fort. With an increased need for high-end accommodation, boutique hotels and villas were created from old buildings, making the fort a special place to stay (moderately-priced hotels and guesthouses are also available).

Should you visit Galle Fort, a walk round the ramparts and bastions is the customary method of appreciating the magnificence of its structure, and of gaining a perspective of the town it encloses. Check out Flag Rock, the most imposing bastion, and others such as the Triton, Neptune, Clippenburg, and Point Utrecht with its British lighthouse. Using a little imagination, this fort, a testament in stone, can yield up a corridor into the past, a journey down which evokes images of earlier times.

Later, sample the narrow, busy streets that reveal much about the life of the inhabitants. Admire the Dutch houses, the Dutch Reformed Church, the Meeran Jumma Mosque, the Great Warehouse (occupied by the National Maritime Museum, also worth a visit), and the restored Dutch gate. Then it's probably time to partake of refreshment at one of the pleasant street side cafés - there are craft shops, too - during which you can reflect on your experience and appreciate the full glory of Galle Fort.


 

 

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    The fort’s narrow streets offer restful spots for a moment’s respite and reflection

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    The narrow streets of the fort are often frequented by the occupants

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    The fort’s people and their livelihoods

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    The well-preserved interior of the Dutch Reformed Church

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    A view from the ramparts

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    The tunnel gateway to the fort

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    Entrance to the Meeran Jumma Mosque

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