Galle - The Historical Port City

logoGalle, a romantic, old-world town and picturesque seaside resort, lies on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, 110 km from Colombo. Its natural harbour and strategic location on the ancient sea routes made it one of the main ports of the island from early times.

The Galle Fort is one of the best preserved examples of 17th century colonial fortifications in the world, and is on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Monuments. The reason for its remarkable state of preservation is that this once busy trading town, visited by the East-India fleets and many regional traders, fell upon slack times after the Dutch had left. The development that did take place subsequently focussed on the new town of Galle, outside the Fort. The Fort is really a walled city, with a rectangular pattern of streets full of the low houses with gables and verandas in the Dutch colonial style. An irony of history is that most of the inhabitants of old Galle, occupying the houses of the Dutch, are the descendants of the Muslim traders that the Dutch despised so much for their petty trade that violated their monopoly. The Muslims have adapted many of the houses to their own liking, closing up the verandas with woodwork to prevent their women from being seen from outside. Now it is no longer allowed to alter any of these houses, although some renovation is taking place, and private museums with handicraft shops have even been established.

There are also several interesting buildings from early British times, and an early 20th century light tower. Though it was started by the Portuguese, there is nothing recognizably Portuguese left in it.

The Galle Fort covers an area of 36 hectares and encloses several museums, a clock tower, two churches, a mosque, a lighthouse and several hundred private dwellings. It was equipped with impenetrable defences during the Dutch occupation. From the beginning, Galle was strategically important to all of its European rulers. You can walk on almost all around the town on the thick walls, in the sunshine and the cool breeze, with the red-tiled roofs of the houses on the one hand, and the blue ocean on the other. 

Galle was a port settlement before the advent of Portuguese in the 16th century. The strategic location of Galle in relation to the main sea routes has given it prominence among other ports in Lanka. There is evidence that it was visited by traders from many parts of the world. Many came and many stayed. The earliest recorded history of this settlement dates back to 545 AD, where Cosmos Indicapleustes makes the first reference to Galle in his records. The earliest foreign visitor, however, was lbn Batuta, the famous Arab navigator and traveler, who is reported to have touched at Galle in the year 1344 AD..   

There are also several interesting buildings from early British times, and an early 20th century light tower. Though it was started by the Portuguese, there is nothing recognizably Portuguese left in it.

logoIn 1505, a fleet of Portuguese ships under the command of Don Laurenzo de Almeida set out for the Maldives to intercept a fleet of Moorish ships carrying spices, but owing to unfavorable weather in the ocean, were driven off course and took refuge in the port of Galle. A stone Padrao recording this event, including the name of the sculptor, was found in Galle. Couto recording the event says that the Portuguese were taken in a circuitous route by a group of Moors who saw the arrival of this new group from the West as an intrusion into their arena of operations and the Portuguese were taken to see a Moorsih merchant who posed off as the king. The Portuguese who realized that they had been duped left for Goa. The now famous saying "Parangiya Kottye gia wage" records that the "Parangiya " was taken for a right royal ride in Galle and not in Colombo. In 1518, they returned to Colombo to build a factory, but continued to use the port of Galle for trade, and in 1588 returned to Galle to establish a fortification. The only major construction in the area prior to that, was the building of a Franciscan chapel in 1543, in the vicinity of the present Fort.

In 1588, When the king of Sitawaka, in order to check the Portuguese territorial ambitions, laid siege on the Portuguese Colombo, the Portuguese withdrew along the south coast and fortified Galle. This fortification consisted of a wall and three bastions on the land side, while on the sea ward there was only a palisade. Characteristically, the Portuguese named their bastions after the saints. These were Sanken Lanka Lago (St. James) on the Eastern side, near the bay. Conceycao (Immaculate Conception), near the present clock tower, Santa Antonio, on the western and facing the sea. There was no gate, the only entrance being across the drawbridge over a shallow moat and over the wall. This design is very characteristic of Portuguese forts in coastal areas. The Portuguese felt they were the masters of the sea and therefore fortified only against the enemy from the land. Unfortunately, very little is know of the Galle fort during this period, as most of the records were burnt by Van Toll, secretary to Gerrit de Meere, Governor of Colombo.

logo In 1640 , an Armada of twelve Dutch ships and two thousand men attacked the Portuguese fort at Galle. After a short but fierce battle, St. Lago's bastion was breached. Soon after the capture of the Fort, the Dutch set about building the ramparts and constructing the fortifications. While the Portuguese could afford to be complacent about the seaward frontier, the Dutch could not. The Indian Ocean by this time was full of competing European nations - British, French and Danish in addition to the Portuguese. For this reason, there is no example of Dutch coastal fortress with weak seaside defenses. Their forts were thus not merely fortifications against a land enemy, but also defenses of the harbours themselves. For the security of their forts depended on their ability to hold the harbours. The port city of Galle was their administrative hub for the southern maritime province and was a strategic location of their maritime trading routes connecting the Dutch territories in the East.

The Dutch constructed the present 90 acre. fort in Galle, completed in 1663. This fort was designed as a stronghold of power and therefore, was very similar to the fortified cities of Europe. It enclosed a vast area of land and accommodated all sectors of the population who were loyal to the Dutch. It was the town, and all the important people lived there. All the facilities necessary for them were also provided within the walls. The shape of the fort was irregular due to the coastline on which it was situated. However, bastions had been positioned in a manner to provide adequate defense of this irregular rampart. Facing the present esplanade was a deep, six meter wide moat.

logoThis fortified city has been planned according to the iron grid pattern and it is comprised of an attractive street pattern with buildings nourished with distinctive architectural character, which is a mixture of both local and colonial Dutch traditions. The original usage of the buildings varied from dwellings to administrative edifices. The wide and high ramparts on all sides defining the city had a single gateway from the land side. When the British took over the control of the Maritime Provinces of the Island from the Dutch at the end of 18th century, they further consolidated the defensive system without altering the Dutch fortifications and constructed an additional gateway to the Fort. While retaining the town plan and most of the built structures and street facades established by the Dutch, the British made some modifications to the urbanscape of the Fort by adding new buildings and providing new infrastructure facilities to suit their administrative setup. However, the Galle Fort gradually ceased to function as a fortified base during British occupation, but continued as an administrative centre for the South. This has continued for over two centuries. Even today the fort continues to be an administrative and legal centre. The two major banking institutions of Sri Lanka are housed within its walls. Galle is the only living city in the Island where all the Dutch fortifications are intact to -date.

Recognizing the importance of the Galle Fort as a site of antiquarian value, the Department of Archaeology declared it as a protected monument in 1974 under the Antiquities Ordinance. It was inscribed on the UNESCO's World Heritage list in 1988. Conservation and management of the fort are being handled by the major stake-holders viz., Department of Archaeology, the Central Cultural and the Galle Heritage Foundation..

The Old entrance - Facing the old harbour, is the original entrance to the Fort. On the outerside above the arched gateway, is the coat of Arms of Great Britain and Ireland. On the inner side, there is carved stone, a shield with two lions on either side, and a cock bird perched on a rock as a crest which bears under it the date 1669. The timber arched doors of massive proportion of this gateway has been conserved recently by the Central Cultural Fund.

The Dutch Warehouse
Built in 1676, this massive two-storied warehouse is 175 meters long, 13 meters wide and about 15 meters high up to the top of the gable roof. Faced with a Dutch gable on the west, which was characteristic of the Dutch colonial architecture, it is a major land mark of the Fort. The original entrance to the Fort, which was through the Ware House in the form of a massive arched doorway, still functions. The building has been conserved by the Central Cultural Fund by removing incompatible interventions carried out during modern times, but retaining the sympathetic alterations done by the British to display the building's historical evolution. Under the Sri Lanka -Netherlands Cultural Cooperation Programme, this building is being developed as the Maritime Archaeology Museum cum Heritage Information Centre, by the Central Cultural Fund to be opened to the general public by the end of 2008. This museum will provide an introduction to the maritime heritage of this Island nation through artifacts, (including those recovered through the maritime archaeological explorations of the ship-wrecks within the ancient port of Galle), models, graphic panels etc. Multi media facilities will also be established to provide heritage information to the visitors. This museum cum information centre is also designed to be a valuable resource centre of heritage knowledge to offer a rewarding and complex experience of the World Heritage Site of Galle to visitors of all strata.

The Black Fort (Zwart bastion) - This site, presently occupied by the police is perhaps the only site in Galle where the remnants of Portuguese Galle could be found. Constructed on an elevated location overlooking the old harbour, this is the most romantic area of the fort with barrel vaulted structures (so–called "prison cells"), and two vaulted tunnels connecting different levels of the bastions. This is a highly potential area for tourism in Galle. This bastion is presently being conserved by the Central Cultural Fund.

The Dutch Reformed Church - Completed in early 1750's, the Dutch Reformed Church is the oldest surviving Protestant place of worship in Sri Lanka. Being a land mark in the historic Galle Fort, the church is located along the church street facing east and, is bounded by the middle street to the north. It was built as a thanks offering to God in the birth of a daughter to Casparus de Jong, the commandeur of Galle (from 1751- 1753) and his wife Gertruyda Adriana Le Grand. The couple had been childless for many years. During the Dutch occupation in Sri Lanka this was the most celebrated church in its southern coastal belt. Although there is a belief that the present church is built in the site of a Capuchin Convent demolished by the Dutch, the maps of Valentyne and Barrete de Resinde do not suggest the existence of a religious institution at this location. Ground plan of the Galle Fort published in 1767 indicates the area under discussion as open space. Though this is a property of the Dutch Reformed Church up to the present day, Anglican community also used the Dutch Church to hold their services during early British rule till 1867, when the present All Saint's Church was built by the British.

Sewerage System - The Dutch also built an intricate sewerage system to carry the waste and rain water to the sea which is operated through the natural action of the high and low tide. These brick lines vaulted drains are 2-4 meters below ground level.

There are 14 bastions located on the ramparts which are extremely thick and one at the centre has an incredible 400-foot depth. The centrally located Moon Bastion has been transferred into the largest single gun-battery in Sri Lanka.