Country: Sri Lanka
Member: Galle Heritage Foundation
Galle Fort History
In 1638 Dutch administrators and King Rajasinghe II of Sri Lanka signed a treaty to get military support from the Dutch to rescue the coastal regions and trade from the Portuguese. In 1640 AD, the fort of Galle was captured by the Dutch forces led by Willem Jacob Coster (who came from Akersloot village in the Kingdom of the Netherlands), after a fierce battle with the Portuguese. The Dutch army was supported by soldiers of the Sinhala king (called Laskiringngna). It is stated that the short rampart built by the Portuguese had been almost totally destroyed in this battle. The Dutch then set about rebuilding the fortification according to an architectural style that was unique to them.
The city became the Capital of the VOC in Sri Lanka until 1658 and remained its main port in Sri Lanka. Galle had a close link with Batavia, the main trade hub of the VOC. It was also used as a supply harbor, especially to supply the ships with fresh water.
From the year 1659 to the latter half of the 18th century the construction of Fort Galle was carried out by the Dutch. When completed, the fort had 14 bastions on which cannons were mounted. In the 90 acres area encircled by the ramparts, they erected churches, warehouses, offices, residences, military barracks a hospital – in short, all the buildings which were necessary for the Dutch East India Company (VOC) for their trading and administrative activities and for the military, who provided them with security.
The architecture introduced by the Dutch was a combination of European design and local techniques to suit the climatic conditions. The Dutch designed the fort of Galle with a spread out street network and buildings facing the streets as building blocks. Being very concerned about health and sanitation, they also built an underground sewage system within the fort of Galle to get rid of all lavatory waste. During the latter part of the Dutch period, many characteristics of our local architectural techniques were added to their buildings.
During the 17th and 18th century about 275 families were living within the fortress city among which several ethnic groups and local families with whom the Dutch built relationships and married. Presently they are known as the Burgher people. The VOC ruled Galle until 1796 when it was ceded to the British and shortly before the entire company went bankrupt.
Trade in Galle
Cinnamon was the main trade commodity of the VOC in Sri Lanka. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Portuguese collected wild cinnamon but the Dutch systemized the cinnamon trade in the country. They established a cinnamon department and planted it in the villages around Galle. The VOC erected many warehouses to store cinnamon and other spices. Sri Lanka was also very famous for elephants. Mathara fort which was located 40 km to the south, was erected by the Dutch to keep elephants for trading. Elephants were mainly exported to Batavia from Galle.
Small fortresses such as Hakmana (60km from Galle) and Akuressa (40 km from Galle) were established as gathering points for spices. VOC sent their small vessels from Galle to Batavia. Galle had a strong link with Kerala, Malabar in India from where they brought workers as well as Malacca from which many Malay people were brought over as soldiers.
Galle Fort is a rich heritage site with a strong VOC connection. Outside the Fort, some remains of the old port have survived. The fortified city itself was constructed by the Dutch who constructed the rampart around the peninsula of Galle totaling 2.5 km in length. It was inscribed as an archaeological monument in 1971.
The VOC presence is best highlighted by the old warehouses where spices were stored. The warehouses have been renovated and now house two different museums. The renovated Dutch Reformed Church is the most valuable religious building in the fort and is still functioning. The artillery regiment building houses the Galle National Museum, and old barracks and the guards residence are in use by the government. In total there are more than 400 heritage buildings in the fort, most of which are from the VOC period.
The most significant development in regard to the Galle Fort which took place recently, was its inscription by UNESCO in 1988 in the list of World Heritage Sites. UNESCO which has officially named the site as “The Old Town of Galle and its Fortifications” describes it as follows:
“Galle provides an outstanding example of an urban ensemble which illustrated the interaction of European architecture and South Asian traditions from the 16th to the 19th centuries. The most salient feature is the use of European models adapted by local manpower to the geological, climatic, historical and cultural conditions of Sri Lanka.”
Galle Fort as it is today is a fascinating tapestry of architecture belonging to four periods, viz., Portuguese, Dutch, British and post-colonial.
The “Commandeur” was the head of the Galle Commandment (between the Bentotte and Waluwa rivers).
Commander Casparus de Jong initiated in 1752 the building of this church on the location of past Portuguese convent.