(by Derrick Schokman) Befitting its position as a prosperous seaport and the first administrative capital of the Dutch in Sri Lanka, Galle boasts the island’s largest fort – a legacy from the comparatively gallant age of military engineering between 1500 and 1800.
The Portuguese were the first to build a fort at Point de Galle, but it was the Dutch who expanded and strengthened it with the extant battlements or ramparts
Looking at the ramparts today which are still in an excellent state of preservation, it is possible to imagine that they were the scene of many a great battle.
But in truth the fort was never attacked. It was handed over to the British in 1796 after 156 years “in a state of complete repair” as certified by the officer who took it over.
Entering the fort through the main gate one gets the impression of going back in time to a living legacy left to us by the Dutch.
It is for this reason that the Galle Fort has been recognised by the World Heritage Foundation of UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, one of 213 places of great historical value in the world that should be conserved for posterity.
Most of the buildings in the fort are of Dutch origin, solidly built with wide verandahs or stoeps supported by slender rounded wooden or brick pillars.
You don’t have to go far from the main gate to see this type of architecture. The building now being used as a museum with its striking colonnade is a good example.
Close by is the New Oriental Hotel with its high arched doorways surmounted by fanlights, cool spacious interiors and a courtyard at the back – other characteristics typical of the Dutch colonial style.
This hotel also boasts a wide range of typical Dutch furniture.
Once the best hotel in the Galle Fort, the New Oriental Hotel (NOH) is now undergoing difficult times. It has been 50 per cent sold by its present owners to a Malaysian hotelier, who is awaiting the completion of the sale to begin refurbishing.
In the vicinity of the hotel is the Dutch church built in 1755. It succeeded the Groote Kerk, built in 1656, which was the first protestant Christian church to be established in this country. The Groote Kerk is no more. Tradition has it that the new church was sponsored by Gerturyada Adriana de Grand wife of Commander Gasparus de Jong as a thank offering to God on the birth of a daughter. The couple had been childless for many years.
The interior of the church has seen little change. Except that, the gravestones of the Dutch buried in the Groote Kerk were transferred there in British times and now pave the floor. Underneath the church is a vault containing two chambers. The vault has been kept locked for years, and will only be opened again after the current restoration project funded by the Dutch government is completed. Plans are also afoot under the World Heritage Foundation to recondition and name the Dutch buildings in the fort and also flood-light the ramparts.
A windmill that was once sited on the ramparts and used to power the filling of tanks with sea water to wash the streets will be restored. Also an intricate system of sewerage that used the high tides to wash out the sewers positioned six to twelve feet underground.
Over the years the sea has receded from some of the sewer exits, but the tide still continues to run in and out of others.