Book review

The remnants of Dutch culture in Sri Lanka

by Haris de Silva

The Dutch Forts of Sri Lanka. The Military Monuments of Ceylon by W. A Nelson. [including] W A Nelson — Report of 1984 [and] R. E. de Silva — Update of 2004. Published by Sri Lanka Netherlands Association, Colombo, 2004. Pp. i-xvi, 1- 152 (+168 additional pages in sub-numbers at the end of each section containing the Report and Update, i.e a total no. of 320 printed pages), 10 maps, 32 plans and numerous photographs. Price Rs. 3000/-; inquiries Johanne de Zilva, CBA, 112, Reid Avn., Colombo 4.

The book The Dutch Forts of Sri Lanka. The Military Monuments of Ceylon by Nelson was first published in Scotland, in 1984. A Chartered Accountant by profession, Nelson had been in Ceylon for five years in the 1930’s, working for a firm of accountants. Interested in military monuments, it was during that period he had collected the material for the publication, which had come only around 50 years later.

Nelson describes the forts and other Dutch fortifications as they were known/existed in the 1930s i.e. around 300 years after their construction. He ascribes their strength and durability to the excellent properties of coral stone -the land variety-laterite and limestone mortar used in their construction. They had been designed according to the theories of military defence that had prevailed in Europe at that time, but suitably modified to fit the location identified for a construction. Nelson provides not only the technical details of a fort, but also gives a brief historical account of their beginnings and later history.

In his account Nelson, also mentions 4 stockades -timber fortifications, 5 inland forts and 5 minor fortified posts as at Bentota, Chilaw and Puttalam. The described forts are those of Hanwella, Colombo, Kalutara, Negombo and Kalpitiya in the Western group, Galle Matara, Tangalla, Katuwana, Akuressa and Hakmana in the Southern group, Jaffna, Hammenhiel, Elephant Pass, Pas Beschutter, Pas Pyl, Poonaryn, Point Pedro, Mannar and Arippu in the Northern group, and Batticaloa and Forts Frederick and Ostenburg in Trincomalee in the Eastern group. The Hambantota Tower although called a Dutch fort, is noted as a construction of the British.

The list is impressive, and impressive they would have been during the Dutch presence in Sri Lanka between 1640 and 1796. Although, even by the 1930s most of the forts had been in civil use they had been in a fair state of preservation, except for the stockades, the inland forts, and the minor fortified posts which had disappeared. Now, RK de Silva’s Update of 2004 gives the status of the fortifications as they are at present.

Thus, for instance, out of the few noteworthy survivals in Colombo are the Dutch hospital and the arch of the Delft, Gate unearthed in 1985 and now made available for public view. Of the others the ramparts of Galle Fort and the Star Fort at Matara are well maintained, but Batticaloa, Mannar and Negombo had presented a di.fferent picture. De Silva says that the apathy and neglect of their present custodians, the Dept of Archaeology, and of their occupants are to-be held responsible for the unseemly views they now present. But fortunately they are not beyond redemption: a little effort by those responsible could brighten them up.

All the Jaffna peninsula forts have been victims of the ethnic conflict of the last 20 years, and apparently there seems to be nothing to restore. Fortunately, Kalpitiya and Hammenhiel, occupied by the SLNavy, are in good condition. de Silva, has added what is left of Delft and Kayts to the list -not mentioned by Nolson — as locations where Dutch had existed. In the east, what remains of Forts Frederick and Ostenburg too are seen to be well looked after by the SL Army and Navy respectively.

According to Nelson Jaffna had the best constructed fort in the island, with its entrances, fronts, ramparts, glacis, revelins, bastions, gun embrasures and the church within it. Similar details mutatis mutandis are given of the others too, as well as physical measurements, where he had taken them. The reader will not be at a loss to understand the technical terms used in such artillery fortifications, as an appendix explains such terms.

Nelson says the preservation of these forts had been purely fortuitous. His historical notes on the forts are informative, and shows how and why what had been existing in the 1930’s had survived up to then. Further, he also notes the demolition of various parts of forts, as in Colombo, for either expansion of the city or to accommodate growing city life.

For those interested in seeing earlier descriptions of them there are the articles in the Journals of the Dutch Burgher Union (JDBU) of the period 1908-1962, and J. P. Lewis’s article in Vol II of the History of the Public Works Department by PM Bingham (1922). Nelson has consulted both sources, but there is more material in them for any further study, though they are not illustrated.

Nelson’s is the only full length book on the subject, with maps, plans and photographs illustrating the text. As noted earlier, today, there is hardly anything left to be seen of the Jaffna peninsula forts, and one would be able to see them now only in pictures and plans and descriptions like in that of Nelson’s and in material available at the National Archives in Colombo, and other archives’ and museums in the Netherlands.

It will also be appropriate to note that the late Tikiri Abeyasinghe’s English translation of

Antonio Bocarro’s description of Portuguese Forts was published by the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka 1995. There, the description of the personnel and artillery in them and its revenue, rather than their architectural and engineering details. But the description is provided with plans. Such descriptions too would interest those interested in the study of forts, as many Dutch forts too were built upon them or were newly built in the same locations.

On the present publication, de Silva says that before Nelson passed away in 1993 he had given to him all the material on the book including the 1984 Report. Thus, this re-print of Nelson’s book with his Report of 1984, to which de Silva’s added’ his Update of 2004 is a result of that gift.

This reprint of a rare publication is certainly timely and important. It is more so as the added Report of 1984 and the Update of 2004 are bound to cause some soul searching as they show the status of most of the forts -except for a few- virtually neglected, little own and less appreciated, yet surprisingly still standing on their own strength. They, certainly deserve a better place in the island’s cultural heritage and in various tourist programmes.

In its production the book is well printed, is easy on the eye, and also has an attractive dust-jacket. The only comment I would make is that I would have liked to see the pagination of the additional pages to have been at the top edges of the pages, and not at the bottom as they are now.

Let me also say that unless some concerted attempt is made to restore and conserve what remains of the existing forts there might not be another full length publication on this esoteric subject. The Tourist Board and those in the hospitality business could interest themselves in these forts, as they could still be salvaged and made attractive for variaous tourist programmes.

In that light, and on its own right, the 2004 publication should acquire more importance as a timely production, which focuses on a neglected aspect of our own multi-cultural heritage. Thus, RK de Silva should be congratulated for his decision to reprint Nelson’s work with his own Update of 2004.



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