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.,
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
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
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
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.