Restoring the Jaffna Fort


By Randima Attygalle

According to Phillipus Baldeaues, the Dutch cleric and celebrated historian and writer, the Jaffna fort erected by the Portuguese ‘was not be taken by storm, owing to the unusual height of its walls, nor was it to be effected by mines owing to its rocky soil, nor was it to be leveled with the thundering of our cannons owing to the triple thick walls.’ The oldest extant Dutch map of the Jaffna town dating back to 1658 made by a Batavian map maker further confirms its substantial fortifications defending a square fort with corner bastions. Baldaeus says that it was larger than the fort in Batavia.

Apart from religious considerations, the Portuguese interest in Sri Lanka’s northern region arose in 1560’s due to military and commercial reasons; its strategic location (only about 50 km. from the nearest coastal town of South India) to secure control of the seaborne traffic from the Malabar coast to Sri Lanka, and the rich pearl fishery. In 1619, the Portuguese rule was finally established in the region by an expedition led by Filipe de Oliveira after the capture of Cankili Kumara- the regional ruler at that time. During the Portuguese rule, Jaffna became their key northern city, by colonizing and Christianizing the region extensively. The pre-colonial monuments, specially the magnificent Hindu religious edifices that once adorned the northern region were ruthlessly destroyed by the Portuguese and none of these now remains.

Dutch power in Jaffna

The Portuguese erected a fort in Jaffna and laid out a residential town beyond its walls. They remained in their hands for the next four decades. The Dutch accounts during their expeditions to capture Jaffna under the command of Rijclleff van Goens indicate that the residential town was devoid of any fortifications. It had several Roman Catholic churches and spacious monasteries.

The sound military defensive system established by the Portuguese at Jaffna fort compelled the Dutch to realize that a prolonged siege was the only way to capture the fort. The siege that continued for three months causing much havoc with disease and starvation, forced the remaining Portuguese who assembled after the fall of Colombo to surrender to the Dutch in June 1658. With the fall of the Jaffna fort, the last Portuguese stronghold, their occupation in the island came to a virtual end.

After being captured, the Portuguese fort was provisionally restored by the Dutch. But they undertook a complete re-building from 1665 by demolishing the Portuguese fort in order to make it a larger fort. The new defense works which have a pentagonal layout with corner bastions, were completed in 1680, but the buildings and other facilities within the walled enclosure were finally completed only in around 1710.

The Dutch accorded a greater importance than the Portuguese to the northern region, especially Jaffna. They recognized commercial potential in the pearl fishery, the textile industry and the export of elephants. The densely populated Jaffna town and its hinterland made them derive a substantial income from personal taxes. This was also their most successful district for religious conversions and proselytisation in the Island. The Dutch laid out a town (Burgher town) for commercial and residential purposes at the same location where the Portuguese established their residential settlement. The Dutch took over the large number of Roman Catholic churches established by the Portuguese, built new ones, and trained Tamil predicants. Jaffna became the headquarters of the Northern commandment of the Dutch VOC, which extended over the whole of the island’s northern region, from the south of Mannar in the west to Mullaitivu on the east coast. Built facing the Coromondal coast, the Jaffna fort also commanded the sea routes along both the west and east sides of the Island.

The Dutch also re-named all the Jaffna islands after the Dutch cities and towns: Amsterdam (Karaitivu), Leiden (Kayts), Rotterdam (Analaitivu), Middleburg (Pungudutivu), Haarlem (Nainativu) and Delft (Neduntivu). Most names are now in disuse except Delft, which is still popular.

Jaffna fort was further strengthened with outer defense works comprising a covered way, the glacis and four ravelins. These works commenced in early 18th century and were only completed in their entirety in 1792. Despite such sophisticated defense works, the inadequate garrison (as the Dutch concentrated their troops on Colombo), they felt the impossibility in resisting the advancing British forces and the Jaffna fort was surrendered to the British without firing a shot in 1795, only three years after its final completion. The fort thereafter remained in British hands till 1948, when independence was granted to the island.

The Sri Lankan Government took charge of the fort after independence, and it was in excellent condition until the civil war that erupted in 1983. The Dutch fort is declared as a Protected Monument under the Antiquities Ordinance, which is administered by the Department of Archaeology. At present, the Sri Lanka Army is looking after the security of the fort.

(Source: Department of Archaeology)

Exclusively a military base

In a bid to restore this protected monument of historical significance which was abandoned and consumed by wilderness after the war, the Ministry of National Heritage together with the Department of Archaeology embarked on an ambitious conservation project in 2010. Prof. Prasantha Mandawala, Head of the Department of History and Archaeology, University of Jayewardenepura is the Conservation Consultant Architect to the project. He points out that unlike the Dutch Forts of Galle and Colombo which were ‘fortified towns’ with civil life and administration blending together, the Jaffna Fort served exclusively military functions. "For nearly four centuries, the Fort had been a strategic point. Both the Sri Lankan Army and the LTTE, saw its strategic importance and military value to defend and control the Jaffna Peninsula. Control over it had always been symbolic of the power wielded over the region from Portuguese era to the contemporary times."

The Jaffna Fort is the second largest existing fort in the island and its total extent with its defense works is about half the size of the Galle Fort. The Fort is also the only surviving example in the country where its inner defenses have a geometrically regular pentagonal layout. Moreover, this is the only example in the island, where outer fortifications consisting of glacis, ( a wide, open, gentle slope of filled up and turfed mound, intended to conceal the lower parts of the fort and to give a free field of fire from within) ravelins (these are the outer cannon batteries in the form of triangular projections to support the musketry and to give flanking fire over the glacis) and a covered way (a wide walk, but open to sky and running along the outer edge of the moat to allow free passage from one part of the fort to another to permit rapid movement and deployment of the garrison to threatened points and to provide an outer ring of fire. The covered way is protected at its outer edge by the retaining wall of the outward sloping glacis. It is head high and provides adequate cover against the fire of the enemy as well as allows troop movement unseen from the front) are to be found. "Jaffna Fort is also the only remaining example in the world where one could still see the remnants of defense structures as well as the outer city where the civil life existed." Several structures including more than 100 houses found outside the fort still mirror Dutch and British architectural splendor.

The Fort, Mandawala explains, consists of five bastions, five ramparts (forming inner defense) the moat, and the outer defense area. The Church and the Queen’s House located inside the Fort are also significant, although these two structures have been completely destroyed. What remains of the Queen’s House today is confined to a few walls.

The Church

The Archaeological Department literature notes that the Dutch Reformed Church was erected in 1706, nearly half a century prior to the building of the Churches at Wolvendaal and Galle. Therefore it was the oldest existing ecclesiastical edifice of the Dutch in the island, until it was completely damaged during the civil war. It was also the most impressive building within the fort. Located to the east of the open square and close to the rampart linking Gelderland and Holland bastions, its ground plan resembles a Greek cross (i.e., with both beams of the cross being of equal length), known as Kruys Kerk, with a wide central space and four wings.

After the fall of Jaffna in 1795, the church was also used by the British garrison and the high officials stationed within the fort to hold Anglican services till 1872 when they built a church of their own in the heart of the city, about 1.5 km. away from the fort.

Queen’s House

The most attractive of the domestic buildings within the walled enclosure was the Dutch Lieutenant-Governor’s residence, shown in the Dutch plan of 1693. It was situated in front of the Gelderland Bastion and north of the church. Both Steiger and Heydt depict that this residence as a two- storied mansion with a decorative entrance.

The Lieutenant- Governor’s residence was later completely re-built at the same location as a single storey structure, but in the Dutch colonial style. During the British occupation of the fort, it was re-named as Queens House.

Conservation of inner and outer defense areas

When Mandawala took over the project as the Conservation Consultant Director, vegetation surrounding the Fort and land mines was already cleared and the real damage which has occurred was visible. A total cost of nearly Rs. 150 million had been incurred todate for the conservation of the inner and outer defense areas and part of the moat. The Government of Netherlands had provided around Rs. 82 million towards the project. Rs 28 million had been allotted for its conservation work in 2015.

The inner and outer defense areas consists of 18 sites all together and the conservation of the inner defense area would be completed in a few months, Mandawela said. "95% of the inner defense area had been completed and by 2017, we hope to complete the outer defense area and the moat." Several bastion walls had been completely destroyed and 50% of the rampart has been damaged, he added.

He is appreciative of the assistance rendered by the SL Army. "The Sri Lanka Army had done a super job with the clearance of the site. Their labor input is worth around Rs. 10 million. For the future work related to the moat, Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation has pledged their support by providing floating excavators.

Training 17 graduates of History and Archaeology from the University of Jaffna in Conservation by giving them hands-on experience on the Fort is a long term national investment, believes Mandawala. "They had no clue about conservation and exposing them to a six month-training session on the conservation work of the Fort from the point of preparing a plan, was a great achievement. Today these graduates are competent to take over other archaeological monuments in the region."

Dr. Senarath Dissanayake, Director General of Archaeology observes that monuments and sites of archeological value in the Jaffna peninsula were grossly neglected during the civil war and the conservation of the Jaffna Fort is an ambitious first step taken towards conserving them. "Among them, Jaffna Fort is significant both as a monument of historical importance and as a tourist attraction." Once the entire first phase of the conservation project is completed (conservation of inner and outer defense areas) plans are underway to conserve the remaining sites of the Fort including what remains of Queen’s House. "We are planning to add an assortment of interesting features including a museum, a Tourism Resource Centre and other visitor convenience facilities such as open air dining."

(Pix credit: Department of Archaeology )

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