Galle: Port and Fort



Galle is the European version of the Sinhala term galla – rocky place. It had gained importance in the Indian oceanic trade network at least by the fourteenth century. The Moroccan traveller Ibn Batuta who arrived in Sri Lanka in 1344 A.D. states that he was entertained at Galle by a Muslim seafarer named Ibrahim. He further states that Ibrahim had a residence at Galle.

The Chinese junks that came through the straits of Malacca on their way to Malabar or the African coast and ships from the Middle East plying to Malaysia or the Far East touched at the Port of Galle for purposes of trade as well as for repairs and replenishment of food and water. It was a natural harbour with an area of 320 hectares. The Galle Trilingual Slab Inscription datable to approximately 1411 A.D. written in Chinese, Persian and Tamil indicates that the Chinese, Muslim and South Indian traders frequented the port. The fact that Galle had been a well established commercial centre by the fifteenth century is also attested to by the sandesa poems. According to Tisara and Parevi sandesas, it was a town with wide streets beside which were located shops of all kinds.

Colonial Era

The Portuguese constructed a small fortress at Galle and improved the port after they gained control of the coastal areas after 1597. Initially the fort was built with logs of coconut trees and mud. Later, it was improved with a bastian and a wall with rough stones and clay. In course of time, the Portuguese built two other bastians with walls of mud, stone and mortar. The other sides facing the sea were open and had no fortifications.

Galle was captured by the Dutch from the Portuguese in 1640 and it was they who developed the fort extensively. In 1663 they constructed three strong bastians named "Sun" "Moon" and "Star". The fort became a habitation site and an industrial zone under their rule. In fact, the Galle fort is the largest and most complete walled habitation site in Sri Lanka that still remains a living settlement. The Dutch utilized the area around "Lijnbaan Street" (Present Lane Bann Street) for workshops manufacturing ropes, strings, cords, sails, rigs, nails, bolts, anchors and even boats.

Casperz de John, who was one of the commanders of Galle Fort, built the Reformation Church in the fort between 1752 and 1754. It is the oldest existing Protestant church in Sri Lanka. The tombstones seen inside and outside the church today are the memorials of the Dutch officers and their families who lived at Galle.

Point de Galle

The British having taken over the areas ruled by the Dutch in 1796 preserved the fort and did only minor renovations and improvements when required. But several British administrative and commercial complexes were established in the fort. The Dutch hospital building was converted to the office of the Government Agent. The warehouse was refurbished as government offices. The roads within the fort were widened and tarred and larger drains were provided. The street names given by the Dutch were not changed but anglicized. For example Kerk Straat was called Church Street and Zeeburg Straat was named Lighthouse Street.

The Portuguese, the Dutch as well as the British called the Galle Harbour "Point de Galle" in the French style specially in naval charts and maps. Many writers in the colonial era have mentioned that the Galle Harbour was spacious and secure. But they also comment on its narrow entrance which was chalked up with rocks.

It was the Dutch who improved the harbour as well during their rule of the maritime regions of Sri Lanka. For the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost Indische Compagnie or VOC), Galle port was second only to Batavia or present Jakarta. Nevertheless, at least six VOC ships are known to have sunk in and around Galle Fort; three sailing in or out of the bay, two inside the bay and one by an explosion at anchor.

The Dutch historian Philip Baldaeus (1672) who was chaplain to the troops that captured the Portuguese fort at Mannar in 1658 describing the Galle Harbour of his day states that it had a commodius bay fit for anchorage. Commenting further, he states that there was an iron cannon placed on the ramparts and a lantern to guide the sailors on top of the 28 feet above sea level rock which jutted out into the sea.

The British colonial administrators too constructed an iron column in 1848 which was 68 feet from the base and a lighting device further 7 feet above. The light could be observed from a ship at a distance of 15 miles. Later they built a bigger light house.

Several British writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century including Robert Percivel (1803), James Cordiner (1807), Charles Sirr (1850), George Barrows (1857), Emerson Tennent (1859) and John Ferguson (1903) have commented on various aspects of the Galle harbour such as passenger and cargo steamers coming to and going out from the port, the landing pier, customs house, trade in the port and canoes taking passengers and commodities up and down.

During the mid nineteenth century the colonial administrators discussed and debated about developing the port of Galle as the main harbour of Ceylon instead of Colombo or Trincomalee. In fact, Governor George Anderson had prepared plans for improvement of the port to accommodate large steamers. But plans did not materialize and the British improved the Colombo port mostly in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Since then, Galle gradually lost its former attraction and Colombo became the main loading, unloading, transshipping, landing and embarking port of the Island.

World Heritage Site

Galle fort was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1983. Explorations conducted around the port after 1990 by maritime archaeologists have yielded several stone anchors of Indo-Arabian pattern, a Chinese celadon bowl dated to the thirteenth century southern Sung dynasty and blue and white Chinese ceramics of a later stage.

The LTTE attacked the Galle port and the Sri Lanka Navy Base in the fort on 18th October 2006. Five suicide boats, disguised as fishing boats were used in this attack. Three naval vessels were damaged and there was a small number of casualties.

At present Galle harbour mainly facilitates fishing vessels and freighters. Tea, rubber, coconut and other products of the southern region are exported through Galle. Substantial quantities of rice, flour, fertilizer, clinker and gypsum are imported through the port. The port has storage space in transit sheds for 12000 tons of cargo. Only very rarely a passenger ship touches upon the port. But it provides facilities for pleasure yachts and acts as the embarkation point for ships going into the sea for whale-watching.

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