Dutch Forts in Sri Lanka
The Dutch started by taking over the Portuguese held forts of Galle,
Negombo and Colombo. They refused to hand them back to the Sinhala king
as agreed in their treaty. In 1644 the Dutch constructed a fort in
Negombo on a plan made by a Dutch engineer. Rajasinha II sent persons to
help build it and then found that the Dutch were garrisoning it.
By 1688, the Dutch had a. large fort in Colombo, referred to as a
'castle' and forts at Galle, Hanwella Kalutara, Kalpitiya, Katuwana,
Matara, Negombo, Puliyanduwa (Batticaloa) and Trincomalee. Each fort had
a garrison of 50-60 European soldiers and several companies of Asian
soldiers. Colombo had the biggest garrison. There were also a number of
wood and earth structures, particularly in the south, manned by
lascarins. There were three such structures at Akuressa, Hakmana and
'Marcade' in 1716.
The forts were therefore primarily for military purposes. The forts
housed garrisons .with gunners. .
There were bastions for firing weapons and glacis (slopes) to
withstand cannon fire... The forts were usually surrounded by moats. The
building materials used were coral, cabook (laterite), and granite and
limestone mortar. The forts always encircled the total area occupied
including the sea side, because there were enemies outside the island as
well. The English and French were getting entrenched in Asia and they
had cannon mounted on their ships. Forts varied in size, from peninsula
walled forts to small guard posts at river crossings.
Interior of the forts
The Dutch paid careful attention to the interior of the forts. The
interior followed 'a strict urban form'. Roads were set out
geometrically. They were paved with cobblestone brought in as ballast
for the Dutch ships. Building blocks for houses were laid out as strips
perpendicular to the main road. Water was always a scarce commodity and
provision was made for drinking water. The main forts had large tanks
for the collection of rainwater placed as strategic locations within the
rampart walls. The small garrison forts used wells located outside the
walls. The sewage systems were designed to operate with the high and low
tide of the sea. The forts at Galle and Colombo also contained a
residential population. Colombo was a fort with city inside it. It had
residential sections, including one in Pettah, also a hospital and
orphanage. Sinhalese were selling fruits, dried fish, onions sugar and
rice inside it. In 1694 Colombo fort was about 450 by 600 meters. It had
3300 persons of whom 1761 were slaves. The Delft Gate was its main
The Dutch needed these forts to control the harbours and the sea
routes and also for protection against attacks from the interior.
Engineers were brought in from Netherlands and the forts were designed
according to the best theories of military defense in Europe at that
time, but modified to fit the conditions in Sri Lanka. Mannar, Kalpitiya
and Batticaloa forts were square. But the Matara fort and also the
Jaffna fort originally, were in the star design. This was a very
advanced design. It helped to deflect canon fire directed on the fort
and also provided all round defenses, from sea as well as land. The star
fort at Matara and the well built and larger fort at Jaffna represented
the best among Dutch creations. .
Ashley de Vos says that Sri Lanka has the best collection of Dutch
fortifications found anywhere in the world.
These ranged from the single bastion type to multiple bastion types,
and also garrison posts without bastions. The cannon capability of these
forts extended from about 17 canons to 42 canons. The bastions were
placed at carefully spaced out and tried out distances to cover the
firepower of the guns and their numbers and spatial distribution was
related to the extent of the fortification. The bastions were named
after Dutch towns.
Galle fort was the largest of the forts, covering 90 acres. It had
secret tunnels form one rampart to the other, sea winds were diverted
into its dungeons. There was a sewage disposal system. The fort had a
harbour, wharf, warehouse, factories and smithy.
It is today considered the best example of a fortified city built by
Europeans in south and south East Asia. Matara had two forts, because it
was very vulnerable to Udarata influence. The six pointed Matara star
fort was double walled with a moat. It had three arches, and two rooms
and a deep well paved with stone. The VOC crest is still to be seen.
Negombo Fort had cinnamon warehouses and drying racks.
The Jaffna fort, built in 1680, was four acres in extent. The British
noted that its main approach led over a dry ditch to an arched gateway
in the outer bulwark. Between this and the main gate there was a wet
ditch spanned by a masonry cause way.
There is no evidence of a drawbridge. The road to the inner gateway
passed under the rampart through an arch. The original gate, a solid
structure of timber was still standing and in use. . The wood work on
the outer side was thickly studded with long iron pikes, to deter any
war elephants who were sent to batter down the gate. There were guard
rooms on either side. The Dutch commander's residence, and the quarters
of the garrison officers, used by the British to house civilian
officials, were inside the fort. There was also 'the handsome and
imposing Dutch church with its shapely tilted roof and massive walls
dominating all else.'
Jaffna was the best construed of the Dutch forts, with its entrances,
forts, ramparts, glacis, revellions, bastions and gun embrasures.
Gunawardena says the Jaffna fort has been compared with a select number
of British forts of very high quality such as those at Berwick, Tilbury,
Plymouth and Inverness. It has-been described as 'the strongest fortress
in the east, the perfect defensive design in the day of powerful and
destructive solid shot artillery.
Kotelawele notes that the military strength of the Dutch was based on
their coastal fortifications. Udarata was not able to attack these
fortifications as they lacked heavy artillery and men trained in their
The Udarata kings objected whenever the Dutch tried to extend their
fortifications, as in the case of Trincomalee during the time of Dutch
governor Van Gollenesse (1743-51). Therefore when they negotiating the
1796 treaty, the Dutch asked for the right to strengthen its forts
Forts had become obsolete for military defense by the time of the
British occupation. So the British used the Dutch forts for other
The Colonial Secretary turned the Kalutara fort into his lodging and
lived in it in the 1820s. Matara star fort also became the residence of
a British official. Tangalle fort and Negombo fort were converted to
The writings of T.B.H. Abeyasinghe, W.G.M. Beumer, Haris de Silva,
R.K. de Silva Ashley de Vos, K.W. Goonewardena, R.A.L.H. Gunawardana,
S.Kelegama, D.A .Kotelewele, R. Madawela, and W.A.Nelson were used for