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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.

Trincomalee Fort

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 entrance.

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

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.

Galle Fort

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.

Jaffna Fort

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 use.

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 purposes.

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 jails.

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 this article.

 

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