The harbour of KolonThota or Colombo was a prominent port in ancient Sri Lanka and from the 15th century onwards it was the principal port of the country due to its proximity to the capital city of Kotte. With the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century, they made Colombo their main centre establishing [...]


Rediscovering the ruins of Colombo Fort


Hardly known and not properly conserved: Ruins of the Dutch Fort in the heart of Colombo city

The harbour of KolonThota or Colombo was a prominent port in ancient Sri Lanka and from the 15th century onwards it was the principal port of the country due to its proximity to the capital city of Kotte. With the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century, they made Colombo their main centre establishing a large city over time. The succeeding European colonists, the Dutch and British too made Colombo their centre.

To protect their interests in the harbour the Portuguese fortified their city and the harbour creating the Fort of Colombo; the Dutch too erected their own fortifications on the site of the Portuguese ruins. The British after occupation maintained the Dutch fortifications till the mid-19th century when they were demolished for commercial expansion of the city.

The Fort of Colombo thus has a colourful history of almost 500 years. The final fortifications; the Dutch Fort was demolished between 1869 and 1871 but not entirely as I found out.

Having read about the Dutch Forts of Sri Lanka, I was determined to explore the untold story of the Fort of Colombo beginning from its inception from the time of the Portuguese, for as common knowledge goes no remains exist. This journey took me on an adventure of a lifetime in 2015. There hidden among the crowded streets of Fort are the remains of very ruins of the Dutch Fort of Colombo.

Strolling through books on history I came across a picture which took me quite by surprise. In the book The Epic Struggle of the Kingdom of Kandy by Brendon Gooneratne was a picture somewhere from the 1970s of a wall of the Fort. Judging from the surroundings it seemed to be somewhere on Chaitya road, so hopping on my trusty scooter one afternoon I headed down Chaitya Road in Fort. Travelling near the Light House Galley I noticed the building featured in the picture behind the old wall. This turned out to be the Office of the Navy Commander inside the Navy Headquarters but there was no old wall in sight only large trees. Climbing the lighthouse to gain elevation I scanned the tree lines and to my astonishment found through the branches glimpses of an old wall. I was speechless. If that picture was true; those were the ruins of the Dutch Fort.

Now I needed a closer look, so I wrote to the Navy seeking permission to visit the old wall. I was thrilled when I received a written reply from the Navy granting me and my friend Minol Peiris permission to visit the wall. After contacting the Commanding Officer Captain Suresh De Silva via telephone a date was fixed for the visit.

Arriving at the Navy Headquarters we were given passes and greeted by Lieutenant Commander Abeyrathna who escorted us to the site. This old wall faced the Galle Buck Road and entering a small compound we came to the base of it.  It was not just a wall but an entire bastion with four cannons jutting out which have been sealed off. The walls were some 15 feet high and were an odd shape. Rather than the known triangular bastions like those of the Galle Fort, these had five faces or sides and it was quite clear that they had gone through considerable alterations during the past century with a mix of red bricks, modern cement and concrete. At the base on the south side of the bastion were large boulders which seemed like a natural rock formation.  We documented and photographed this and then we were told that there was more, a gateway to the Fort!

Walking behind the bastion we reached Flagstaff Street and turning left walked a few metres down and to our left to our amazement, there flanked by two buildings was an entire gateway with the date still on it. It was in a ruinous condition with trees growing on it and was the dump site of construction material. It was a Postern gate, meaning a small secured entrance by the looks of it with the passageway sealed in the centre. The date ‘1676’ was barely visible.

Exploring this we climbed a small portion of wall connected to it and peeping to the other side, I noticed something! We asked the Navy officer who accompanied us if we could go to the other side and he agreed to take us. This was the back garden of another building.

My suspicion was right, there on the other side were parts of an old wall, and as they joined the small gateway it was quite clear that they were part of the ramparts of the Fort. The section from the bastion end to the Postern gate is about 30 metres and of about 4 feet in height and has a mix of stone and kabook masonry. Along this stretch is a modern wall built upon the ruins. The back of the Postern gate was a sad sight; it was fully covered with trees with large roots going deep into the masonry. Beyond that too were remains of the ramparts, that ran for about 20 metres with a varying height of about 5 feet. This section too was in a ruinous condition with trees growing on top of it. This part mainly consisted of kabook masonry.

These were definitely part of the fortifications of the Dutch Fort. We inquired whether the Archaeology Department visits these ruins but they said that no one comes and asked us if we could help them identify the ruins.

I immediately set to work on identifying them. Digging through the maps in the National Archives, the memoirs of the Dutch Governors and especially the book The Dutch forts of Sri Lanka by W.A.Nelson, and many more, I was able to uncover the history of the ruins.

The Dutch Fort, built on the western end of the ruined Portuguese City after its fall in 1656 was constructed on the Bastion Fort design (i.e. Galle Fort) and consisted of 9 bastions and 2 gun batteries on the Harbour arm. The bastions were named after cities in the Netherlands and from north clock wise, the bastions of Leyden, Delft, Hoorn, Rotterdam, Middleburg, Klippenburg, Enkhuysen, Dan Briel and Amsterdam. The gun batteries on the Harbour arm were Battenburg and Water Pass. The bastion in the Navy Headquarters was Dan Briel – this was a modest bastion which protected the rocky beach along the west coast between Enkhuysen bastion and the Battenburg battery. This bastion was situated on a hill, which was the highest point in the city hence the large rocks and the considerable elevation observed at the present site. This bastion’s apex or the pointed end where the two faces of the bastion meet seemed to have been cut sometime in the late 19th century, as is evident from a map of 1904; giving it its odd five sided shape today.

The bastions were initially built of Kabook and only after 1751 were they built of proper lime and stone. Previously the old British lighthouse and flag staff was located on this bastion and now built upon it is the office of the Navy Commander.

The Postern gate had a fascinating history; the Fort had three main entrances, one being the Delft gate on the eastern ramparts and the other the Galle gate on the south, and the third being the Water gate in the habour. In the old days this small secondary entrance was known as the ‘Slave Port’ which led to the Kaffirs field – the land area between the Fort and the sea on the western coast where the Company’s slaves were kept, thus the name.The Kaffirs field would now correspond to the buildings of the Navy Headquarters, Galle Buck Road, Chaitya Road to the coast (now vanished for the Port City). The slaves of the Dutch were first kept here till they were relocated in the 18th century to a small peninsula in the Beira lake now known as Slave Island due to an incident, which is an interesting tale for another time.

The walls on either side of the Postern gate were the ramparts of the Dutch Fort one, connecting Dan Briel to the Postern gate and the other from the gate to the Amsterdam bastion, but seemed to have lost their shape and size due to the alterations of its surroundings.

We were speechless at what we had seen, ruins in the heart of Colombo! I was amazed by the fact that these ruins are hardly known and not properly conserved. But there was more to it than meets the eye. My research has since led me to discover more remains amounting to an astounding seven locations. I have since been invited to deliver two public lectures on the fortifications of Colombo and have written a paper for an international journal.

The ruins of the Navy Headquarters have been since brought to the notice of the Department of Archaeology thus hopefully would be conserved in the near future.

 (The writer is a  final year student of Aquinas College of Higher Studies)

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