restored, the old Dutch Reformed Church in the Galle Fort is a remarkable
example of Dutch architecture
Symbol of an era
By Dr. K.D. Paranavitana
One of the finest colonial Dutch architectural edifices
in Sri Lanka, the Dutch Reformed Church in Galle Fort has been conserved
and is scheduled to be handed over to the General Consistory of
the Dutch Reformed Church by President Chandrika Kumaratunga.
Dutch Reformed Church (Grote Kerk) is a historically important building
that adorns the Dutch Fort in Galle. It was constructed on July
4, 1752 under the supervision of Abram Anthonisz, superintendent
of ship-building and architects in Galle.
the expenses were met by Casparus de Jong or the Lord of Spanbrook
of Amsterdam who was then the Commandeur of Galle. The church was
built as a thanksgiving to God, on the birth of his daughter after
a long period of childlessness. She was baptised at this church
on August 24, 1755.
The United Dutch East India Company (VOC) was established in the
Netherlands through the charter issued by the States General in
1602. The birth of the True Dutch Reformed Religion took place as
a result of the National Synod held in Dordrecht in 1618/19. This
reformed religion was considered the state protected religion in
the Netherlands since 1619. At this time the Dutch East India Company
was gaining control over the spice trade in the East from the Portuguese.
The crew of each Dutch voyage to the East was accompanied by several
predicants for the purpose of performing religious rites on board
and on land.
As profit was the prime objective of the VOC, the charter
of 1602 made no provisions for promotion and maintenance of religious
institution in the East. The company directors were not obliged
to spread the light of the Christianity practised in the Netherlands.
When the VOC established its headquarters in East Batavia (present
Jakarta) the policy adopted was “the nature of the government
is such that it cannot suffer two equally great controlling powers,
any more than a body can endure two heads.”
It was in this background that the Dutch Reformed Church
was introduced to Sri Lanka by the VOC with its first church ministrations
held in Galle on October 6, 1642. Its consistory in Colombo was
established in1658 marking the beginnings of the Protestant church
or what they called "True Christian Reformed Church' (Waare
Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk). Subsequently, church councils
were formed in Colombo, Galle and Jaffna stationing several Dutch
predicants to commence proselytizing activities.
The Dutch church in the Fort is now the finest example
of cruciform churches in Sri Lanka with a magnificent gable suitable
to a Protestant place of worship. What is remarkable is that there
is no central tower inside to bear the weight of the roof. It has
been compensated by adding two large typical Dutch gables to the
north and to the south. It is decorated with an unusual double scroll
moulding which is unique to this church. The masonry gables are
finished off with three flamed-like finials. The two large timber
doors and stained glass windows provide light and ventilation.
high roof in the middle of the building is resting on strong walls
of approximately five feet thickness built of kabook of unusually
large size with coral and lime plaster.
arrangement inside the church is remarkable. The wooden pulpit is
the finest of this type built in hexagonal shape with calamander
panelling mixed with genuine Sri Lankan Kandyan craftsmanship with
local satinwood. The normal pews and the pew used by the Commandeur
of Galle and the rest of the furniture add grandeur to the church.
women were accustomed to sit on chairs which they at all times had
carried behind them by the slaves, and when Church was over they
were taken home again.
one took care, not only to have a fine seat, but that it be provided
with a ‘stately cushion.' Accordingly, it would have been
possible that the chairs were, in turn, gifted to the church on
the demise of their owners.
the southern wall of the nave close to the entrance hangs the hatchment
of Abraham Samlant, the Commandeur of Galle. This is the only one
of its sort left inside a Dutch church in Sri Lanka, perhaps in
Dutch Church was the principal place of worship in Galle for the
Dutch during their rule and later to the British for some time.
The church has the capacity of accommodating approximately 250 devotees
at a time and has special pews provided for the high officials on
the right opposite corner of the pulpit.
or the churchyard, and in Sinhala what we call Kerakoppuwa was the
holy place where the burials took place. Distinguished persons got
priority to have their burials closer to the church. The cemetery
for the natives and ordinary folk was on a site outside the fort
where the present police station of Galle stands.
texts of the majority of tombstones are in Dutch written in a set
pattern framed with decorated designs together with the heraldry
of the deceased. The engraved hourglass, skull and crossbones are
common symbols on almost all tombstones depicting the uncertainty
Vos states that a 'number of grave stones belonging to the old groote
kerk were placed side by side and parallel to each other along the
ground. In 1853, when the consistory decided to remove the bodies
of the Dutch interred in the old cemetery to the present church
these tombstones were also removed and paved them on the floor where
they are still lie.'
Just opposite the church, at the extreme end of the VOC
warehouse, there is a belfry in the very same site as it was in
the beginning of the 18th century as indicated on maps and drawings.
It was commonly believed that this belfry belonged to the Dutch
Reformed Church situated right opposite the belfry. The inscription
under the belfry dates 1707. John Wolfgang Heydt, a German who served
under the VOC in the island stated in his work Newest Georgraphical
and Topographical theatre of Africa and East India (1744) that the
northernmost part of the warehouse was the Dutch church and this
belfry was in front of it.
would have drawn a sketch of the present church if it was there
at the time of his visit to Galle in 1737. Accordingly, the old
Dutch church existed on the same site where the Portuguese Franciscan
church was but out of use for a long period of time.
to activities of the subsequent generations its church features
have changed beyond recognition. The church entrance carries the
date 'Anno 1672' on its arched entrance and the old church gable
is still to be seen.
The church is also in possession of considerable archives
originating from the activities of the Church Council and correspondence
with other Dutch Reformed Churches in Sri Lanka. These documents
date back to the mid-seventeenth century.
most important set of records are the baptismal, marriage and death
registers which provide valuable information to people even today.
They could be consulted at the Dutch Reformed Church Head quarters
at Wellawatte, Colombo.