When the Portuguese fleet under the command of Lourenco de Almeida, was blown off course en route to Maldives, the Portuguese accidentally landed in Galle. Eventually, after taking control of the city, the Portuguese proceeded on to constructing the fort. The fort built by the Portuguese was a very basic structure and a sea wall was not constructed because it was thought to be impenetrable.
When the Sinhalese with the assistance of the Dutch attacked the Portuguese, the fort eventually fell into the hands of the Dutch. The Dutch then made major improvements and conserved this fort by constructing a sea wall and other strong fortifications for security and defence against other colonial agencies. They also built about 14 bastions across an area of 130 acres. The city was built inside the fort and roads were built parallel to the fort ramparts in order to gain tactical advantage.
The British then captured the fort in 1796, after capturing Colombo. During the Second World War they reinforced the fort with the intention of securing the fort. In order to memorialise the jubilee of Queen Victoria a tower was constructed in 1883. However, since then the importance of the Galle Fort decreased drastically as Colombo was declared as the capital by the British.
There are two major gates (portcullises) to the fort; one from the port and the main gate from the northern side of the fort. When strolling around the fort in a clockwise direction, one would come across the Old Gate with its Dutch and British engravings. Advancing in the same direction you will come across the Zwart or Black Bastion (the oldest bastion), built by the Portuguese. The eastern wing comes to an end with the Point Utrecht Bastion, the powder house and more importantly the 59 feet high Galle Lighthouse which was constructed in 1938. Afterwards the flag Rock bastion which was used as a signalling station to guide ships as they advanced, comes into view. Signalling was done by firing musket shots from the Pigeon Island. The Trion Bastion (the perfect place to watch the sunset) then comes into view where the remnants of a windmill that once drew water from the sea to dampen the parched and grimy roads can be seen, along with many more bastions along the way.
The fort comprises of historic and religious sites and commercial and government buildings (a Protestant church, public administration buildings, residential quarters, warehouses, business structures, the commander’s residence and a gun house and arsenal. It also included workshops for carpentry, rope making and smithy).
Even though certain establishments were damaged as a result of the Tsunami in 2004, they were renovated by the relevant authorities in accordance with the colonial architectural styles.
Several important places of interest inside the fort are:
Groote Kerk (the Dutch Reformed Church) – situated near the entrance of the fort, this Church was built by the Dutch in 1755. This church is one of the oldest Protestant churches in the country. As claimed by locals, the church is said to have been using the money donated by Casparus de Jong (a Dutch Governor) on the birth of his daughter. The church, with its elegant and exquisite stained glass work, honeycomb patterned floors, tombstones, cane pews and vintage church organ is one of the most visited out of all the other sites within the Galle Fort. Burial chambers with the remains of noted personalities during the Dutch period are said to exist here. In terms of architecture, this church shows resemblance to the Wolvendaal church in Colombo; both constructed in accordance to the Doric style. Groote Kerk too, as most of the churches constructed at that time, was constructed in the shape of a cross.
New Orient Hotel (Amangalla) – before being transformed into a hotel this was used by the Dutch governor and his staff, and during the British rule it was used to provide accommodation for soldiers. From the year 1865 onwards it was known as the New Orient Hotel and in 2005, it was taken over by the international luxury hotel chain; Aman Resorts. The high ceilings, chandeliers, polished tiles, antique wooden furniture and decors bring out the colonial style. There are seven bedrooms on the first floor adjoining the reception and provides views of either the garden or the Dutch Reformed Church. Six chambers facing the Fort Ramparts are found on the Church Street Wing. There are eight suites and they look onto the Fort Ramparts, Harbour or the blossoming garden. Finally the Garden house; the two-storey house offers views of the treetops of the garden.
Located in the heart of the Galle Fort, this luxurious hotel with its excellent cuisine, remarkable service, leading spa facilities and colonial allure blended with modern influences attracts many visitors throughout the year. It is well known for its high tea which is a highlight among many tourists.
The National Maritime Museum – located, above the Old gate of the Galle Fort, in a 1671 Dutch warehouse. On 9th May 1992, this museum was first opened to the public and was used to display the flora and fauna of the ocean. As a result of the Boxing Day Tsunami, the neighbouring UNESCO Maritime Archaeology Unit was wrecked. However, the Museum did not suffer from any damage. It was reconstructed under the Sri Lanka – Netherlands Cultural Co-operation Program. Marine artifacts, maps, ropes, naval craft, earthenware, beer mugs, artillery guns and sailor shoes, retrieved from ship wrecks and underwater expeditions are exhibited in this museum.
The Old Dutch Hospital – this was initially constructed by the Dutch as a hospital to treat the soldiers of the Dutch East India Company. The British, who then took over the rule of the country, extended this facility further and later on it was converted into a garrison. Afterwards, the building was used as an office for local administration purposes before it became the Galle Town Hall (after 1948). This building, with its Colonial Dutch architecture is now being used as a shopping and dining arcade. It has been beautifully restored by preserving the Dutch Colonial Architectural styles.
The Sugar Bistro, The Tuna and the Crab, Colombo Jewellery Stores alongside some other jewellery and gift shops are found on the first floor of this precinct. On the second floor, is a very spacious coffee shop named Starbeans. There are also restaurants such as the Hammock, A minute by Tuk Tuk, the Canon Bar and Grill.
The Meera Mosque – this mosque was built by the Dutch and displays the Dutch architectural influences. The stained glass walls and the colourful wall tiles, chandeliers and wooden works add beauty to the stunning exterior. This mosque is a significant place for the Muslim population in Galle. As claimed by locals this mosque dates back to around 300 years and was renovated some 120 years ago. A separate prayer hall has been built within the mosque, for women to pray, while the men have a separate area.
Shri Sudarmalaya Buddhist Temple – built at a site of a Portuguese Roman Catholic Church, it consists of a prayer hall and a large reclining Buddha along with vibrant murals inside. This small temple on the western area of the Galle fort also contains a small stupa which is believed to have been built in 1889.
All Saints Anglican Church – this church reflects a Victorian Gothic Revival style of architecture with beautiful Burmese teak work on the interior. The pews with the carvings of the Jewish Star of David (a symbol of modern Jewish identity) and the sanctuary have all been made with Burmese teak. Before the construction of this church, a court house is said to have existed on these premises. The first Bishop of Colombo, Rt. Rev. James Chapman, pioneered the decision in constructing this Anglican Church. Construction activities began in the year 1868, and by the year 1871, this church was consecrated. This church too has been built in the form of a cruciform.
The Clock Tower – constructed in 1883, it is also referred to as the Anthonisz Memorial Clock Tower. Situated within the fort ramparts it overlooks the Moon Bastion and provides an extravagant view of the sunset. The residents of Galle paid themselves for the construction of the clock tower in order to honour the memory of Doctor Peter Daniel Anthonisz. Doctor Peter Daniel Anthonisz was a reputed doctor (the first Sri Lankan to obtain and M.R.C.P and F.R.C.S) who was the inaugural president of the Ceylon Branch of the British Medical Association and a representative of the legislative council. This towering clock tower is nearly four stories tall.
The Galle Lighthouse (Pointe de Galle Light) – built in 1848 by the British, this lighthouse is the first ever in the history of Sri Lanka. The British constructed this tower with the intention of controlling and guiding their ships to the safety of the harbor. The first lighthouse was approximately 80 feet high while the existing lighthouse towers at a height of 87 feet. The original lighthouse was destroyed by a fire in the year 1934, and a new lighthouse was reconstructed in 1939. Without a shadow of doubt this is the most visited lighthouse within the country. The Sri Lanka Ports Authority is now in charge of the operation of the Galle Lighthouse. Visitors are denied the privilege of climbing the lighthouse, instead they can view the lighthouse from outside.
The Historical Mansion Museum– a privately owned museum by Abdul Gaffar, walled within a Dutch styled house and is considered to be the largest privately owned museum in the country. However, it is not just a museum. Rather, it is a shop that sells almost all the historic items on display. There are many historical artifacts in this museum varying from antique typewriters, handicrafts, jewellery to VOC China. At the museum, you may get the opportunity to experience live presentations of sapphire cutting and polishing and ‘beeralu lace’ embroidery (a legacy bestowed upon us by the Portuguese). No admission or entrance fee is charged at this museum; anybody can walk in free and admire the items on display and the live presentations.
The National Museum of Galle– housed in one of the oldest Dutch buildings (constructed in 1656 as a commissariat for the Dutch forces), this museum displays a range of exhibits from the Portuguese, Dutch and British eras. This museum is situated in the building neighbouring the Amangalla hotel. On the 31st of March 1986, the Department of National Museums, renovated this building and opened it to the public. The collection of items on display at this museum successfully displays the origins, culture, beliefs and customs of the Sri Lankans. Artefacts ranging from weapons, furniture, porcelain to ornamental items made up of turtle shell (fans, hair combs, and jewellery). There is also a gallery named the ‘Sri Lanka China Friendship Gallery’ which presents evidence of trade relations between the two countries in the past.
A walk around the Galle Fort will undoubtedly make you forget that you are in Sri Lanka as it resembles closely to European architecture with beautifully paved lanes.