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Sunday, 20 June 2010

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Relics of our colonial past :

To be destroyed or preserved?



Upper part of the inner gate showing the construction date

There is nothing to prevent what may be called odd bits from the past seeping into one's memory now and then. A threat made by an MP was one such odd bit that sailed into my mind recently. The threat made over electronic media apparently spawned out of a frenzied fit of nationalism was that this powerful people's representative would decimate the Galle Fort to zero point very soon for the simple fact that it stood there overlooking the beautiful seaside city of Galle like a giant ghost of imperialism. Fortunately the mental ethos of those at the top seem to have progressed (some of the MPs like mind would say regressed) since that threat was made. As an alternative to quarrelling with history now we have come to terms with it. The recent move to preserve the Jaffna Fort is the latest in the execution of this attitudinal change.

Just to give some basic facts about the Fort, birth - Portuguese period, exact year - 1619 adolescence and maturity - Dutch period. The Dutch used it to facilitate trading activities of the island's Northern region. Site of Fort - situated on the South side of the Jaffna peninsula at the water's edge of the lagoon.

It is described in aligned documents as the second largest existing Fort in the island and showcases not only Jaffna's importance to Europeans, but its significance throughout the island's history.

Perusing the expenses to be incurred for what is termed the "Conservation and restoration of the ancient Jaffna Fort, a parsimonious reader will begin to think that the State is overdoing it.

Here are the staggering figures - total budget Rs. 104.5 million, budget for 2010 - 33 million. But wait. All that is not our money. There is a donor, i.e., the Govt. of the Netherlands. Donor gives 62.1 million for the total funding and 19 million for the 2010 funding.

Concept of mutual heritage/dual heritage


After clean-up of vegetation in the rampart


Inside the Fort


Queen's House inside the Fort

Anyway for the critics the Cultural Ministry in an elaborate document presents this shield under the title, 'Concept of Mutual Heritage/Dual Parentage'. That however may not make very pleasant reading to those who beat the drum of hatred against the imperialists refusing to accept that stage of history as perhaps inevitably arising out of Western dominance in that era (all sins of arrogance and trespassing forgotten in the bloated sense of power).

Concept of Mutual Heritage/Dual Parentage

i) The heritage that resulted in the three hundred years after 1500s, when the major nationals in Europe overflowed their boundaries and went in both East and West directions of the globe are referred to as Mutual Heritage or Dual Parentage. It relates to two or more cultures or cultural traditions for which two or more countries and regions bear a responsibility for recognition, preservation and protection of this phenomenon.

ii) The built heritage, in particular, which results from historic cross-fertilisation between different human population (in this case, the Europeans and the Sri Lankans) on the one hand and the environment (in this case, the local conditions - available materials, prevailing technology etc.) provide cultural identity and diversity, not only for the two or more cultures or cultural traditions, but also in regional and inter-regional context. Although colonial in context, the design characteristics of the built heritage resulting from this phenomenon, therefore, offers various and definitive meanings, that anchors it in the landscape where it is built.

iii) In such a context, Jaffna's Fort and associated built heritage, therefore, beyond its role as a mere historical document, embody the values related to the culture of Sri Lanka's colonial past.

Although the basic designs for the fort were prepared by Dutch professionals overseas, final designs were modified based on the local conditions and also constructed by utilising local craftsmen using locally available material and prevailing technology.

Objectives of the project are given as:

i) The primary objective of this project is to preserve Jaffna's ancient fort and its associated built heritage by arresting all factors (human, physical, botanical, climatic etc.) that would affect the authenticity and integrity of this heritage property.

ii) The Jaffna Fort and associted built heritage, due to its significant heritage values, if preserved and presented in a professional manurer, also has a great potential to be the major tourist attraction of the region.

iii) Apart from offering the tourists to appreciate its heritage values related to military design, town planning, historic, architecture, its physical elements could be used through adaptive re-use to promote not only cultural tourism in the region, but also eco-tourism.

To put "First things last" some basic facts about the Jaffna Fort will be given especially as they are interesting in the context of all that recent grisly melodrama the Jaffan peninsula. Fort was built circa 1619 that corresponded with the years of entrenching Portuguese power in this peninsula. It was not built out of dire military necessity, but setting up garrisoned Forts was the norm in this empire as a basic component of its defence.

So in 1619, the Council of Goa had authorised Phillippe de Oliveyra to erect: a fort at the best site and port in Jaffna. (Quote Jaffna under the Portuguese by Tikiri Abeysinghe). Work began earnestly in 1625 to ward off attacks from Senarat's Kandyan Kingdom with their plans to turn Jaffna into a vassal State of Kandy to be ruled by the king's sons.

Other than these plans the Jaffna fort was not considered much of a necessity going by the opinions of contemporary administrators. Olviera, man mostly behind the Portuguese conquest of Jaffna considered the Jaffna man as generally passive. "Fraco" is the Portuguese word used. His successor Seixas found the Jaffna man "Quiet and mild without any military training and therefore unlikely to rebel unless instigated by outsiders". Tikiri Abeysinghe writes." The result of this assessment was that in Jaffna fortification was begun later, proceeded more slowly and when it was completed, Jaffna, for its population and area had fewer forts than in other areas".

The only other fort in the North was at Kayts which was later demolished. These observations by O.M.Da Silva in "Fidalgos in the Kingdom of Jaffnapatnam" too are worthy quoting.

"In Jaffna, the military complexion of the administration was gradually fading in that the peninsula was peaceful and docile except for the brief turbulence with the Kandyan invasions".

In the late 20th and early 21st century, the Jaffna peninsula was noted all over the world as the most equipped gunpowder storehouse, but just read this as regards the gunpowder situation of Jaffna in the early 17th century.

"Gunpowder making (in Jaffna factory) was discontinued as production costs were too high. So gunpowder was obtained from Colombo factory and spoilt stocks were sent there for remaking".

This fort was expanded during the Dutch period. Hence the Netherlands involvement!


Clarification

The byline for the article on 'In search of a new constittion' by M.A.Q.M. Ghazzali in the Sunday Observer on May 23 had been inadvertently stated as M.A.Q.M. Ghasszli and, his designation should have read as Advocate of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka and not former advocate.

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