The Dutch Forts of Sri Lanka: enhancing heritage tourism | Sunday Observer

The Dutch Forts of Sri Lanka: enhancing heritage tourism

The Dutch Fort Frederick
The Dutch Fort Frederick

Our resplendent island strategically located on sea routes of commercial value was once envied by many nations.

Thus, ancient Ceylon was subject to Portuguese, Dutch and British rule for centuries. Of the three, the Dutch were very concerned about holding their new territory, especially, along the coast. Maritime defence was a top priority even then. This motivated them to build defensive fortifications from where they could counter an invading enemy force. Today, we can see the remains of such fortified bastions - Fort Hammenheil (built by the Portuguese and then extended by the Dutch in 1680, at present a navy hotel) in the North, Koddiyar Fort – the first Dutch Fort in Ceylon, built with the consent of King Senarat (1622) Muttur, Kattuwana Fort (1646), Kalpitiya Fort (1667) North Western Province, Mullaithivu Fort (1715), Star Fort (1763) Matara, Fort Ostenberg (within the Naval Base) - Trincomalee, Point Pedro Fort, Tangalle Fort, Fort Fredrick - Trincomalee (built by the Portuguese in1624 and extensively fortified by the Dutch in 1665) main Jaffna Fort (initially established by Portuguese in 1618 and then built by the Dutch in 1658), Dutch Fort Mannar (1658), Batticaloa Fort (built by Portuguese and captured by the Dutch in 1638 and rebuilt in 1665) and the magnificent Galle Fort (1649).

The Galle Fort was initially built by the Portuguese in 1541 along with a small Franciscan chapel, but it was the Dutch who made massive fortifications during their reign. Many of these Forts have literally withstood time, though some are in a state of neglect. Each Fort has a battle history laden with valour and conspiracy. Hundreds of Dutch soldiers fought to their death on these ramparts where cannons once fired a volley of ordnance hoping to defeat the invading British Admiralty. These glorious maritime defence positions stand silently today, a testament of endurance.


Sri Lanka over the past five decades has built a vibrant tourism industry. Our island’s tourism spectrum goes beyond the beaches and includes culture, religion, heritage, ayurveda, surfing and adventure based eco tourism. Many of the tours which range from 3 days to 2 weeks include a visit to at least one of the above Forts, the main attraction being the Galle Fort.

The government has identified the potential in fully restoring these ancient sentinels to attract not only Dutch tourists but all those who have an interest in maritime defence and architecture.

There are many locals, who also adore these Forts and the history therein. On the instructions of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe a preliminary study is in progress on all the Dutch Forts, headed by Ajitha de Costa (Chairman Heritage Buildings Committee).

He stated “We are keen to identify and restore the Forts, as there is much interest being renewed in them by many Dutch nationals. We are in the preliminary stages, and I have visited some of the Forts. Students overseas have already begun studies on these fortifications and can make field visits to Sri Lanka”.

De Costa also mentioned that the Dutch Embassy in Colombo has shown willingness to provide non- financial assistance to the project by experts in history and architecture. The Department of Archeology and Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority are also vital members in this committee.

I spoke to veteran hotelier M. Shanthikumar, who is President of the Colombo City Tourist Hotels Association, (CCTHA) and Vice President of Tourist Hotels Association of Sri Lanka, (THASL ) about the potential of this kind of heritage tourism.

The prudent hotelier said, “We welcome this timely move, as people are very interested in heritage. This will be a change from the beaches and other segments of travel.

This new segment will enhance our tourism product”. Managing Director of Jetwing Travels, Shiromal Cooray opined “Restoring the Forts is a good move, as people are very interested in viewing our history, and the upliftment of the Galle Fort will enhance the city of Galle”.


Director General, Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, Malraj Kiriella was positive on the new initiative, and said ‘We must restore the Forts while maintaining the authenticity of the original designs. Colonial heritage is sure to attract new visitors.

This builds connectivity between us. We must also use technology, including audio visual, at these restored sites to enrich the story telling which adds value to the overall product”

Over the past year I was able to travel and visit some of these magnificent bastions, which still dominate the shorelines. I was captivated by the Star Fort Matara which still retains its moat and drawbridge, Fort Fredrick Trincomalee which also has within its large landmass the legendary Koneshwaram Hindu kovil, the lesser known Fort Ostenberg Trincomalee (originally built by King Rajasinghe on Ostenberg Ridge and later fortified by the Dutch. This small Fort has a great view of the harbour approach), Galle Fort, Point Pedro Fort and the Jaffna Fort. Of these stockades I found that some Forts were becoming commercialized hubs.

New buildings have blossomed and somewhat stolen the rustic charm and colonial ambience one expects to experience here. There is too much noise. Some folks who know the value of these areas have maintained clean offices and homes. Sadly, some have begun to live off the visiting tourists in a manner that is not conducive with the existing heritage aura.


I observed some ancient buildings being renovated with modern designs that don’t supplement the original designs. In contrast, the small Ostenberg Fort located within the Eastern Naval Command base is surrounded by total solitude, and thus remains safe.

Fort Fredrick is garrisoned by the Army Gajaba Regiment and the men maintain the environs in a disciplined and clean manner.

The Jaffna Fort had many episodes during the years of conflict, yet, she stood strong and bold. Since 2009, members of the Army Engineer Services Regiment have helped with some restoration work and subsequently handed the Fort to the Department of Archaeology.

The Point Pedro Fort is small and not known by many. It is a long drive from Jaffna town, and the small Fort is concealed by thick shrubs.

When I visited this place it was surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Much of its pillars and arches were no more.

The Forts were not only military garrisons but also sustained communities within their large defensive walls.

I have observed the wisdom of the ancient builders who had even made provision to collect rain water for drinking.

The Forts had chapels and churches to impart religion. Jails to maintain law and order. Small hospitals that treated the sick. Administrative offices to empower civil law and support trading.

Fort Hammenheil was built on a small island between Kayts and resplendent Karainagar. It has nine large dungeons that were used to store ammunition.

Later, the Fort was handed to the Navy. Today, it is a beautiful hotel fully operated by the sailors and access is by boat ride. Fort Hammenheil is a classic example as to how such an ancient Fort can be fully restored and be a tourist attraction.

Thus, the move to restore these Dutch Forts is very conducive for tourism in the future.