Hammenhiel The fort in the northern sea | Sunday Observer

Hammenhiel The fort in the northern sea

Fort Hammenhiel
Fort Hammenhiel

Being an island nation Ceylon had many fortified bastions along her coastal borders that enriched her maritime defences and secured trade routes. The better known forts are found in Galle, Matara and Trincomalee. Smaller forts and stockades were built in Negombo, Kelaniya, Colombo, Kalutara, Malwana, Hanwella, Seethawaka and Ruwanwella. Today, there are no traces of some of these once dominant buildings. But in the quiet hamlet of Karainagar in the Northern Province stands a unique, fortified, small fort known as Fort Hammenhiel. It is the only fort surrounded by the ocean on all sides.

We journeyed from Colombo in search of this beautiful fort. Having reached Jaffna as the sun was receding in the horizon, we stayed at Mandaithivu. The causeway that leads to Mandaithivu is dotted with green nets on either side as local fishermen have mastered the art of rearing prawns. Early next morning we began our journey to Karainagar. This island is connected by a long causeway to the mainland. The view from either side of the causeway is refreshing, as small fishing boats meandered on the waterway. Upon reaching the main junction of Karainagar the road divides into two. A naval sentry waves as we pass by. The dusty road was lined with fences made with palmyrah fronds. A few minutes later we reached a section of the road where a Hindu kovil rose colourfully amidst a somewhat barren landscape dotted with palmyrah trees. To reach the small pier one has to enter through the main gate where two naval sentries stand guard. The navy has set up a beautiful restaurant nestling on a lush green lawn.

We walked towards the pier, where a naval coxswain is ready at the boat and another sailor handed me a lifejacket. I noticed two large cannons stationed on the right side of the pier. These old guns reminded me of the cannons positioned on Fort Ostenberg, Trincomalee. The rampart of the fort could be seen from the pier. The coxswain navigated the boat towards Fort Hammenhiel. As we neared the fort her defensive turrets zoomed into view. On either side of its entrance two cannons are mounted.The boat was moored to a small bollard.

The name of the Fort is inscribed on a white arch. We entered via the seven-foot gate which is the only entrance to the fort. A Lieutenant and Petty Officer greeted us.

Maritime History

The Portuguese had realized the strategic location of Karainagar. They set up this fort using coral rocks and named it Fortaleza do Caes. It was built to supplement the coastal defence of the Mannar Fort (which is in ruins today). Both these smaller forts guarded the waterway to the massive Jaffna Fort.

By March 1658, the Portuguese were in for a surprise when the defiant Dutch forces laid siege to their fort. The Dutch executed a brilliant and decisive battle tactic - they first fired their cannons on the wooden water storage tank within the fort. History records that the tank was broken to pieces. Taking advantage, the Dutch troops led by Captains Cornelies Reb, Piester Waset and Van de Reede attacked the fort with relentless rifle fire. Consequently, the thirst ridden Portuguese troops surrendered their fort on April 28, 1658. It is not certain what happened to them thereafter.

The jubilant Dutch began enhancing the defensive fortifications and increased the gun turrets. As we climbed the flight of twelve steps to the second tier of the fort I counted 18 gun turrets that covered the 360 degree view where one basically had a ‘firewall’ to defend against incoming attack. The Dutch named the fort as Hammenhiel as the shape of the map (in that era) reminded them of a leg of smoked ham. The Dutch navy considered Hammenheil as the key to Jaffna. With time they realized the fort’s structure was not strong enough to bear the weight of their 18 guns and set about infusing the structure with solid granite stones. An ammunition storage dungeon was built.

In addition, there were five lookout points where cement ‘pill boxes’ were erected and men kept guard to a watch system. At the topmost point of nearly 30 feet from shore level an ancient telescopic device was mounted. Today, the glass has not been calibrated and the view is not clear. The sight to the naked eye is amazing. To the right of Hammenhiel you see the island of Eluvaithivu. Kayts is visible along with a clear view of Karainagar. From this vantage point the fort resembles the lower part of a ship’s anchor. The Dutch used another pragmatic method of collecting rain water in a cement pond.

The island prison

The naval Lieutenant pointed out “The Dutch had a garrison of 30 soldiers under the command of one Lieutenant. One can see the nine cells that were once used to hold prisoners. Today they are empty and remind us of those ancient times. Of the nine cells one cell is large and has room for seven beds. The beds are made of solid cement (one square block) and measure 68 inches in length, 30 inches by breadth and 18 inches in height. A wooden box had been given to each prisoner where they kept their plate, water jug, toothbrush and soap. The door to each cell is only five feet high. Cell number 3 is where a young revolutionary was once held. He had managed to leave behind a short poem in Sinhalese, but the words were not clear and were lost in time. Four rooms once used by British officers have been restored and are available for rent to both foreign and local tourists on prior reservation.

During the British occupation of Hammenhiel they used the fort as an NDB- Naval Detention Barracks and later as an infectious disease holding clinic. In September 2015 the Navy made great efforts to fully restore this fort to her former glory.”

I went to the courtyard with Petty Officer Samantha Priyalal, a naval gun master. He showed me a wooden rack where six old rifles fixed with bayonet were on display. He took out a rifle and explained its firing mechanism. The bayonets were still razor sharp. On special occasions sailors attired in replicate blue Dutch uniforms present arms to welcome visitors. It was a beautiful changing of the guard.

The navy must be commended for restoring and maintaining this ancient maritime edifice. Fort Hammenhiel stands as a solitary sentinel in the serene Northern seas. 

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