Colombo’s Fortified historic reflections | Sunday Observer

Colombo’s Fortified historic reflections

Ceylon was once dotted with vibrant trading posts, harbours and forts along its coastline. As many of us are aware the area demarcated as Colombo 1 was once a magnificent Fort. That name is still used. Much of the fortified elements of Portuguese and Dutch history within Colombo remain a faded memory and sadly relegated as facts in history books. Unknown to many there are some historical gems within the vast compound of Navy Headquarters. In fact much of these premises were once part of the fortified Dutch super structure that controlled trade and shipping. The Colombo Fort was built in an irregular octagon shape by the Dutch engineer Cohorn.

To discover these somewhat hidden maritime monuments I visited the naval headquarters accompanied by two officers. The entrance via Chaithiya Road leads to the Yard Gate. Members of the Naval Provost wing were on duty. Walking down a paved terrace we came across the first structure.

Flagstaff Tower

Standing at a height of three floors was a magnificent tower, with an arched door. This was once known as Flagstaff Tower. The tall structure had the primary duty of directing merchant vessels by displaying a flag during the day and a beacon by night. It was the trusted landmark of ancient mariners. Lt. Rajapakse explained, “You will realize that centuries ago there were no tall buildings. The city area was totally different. This flagstaff was visible to ships entering Colombo Port, which was very different then.

It is recorded that the Port was commercially engaged from the 1300s. By 1510 the Portuguese set up a fortified stockade in Colombo, built at the request of King Emmanuel of Portugal. Years later the Dutch are believed to have built a new and larger Fort by 1659. This tower and her ancient crews did an important service to mariners”.

For more than 300 years this amazing tower has withstood the wind and rain and is an endorsement to Dutch architecture. It is probably the tallest Dutch monument in Colombo. Even the wood and iron railings are still intactdue to consistent naval maintenance. From this vantage point one would have witnessed a 360 degree view of Colombo in that era.

Subsequently, the British named this road Flagstaff Street, which remains the formal mailing address of the Navy Headquarters. The flagstaff rendered its invaluable service to ships until 1946.

A few feet away from the Tower is another solid arched monument, with an altar like grotto. Some say it was a gateway. The digits 16 are inscribed on the top in black ink, with the last two digits 76 faded with time (1676). Thick vines from a tree have covered the left side of this area. Naval sources believe this was once part of an area used for ceremonial military rituals.

Perhaps, this was where troops were mustered or symbolic flags placed after a parade. It could even have been a saluting area to receive the Dutch Governor when he visited the Colombo Fort. The large bricks used in the construction show us why these structures have remained resilient after so many decades.

Defensive bastions

We walked past the main archway of the Navy Headquarters, climbed down some steps, and I was surprised to see a part of the large network of defensive bastions from the Dutch era. A bastion is a fortified structure with guns (cannons) positioned for defensive firing. The Colombo Fort had 8 bastions named after places in Holland - Zeeburg, Amsterdam, Dan Briel, Middleburg, Rotterdam, Hoorn, Delft and Leyden. The latter is still part of a street name in Colombo. Dan Briel is the last remaining bastion in the entire city of Colombo.

Today, the office of the Navy Commander is located on this once strategic guard point. The thick wall made of large granite rocks rises to about eight feet from an elevated plot of land. One can see four cannons still intact in their original positions. The guns point at different angles, and there would have been more gun turrets centuries ago. The Dutch had dug up large pits behind the fortified walls for their gun crews to store ammunition (in this case cannon balls) and food rations. The Chief of the Watch (this term is still used by the Navy) was in charge of each bastion and it is believed they communicated with the other bastions using flags during the day and lamps at night. Large cannons once used are now mounted along the Galle Face Green pavement.

The Fort had 3 gateways - Delft Gate leading to the Pettah (present day Bristol Street), Galle Gate to the South wall and Water Gate exiting towards the harbour. There was a Sally Port which once lead to the causeway that had connected Slave Island to the main Fort. There is a story of an enraged slave who had murdered a Dutch woman and her child. This action caused the Dutch administrators to round up all the slaves at dusk and take them by ferry to Slave Island where they were kept for the night. To this day there is a road named Ferry Lane, in Colombo 2 where the boats were once moored. Another section of the ramparts can be found within Queen’s House (present day President’s House).

Another part of that bygone era is the point known as Galle Buck, adjacent to the harbour entrance in front of the present Lighthouse Galley. It was called Galle Boca by the Portuguese. This promontory was a spot where boys gathered to play and fly their kites in days gone by.

From the top of the bastion we were able to see the Colombo Lighthouse (built in 1950). It was interesting to see the seven guns from the decommissioned ship SLNS Vijaya being positioned on the first deck of the Lighthouse. These guns are used in the ceremonial gun salute on Independence Day every year. The older Colombo lighthouse stands in front of the Main Gate to the Navy Headquarters, adjacent to the Central Bank. This was the only lighthouse in the world that had a dual role of clock tower and lighthouse. It stands right in the vortex of moving traffic. The Dutch monuments have continued to survive reminding us of a once vibrant Fort that dominated Colombo.