The Dutch Fort amidst 14 islands | Sunday Observer

The Dutch Fort amidst 14 islands

One of the 14 islands
One of the 14 islands

With her tranquil lagoon opening out to the sea, Kalpitiya is one of the most beautiful destinations in the country. A cluster of 23 islands, 14 of which are major islands, enhances the appeal of this resplendent location.

A few metres from the main town is a historic gem - the Dutch Fort. As we entered the main gate of SLNS Vijaya the naval Quarter Master greeted us and directed us to the Fort. The first view from the right side of the base is the majestic rock wall that has stood here for three centuries. The cool breeze of the lagoon was quite refreshing. Seaman Mahesh accompanied us to this historic fortified structure. The Fort is not imposing like Fort Fredrick in Trincomalee or the massive Dutch Fort in Galle, yet, we would soon discover that it was built to display a greater defensive maritime strategy.

A deceptive church

The arched entrance has two large wooden doors, which is the only point of entry. Above the arch is the emblem of the Dutch East India Company - the alphabets VoC. The Fort’s crest displays two elephants that signify strength and a palm tree in the centre as a reflection of prosperity. The year 1676 is engraved on the wall. Seaman Mahesh says: “Before this Fort was built here there was a small chapel built by the Portuguese.

The priests from the Jesuit order were here. Later on, the Dutch moved into this area. They set their sights on the lucrative cinnamon trade. By 1666, they managed to chase away the Jesuit priests and began to build this fort. The Dutch initially informed the king that their intention was to build a church, and he granted permission.

However, they were quite cunning and began building a fortified structure using granite rocks and coral stones. In fact they did not build a church on this site. Once the Fort was completed in 1676, they added three cement crosses on the topmost walls (one on the entry gate) to deceive the king and potential sea borne enemies.”

This was indeed a wise tactic from a military perspective. After building other majestic forts along the coastal areas I wondered why the Dutch would want to conceal the presence of this fort. But as we explored this mysterious building it was intriguing to find a fake church inside.

The prudent Dutch engineers had deployed their second brilliant strategy to fool the enemy. To understand this we must realize the mode of seaborne assault in that era. An invading ship would fire her canons at the Fort - focusing on the spot where they believed the troops would be gathered, before sending in ‘landing parties’ to physically raid the Fort. In order to misdirect such fire the Dutch engineers had put up four large granite columns, and erected triangular shaped walls on top of them, that gave the illusion of a church from a distance. This false structure is about 75 metres long. When the enemy fired there was nothing of significance here and the cannon balls would land and explode onto a large open field. The field is in the centre of the Fort.

Thirty cannons

We climbed an angled ramp that took us to the ramparts. The walls were about eight feet wide and inter spaced with gun turrets. The top of the walls are sloped to reflect a 20 degree angle - a defensive tactic where under siege, sailors would pour hot oil that would burn anyone trying to mount the walls. Back in the day there were five bastions on this Fort.

Four at the edge of each side and the fifth was placed outside the Fort - forming the outer perimeter defence. There were 16 cannons on the wall directed towards the lagoon and 14 cannons aiming at the landside. Unfortunately, not a single canon is found today. Naval sources assume that each gun had a two man crew. Thus there were 60 men who manned these 30 guns, making this a formidable Fort. In addition, there would have been another 20 men working as cooks, clerks, housekeepers and storekeepers. We descended some steps and encountered a tunnel.

The Kalpitiya Fort has two tunnels. The first is on the left flank of the Fort. As we entered it was almost pitch black and some large bats made their exit. Using our mobile phone flashlights we were able to see the tunnel which runs to a length of about 10 feet, before being sealed. There is speculation as to where it leads. The second tunnel is even more mysterious and is adjacent to the fake church structure. It definitely went past the shore connecting the Fort to a nearby island.

It was a tunnel for a tactical retreat in case of an intense assault. The other buildings in the Fort include a dining hall, armoury, two prison cells and a storeroom. Drinking water was obtained from two wells. Years after erecting the Fort the Dutch did build a real church about 400 metres away from the Fort. The church belongs to the Dutch Reformed denomination.

Exploring the islands

The Commanding Officer of SLNS Vijaya, Captain R.J.K. Bandara joined us for lunch. He explained, “Initially a naval detachment was set up here in 1973 to guard the lagoon and in 1982 this base was commissioned as SLNS Vijaya. In the Dutch era this was a vital trading point. There were boats that took cinnamon from here to Puttalam and then ferried via Hamilton Canal to the Colombo Port.

For many years the Navy has maintained this Fort, protecting its historic value. On weekdays we have busloads of schoolchildren who come on study tour. Tourists also visit this Fort. We don’t charge any entry fee. We take pride in teaching the visitors about our maritime history.”

We walked to the pier where inshore patrol crafts were moored, and I boarded a boat with Petty Officer Priyalal and set off to discover some of the islands. These lush islands are home to a variety of bird species. We went to the island where it is believed the tunnel from the Fort emerged. The place was partly covered by mangroves. Today, there is no trace of the tunnel’s exit point. On our return to the base I realized that the formation of islands around the Fort could easily mislead a first time visitor, thus concealing the real presence of this formidable Dutch Fort.