The History of the Galle Fort

The earliest evidence of Galle’s existence can be traced through history as far back as early 125-150 AD on Ptolemy’s world map, back when it was a thriving port trading with Greece, China, Arab countries and other nations. In 1344, it was in Galle that the great Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta stopped at along his voyages.

But the Galle Fort we know today would only be developed during the 16th century under the rule of the Portuguese. The first Galle fortifications were constructed after the Portuguese landed in Galle in 1505, led by Lorenzo de Almeida. Later, the fortifications would be expanded a watch tower along with three bastions. In later years, the Portuguese used the Fort as a prison camp to hold rebel Sinhalese natives seeking to overthrow the island’s first colonisers.

The Dutch would take over from the Portuguese, celebrating their conquest of Galle on 20th April 1640. On 8th March 1640, according to the historical record, Dutch Admiral Wilhelm Jacobs Coster led 2000 soldiers from Unawatuna, a coastal village south of Galle, and walked to Magalle. The Galle Fort was manned by perhaps 110 Portuguese soldiers, led by Captain Lorenzo Perera de Britto. They were ill-equipped to stave off the new invaders, considering that their armoury consisted of various types of guns, a loose collection of cannons and even bows-and-arrows.

During the rule of the Dutch, the Galle Fort was further developed. In 1729, a sea wall was erected to protect the city from the ocean side, whilst trade establishments, public administrations, warehouses and close to 500 families were housed within the walls. Other prominent buildings included the Commandant’s residence, the gun house and the arsenal; and in 1775, a Baroque-styled Protestant church was designed by Abraham Anthonisz. Today, it is the oldest such church in Sri Lanka. Elaborate sewer systems were also installed that flushed the sewage into the sea when the waters came in at high tide.

On February 16th 1796, the Dutch handed Galle over to the British as per the terms dictated in a treaty. Seven days later, on the 23rd of February, Lachlan Macquarie led His Majesty’s 77th Regiment on foot to the Galle Fort and took over command without firing a single shot. From 1815 until the island’s independence in 1948, the country (then called Ceylon) would remain a colony of the British Empire. During this time, the Galle Fort was a flourishing hub of activity. Although the fortifications would undergo some minor restorations during World War Two, the Fort itself underwent very little changes, apart from perhaps an entrance constructed by the esplanade side. However, many restaurants and hotels sprang up within the Fort, mainly catered to the tastes of British expatriates.

Today, the Galle Fort is a cultural hotspot in the south of Sri Lanka, retaining the tri-cultural architectural influences of its European conquerors, though housing a boundless variety of modern cafes, restaurants, and other outlets. In 2005, the section of the fort originally converted into the New Oriental Hotel by the British in 1865 became the Amangalla Hotel. In 1988, the Galle Fort was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its cultural heritage and its unique “urban ensemble which illustrates the interaction of European architecture and South Asian traditions from the 16th to the 19th centuries”. Little wonder that even today, stepping inside the Galle Fort feels like walking back in time to a different era.