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Updated by Joanna James on Jun 23, 2019
Headline for History of the Galle Fort – The first Portuguese fortification in Sri Lanka
Joanna James Joanna James
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History of the Galle Fort – The first Portuguese fortification in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has been a target of many foreign invasions in the past starting from the Portuguese who built their first fortification in the Bay of Galle, southern Sri Lanka.


The early history of Galle

The port of Galle had been the country's main controlling centre for handling international relations and foreign trade since ancient times. Historians believe that it has been the trading hub for gems and spices from the time as early as that of King Solomon. But the real and documented history of Galle starts with the arrival of Portuguese on the island in 1505. A Portuguese fleet sailing to Maldives had lost its course and reached the Galle port by accident. Legend says they named the city as Galle upon hearing the crowing of a cock, which is called 'galo' in Portuguese.


Portuguese invasion and the Galle Fort

After having discovered the country's ample natural resources and the importance of its geographical location for international trade the Portuguese made relations with Sinhalese kings and later during their conflicts with the Kandyan kingdom built a small fort on a natural cliff in the southern coast of Galle, which they named 'Santa Cruz'. They were the first Europeans to invade the country. The fort was later extended by the Portuguese with a series of walls and bastions including a watchtower. The ruins of an ancient Franciscan chapel that they built earlier can still be seen within the fort premises.


Downfall of Portuguese

Later in 1640, the Portuguese were defeated and the fort was demolished by a Dutch army led by Admiral Jacobs Koster, who received support from the Sinhalese king to rebuild the fort according to Dutch standards. After the initial build-up of the 36-hectare Dutch fort in the 17th century, they continued to fortify and strengthen the fort and maintained it as their main base within the country. During the era of Dutch ruling, they built a Protestant church, Commander's residence, a gun house, and various other structures within the walls of the fort. This remained the main port of Sri Lanka for over 200 years until the British took over the island from the Dutch.


Changes to the structure of the Galle Fort

The Dutch considered the Galle Fort mainly as a trading hub, so they had little intention of fortifying it. It was built with mud and palm trees and the structure was very basic only with three bastions and a single rampart. The sea end was left open without a seawall. However, the Dutch were more focused on the defensive strength of the fort and improved it with 14 bastions, towering walls, and roads parallel to the ramparts to allow easy access to soldiers during a battle. Once the British took over the fort in 1796 their focus fell on Colombo as the commercial capital and hence the Galle fort was neglected.


Galle Fort today

With a history of over 400 years, the Galle Fort stands an important architectural monument featuring the colonial era of Sri Lanka under the European nations. This has gained its place as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Fort attracts many tourists giving rise to many new hotels in Galle, Sri Lanka. Most of the tourists prefer to stay at accommodation options such as Mosvold Hotels that stand among the favourite boutique hotels in Sri Lanka.

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