Galle, situated in latitude 6 North, has one of the two natural harbours of south-western Ceylon, protected by a promontory known as the Rock or Galle Point. The harbour has been used since the dawn of history, and some have identified it with the Biblical Tarshish from which Solomon and Jehoshaphat obtained gold and silver, ivory and apes and peacocks. It is probably Ptolemy’s Odoka. Ibn Batuta (1304-1377), the famous Moroccan traveller, visited Galle in 1342, encountering fellow Muslims who knew that Qali was a port familiar to the ancients. In 1507 the Portuguese established a small trading post here, protecting it by a fort built on the high ground above the present harbour. The little Fort of Santa Cruz on the Ponta de Gab was on the site of the Zwart Bastion, now occupied by the harbour police. The Portuguese interpreted the name Galla (pronounced roughly Galo) as Gab, meaning a cock in Portuguese, and this became the emblem of the town: in fact the name probably means either the rock or the place of cattle. St Francis Xavier put in at Galle in 1545 during his voyage to the Far East. Rajah Sinha I recaptured the port from the Portuguese, but they recovered it in 1587 and thereafter held it for more than half a century.
In 1625, under increasing Dutch pressure, the Portuguese began to build new fortifications. The peninsula is shaped like a fruit, connected to the mainland by a stem only 300 m wide; and although the sea formed a natural defence it was vulnerable on the landward side. Between 1625 and 1640, therefore, the Portuguese built three bastions on this side, linked by a wall and ditch across the isthmus. To the west was the Santo Antonio, under the Star Bastion; in the centre the Conceiao, under the Moon Bastion; and to the east the Sao Jago, under the Sun Bastion, above the harbour. Exhausted by the cost of maintaining its huge maritime empire, Portugal failed to reinforce its possessions in Ceylon, and in 1640, after a siege lasting 78 days and fierce hand-to-hand fighting; Dutch force of 2000 men under Admiral Wilhelm Coster overcame the heroic little garrison of Galle.
The Dutch had captured the town on behalf of their ally the king of Kandy, but in 1656 the place was once again occupied by Dutch forces with the object of making it one of the main bases of the colonial empire of the United Provinces. They transformed it into a powerful fortress, which is still almost intact, since it was never exposed to even the mildest attack. The existing fortifications were restored and improved; a second wall was built across the isthmus and the bastions were raised to increase the range of their cannon. On the three sides surrounded by the sea the Dutch built only a series of salients and redans (rather pompously called bastions) which enabled their artillery to sweep the anchorage. On the west side, starting from the Star Bastion, are the Aeolus, Clippenberg, Neptune and Triton bastions; on the south side are the Flag Rock, on which there was formerly a light, and Utrecht Point, with the modern light-house; and on the east side are the Aurora, Akersloot (named after Admiral Coster’s birthplace in Holland) and Zwart bastions, this last occupying the site of an earlier fort. Between the Zwart Bastion and the Sun Bastion are the vaulted water gates giving access to the fort from the harbour, the Commandement Corner and the Fishmark salient (a corruption of Fishmarket). After the building of these imposing fortifications Galle enjoyed an uneventful existence until 1796, when it surrendered to the British without striking a blow.
The old town still contains many government and administrative offices. Since the harbour was always dangerous because of the narrow passages between coral reefs, the British began to look for another naval base immediately after conquering Ceylon, but they did not finally abandon Galle in favour of Colombo until 1873-1890. Since then the town has preserved its fortifications and its atmosphere almost intact. Within the last ten years the government has been engaged in extensive works designed to turn Galle into a modern fishing port, but the new development has taken place along the shores of the bay outside the old town, which has thus been say from destruction.
Tour of the Town
Visitors staying overnight in one of the hotels in the old town will find themselves carried back to a bygone age as they walk about the town in the evening or look out in the silence of the night. The old town is enclosed within an almost hexagonal circuit of walls running from north to south along the contours of the rocky headland. The old Dutch gateway in the harbour bears the coat of arms of the Dutch East India Company, with the interlaced initials VOC (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, Dutch East India Company) surmounted by the cock inherited from the Portuguese. The same coat is found on the old Government House in Queen Street, now occupied by a business firm. One bears the date 1669, the other 1687.
This was the title of the Dutch governors of Galle and Jaffna. Only the governor of Colombo had the style of Governor. There is a pleasant walk of almost 3 km round the ramparts. Visitors who have time at their disposal will enjoy wandering about the silent streets looking for the handsome mansions of wealthy Dutch settlers, with their fine freestone walls, substantial thresholds and wide doorways.
In Hospital Street, near the Akersloot salient, is the site of the Pilots’ House in which the harbour pilots lived when they retired, being forbidden to leave Galle lest they should reveal to rival seamen the seaway into the harbour. In the same street are government offices (the Kachcheri), in the former magazine and hospital of the fort.
Government House, near the Commandement Corner, was the residence of the Commander of Galle during the Dutch occupation and later, in Victorian times, of the British administrator: hence the name of Queen Street.
In the next street, Church Street is the Old Dutch Church, built in 1754 by the wife of Commander de Jong in thanksgiving for the birth of a son. The church contains old coats of arms on the walls and handsome tombstones, many of them with Latin inscriptions; the parish registers go back to the late 17th century.
Lighthouse Street no longer has a lighthouse: the present lighthouse is on the Utrecht Point salient. However the street name was kept unchanged.
To the north, in front of the Moon Bastion, is the Clock Tower, dates from 1707. The bell was rung every hour and on Sunday to announce the service of the Dutch Reformed Church. Between the Moon and Sun bastions is the main entrance to the present-day town, Main Street, laid out by the British authorities in the 19th century. The modern town extends over both sides of the isthmus between the harbour and the little coastal river. To the west is the Kaluwella (black town) district, originally the native town, as distinct from the white town, i.e. the Fort. On Calvary Hill is a Roman Catholic Church in Portuguese style.
To the east, beyond the harbour and before the Bazaar, is the Old Dutch burial ground, the Kerkhof. The streets in this part of the town are attractively planted with flowering trees (tulip-trees, hibiscus, etc.). All round the bay the upper part of the beach is covered with flowers purple bindweed, lilies of various kinds, in a pattern of bright colours only a short distance from the water’s edge.
In the Bazaar a variety of local specialties can be bought locally made lace (a tradition inherited from the Flemish lace makers of the past), trinkets and other articles in tortoiseshell and ivory (but beware of imitations in bone or plastics) and, as in many other towns in Sri Lanka, beautiful jewellery, and precious and semi-precious stones.
Excursions from Galle
1. To the north of Galle can be seen a hill known as the Haycock or Hiniduma Kanda (661 m), at the foot of which is the little town of Baddegama (20 km from Galle). Here there is an Anglican church, built in 1825, with services in Sinhalese and local music. From the top of the hill Adam’s Peak (2243 m) can sometimes be seen.
2. There are pleasant walks and excursions round the bay. Fishermen can sometimes be seen perched on stilt-like posts in the middle of the water in what looks a rather uncomfortable position, fishing with rod and line. At the far end of the bay, at Watering Point, are beautiful beaches. As the name indicates, this was formerly a watering point for ships, the water being supplied by springs near the beach, at the foot of a hillock, Rhumassala Kanda (45 m) which is said to be a fragment of the Himalayas brought here by Rama’s ally Hanuman, king of the monkeys. From Watering Point there are fine views of Galle and the bay.
3. Weligama or the sandy village (27 km from Galle). Just before the village is a statue 4 m high hewn from a sheer rock face. The statue, some 2000 years old, is known as Kusta Rajah, the Leper King, but the legends attached to the figure do little to explain the significance of the name. It is sometimes said to represent Prince Agrabohi or Agbo, nephew of King Mahatissa, who is supposed to have introduced the coconut into Sri Lanka. It is more probable that the statue represents a mythological figure of Mahayana Buddhism, Avalokiteswara, the vigilant Master and Maitreya or future Buddha. Nearby is a Buddhist monastery.
Weligama Bay, 3.5 km long by over 2 km wide, was a fine natural harbour used in ancient times, with a sheltered anchorage of some 8 sq. km. The bay rivals Gable Bay in beauty. At both ends are beautiful red cliffs of lateritic rock. In the bay, some 400 m from the rest-house, is the island of Taprobane, laid out as a tropical garden. All rounds are immense beaches.
A local delicacy which can be sampled here is a sweet made of curdled milk and palm sugar.
4. Matara (from Mahatara, the Great Harbour ), 45 km from Galle, on the west side of the Nilwala Ganga estuary; the river is the haunt of crocodiles. The railway line ends here.
The Matara area was sporadically occupied by the Portuguese at various times between 1510 and 1640. The Dutch built two forts here. In the 18th century Kirti Sri (1747-1780), the last great Sinhalese king, tried to shake off the foreign yoke for the Dutch, who controlled the coast, could cut the supply of salt to the interior. The king launched an expedition to the south, and was successful in taking the Matara forts, where he maintained a garrison from 1760 to 1766. This was the Salt War, which cost the Dutch East India Company dear: according to figures published by Galletti in 1909, the total revenue from Ceylon during the years 1760-1768 was 9,507,000 guilders, while expenditure over the same period totalled 23,107,000 guilders (the guilder then being worth 11 to the pound sterling). After the sacking of Kandy in 1765, however, Kirti Sri had to withdraw his troops and make peace with the Dutch.
The Star Fort (private property, not open to visitors) has a monumental gateway with a coat of arms and the date 1770. In the other fort, near the Clock Tower, is a rest-house occupying a building which appears to have been an elephant stable. On an islet linked with the mainland by a causeway there was until a few years ago a monastery known as the Chula Lanka. At the far end of Matara Bay, 10 km from the town is Dondra Head, cape in the most southerly point of Sri Lanka (latitude of 5 to 56 North) with a large lighthouse built in 1889.