Galle [Gale], South Province, Sri Lanka

Military Architecture

Galle, a port city at the southern end of Sri Lanka, has an old fortified centre whose structures date at least partly to the Portuguese period. It had been frequented since the early 16th century by the Portuguese, who built their first fort there in 1597 to support the establishment of Portuguese rule in southwest Ceylon after the defeat of the Sitawaka kingdom. Nothing remains of this first structure, which would have been built of packed earth and wood at an elevated spot on the Galle Peninsula. It was built mainly to confront local forces but was unable to effectively control the roadstead in Galle Bay on the east side of the peninsula. For this reason it soon became obsolete. In the first two decades of the 17th century the home kingdom repeatedly issued orders to build more robust fortifications. In 1619 the captain-general of Ceylon, Constantino de Sá de Noronha, demolished the original structures to have others built from scratch. These encompassed the entire peninsula, which even today contains the city’s colonial historic centre. The new Portuguese structures comprised a bulwark at the south end of the peninsula controlling the entrance to the bay; a fort built directly over the port on the east side of the peninsula, on a small tongue of land facing northeast; and a wall from shore to shore separating the entire peninsula from the mainland on the north side. The rest of Galle’s circumference was protected by the rocky coast and in the lower parts accessible from the sea by structures built of packed earth and wood. The first phase of construction work lasted until 1623, commanded by Captain Fernão Pinhão, during the mandate of Captain-General Jorge de Albuquerque. The project was left unfinished; work resumed in 1627, specifically on the land barrier, which was then strengthened with three bastions: two by the water on either side and one in the middle which may correspond to the position of the three existent Dutch bastions, although the Portuguese structure seems more twisted in a 1638 drawing. The plan to dig a moat in front of the wall was abandoned due to a lack of funds. Documentation from the 1630s reveals constant problems with all of Galle’s defence structures. The Dutch captured Galle in the 1640s, making it their capital in Ceylon until they took Colombo in 1656. During those years they strengthened the Portuguese defence structures; the layout of the main shore-to-shore wall was kept approximately unchanged. The Portuguese structures were almost completely integrated into larger fortifications during 18th century improvements and modernisation work and are mostly out of sight. But some stone and mortar vestiges can still be seen in the area called Black Fort, location of the aforementioned fort over the port, on a small tongue of land on the northeast side of town – the “fortress site” in the 1638 Códice de Saragoça. Also noteworthy besides the military structures is the plausibly Portuguese origin of one or two of the main north-south streets, and at least some of Galle’s oldest civil architecture, specifically some of the colonial houses generally attributed to the Dutch period. Regardless of when they were built, which is generally unknown, these houses may indicate the local existence of a columned veranda house type of possible Portuguese origins.

Zoltán Biedermann