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Sri Lanka Travel Guide and Tourism Tips
Advice for the independent traveller who wants more from their holiday.
Introduction and History
of the Ancient Port of Galle in Sri Lanka

Galle Fort and Town
The ancient historic city of Galle (pronounced Gawl as in old France Gaul) is 74 miles (116 km) south of the Sri Lankan Capital Colombo on the south west corner of the island. It has a charming collection of Dutch colonial era buildings with a few British Empire ones built here and there. You don’t feel like you are in Sri Lanka. You could be mistaken for being in a southern Mediterranean costal town or a Caribbean port. Galle has an atmosphere that is unique in Sri Lanka. It has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Galle the Ancient Sri Lankan Port on the southern coast

Inside the old fortified walls you will find streets built on a grid system that contain over 400 houses, temples, restaurants, mosques, churches, government buildings, boutique shops, high quality historic restored hotels and history everywhere you look. I loved the place and Galle must be on every Tourists places to visit list at the top with Kandy, Nawara Elyia and Yala National Park. There are cheaper hotels outside the fort walls but do try and treat yourself and stay within the fortifications.

Where the peninsula joins the main coast line there you will find the bus and railway station. To the East is the main shopping area along Main Street and Matara Road. Directly in front of the fort is Galle International Cricket Stadium. Cricket is a ‘religion’ in Sri Lanka. They love to see their team beat nearby rivals Pakistan, Bangladesh and India.

History of Galle
It used to be the most important trading port until the British arrived and developed the port of Colombo. It is recorded in European documents as a trading port as far back as 545AD. The Greeks knew it as Taprobane. Local documentation can trace the settlement back a further 700 years. It appeared on an ancient map of the “mysterious east” in Alexandria drawn by the map maker cartographer Ptolemy in the 3rd century BC. Indian, Arab and Chinese merchants have been calling at Galle for thousands of years. Muslim Arab traders called it Serendib. A recent Saxon horde of gold from around 800AD found in Staffordshire in Central England contained a gold decorated jewel encrusted sword handle. When analysed by the scientists they discovered that the jewels had come from Sri Lanka and must have been transported through the port of Galle. The Chinese traveller Fa-Hsien wrote an account of Galle and all the riches available to the trader. He called Sri Lanka the island of Jewels. On his way home to Venice from China Marco Polo recorded his visit to Serendib modern day Galle. The Arabic map maker Ibn Batuta wrote bout his visit to the Muslim settlement in Galle in 1344. The Portuguese took control of Galle in 1505 followed by the Dutch in 1640, then the British in 1796. 

Galle the Ancient Port main gate and bastion

A Portuguese fleet that was sailing for the Maldives was caught in a storm and blown off course in 1505. They observed the natural harbour of Galle and took shelter in the calmer waters it provided. They were amazed at all the richness and variety of goods available for trade. They decided to stay for a while. They occupied the port and expanded along the costal planes. They soon bumped into the soldiers from the Kingdom of Kandy. There were many skirmishes over the years. These became more frequent that the Portuguese decided to build a fort to protect their interests and have a safe place to retreat if necessary. In 1589 work was started on a fort at the end of the Galle peninsula that protected the port. It was called Santa Cruz. Not much survives of this fort as the Dutch destroyed most of the fortifications in 1640 and started to rebuild a larger fort with stronger defences.

The local Sinhala word for rock is ‘gala’ and this is what is believed to be the origin of the town’s name Galle. The harbour is protected by the rock on the end of the peninsula which now houses the fort. Some writers have concocted a story that the name is Portuguese. The story goes that as the storm battered Portuguese fleet approached the harbour they heard a cockerel. Believing this was a sign of good luck they named the town after a male chicken, a cock, which in Portuguese is a ‘galo’. You choose which story you prefer.

The congress of Vienna in 1815 conferred legitimate ownership of Sri Lanka as part of the British Empire after its victory against Napoleon and his allies Holland. The British quickly constructed roads, that latter benefitted commerce and the prosperity of the island, but were initially built for a military objective. The new occupying power needed to be able to move military might around the island quickly and this is the reason the roads were built. The last native revolt against British Rule happened in 1818. It was quickly repressed and thus ended 2,000 years of the independence of Sri Lanka. The British introduced radical changes in how the country was run. In those days it was considered part of India. One of the major benefits was the abolition of slavery.

The British merchants quickly followed the military. They established coffee growing on large plantations. This was very profitable until a leaf blight virus hit the crop and devastated the plants. The Merchant planters changed to growing tea instead and have not looked back since. Other exotic cash crops were grown on plantations including rubber. For over 200 years Galle had been the most important port on the island of Sri Lanka. It was an important stopping place for ships travelling to other parts of the globe. This didn’t last. Galle port was relegated to second place when the British built breakwaters in Colombo Harbour in the late 1800’s . Most of the country’s trade now moved via the larger port in the Capital city

The British decided that the fort needed a bigger gate to handle the increasing level of merchant carts. They also concluded that they needed to build stronger walls facing inland. In 1873 the northern stretch of the Galle Fort wall building work,o including the new larger gate, was completed. This is the section directly opposite Galle International Cricket Ground.

The British administrators suppressed the nationalist riots and disturbances that broke out in 1915 during the First World War. Concessions were given. Many Indian, including Sri Lankan troops fought heroically alongside other soldiers from the Empire. The Ceylon National Party was created in 1919 after the war. Pressure for change in the inter war years came mainly from the western educated upper classes. A new Sri Lankan constitution was worked out that created in theory a universal franchise that included both Tamil and Sinhalese in the Government. There was little Nationalist opposition during World War Two and the Sri Lankan people were rewarded by the near bankrupt British Government with independence on 4th February 1948 following elections held at the end of 1948.

Post Independence
This is when things went bad. At first it went well. The new president Don Stephen Senanayake included all representatives of different groups in the government. It was still dominated by Western educated elite. This was viewed as un-representative of the population. It caused resentment. The SLFF Sri Lankan Freedom Party won the 1953 election. This really upset the minority Tamil section of the population. They felt repressed and that they were being treated as second class citizens. There were even moves to forcibly deport Tamils back to southern India even thought they were born in Sri Lanka. Tamils were being barred from taking jobs in government. This was the start of the civil war. The Tamil tigers started a guerrilla war attacking politicians, police and army members and discriminate use of bombs. The Sinhalese government has be accused of being heavy handed using torture rape and murder as a weapon. There were a number of ceasefires that all failed. Thousands of Tamils sought and were granted refugee status in the West. In 2010 the Army was used in a large push to attack the Tamils in the north. Many civilians were killed. The Government declared the war over and started to obtain investment and encourage tourism back into Sri Lanka. I hope peace wins. It is a wonderful country and I found the people very friendly and helpful.

Galle fort protects the shipping in a naturally sheltered harbour. The fort is on the end of a peninsula. Galle is one of the best preserved colonial-era fortified cities in South East Asia. It is a mecca for history lovers. Even the harbour has lots to offer. There are 26 ship wrecks for the historical enthusiast diver to explore. The city of Galle has been declared a World Heritage City. The Sri Lankan Government’s Archaeology department are supervising restoration projects. They are doing a good job. On my last visit all the roads were being laid with grey hard wearing engineering bricks to give the impression of the streets being cobbled. The city has extensive fortifications. Some like those of the Zwart Bastion date back to the Portuguese occupation. The Dutch and British made extensive alterations. The British seized Sri Lanka from the Dutch during the Napoleonic Wars to prevent the French having a Naval base in the Indian Ocean. They did not want them interfering with British trade routes. Even up until 1940’s the walls were being prepared for war. In World War two the Japanese had taken over Singapore. There were fears that Sri Lanka would be next on the list and act as a stepping board for an invasion of India from the south.

There are 14 massive gun platforms called bastions situated around the city walls. At point Utrecht Bastion you will see an attractive lighthouse built on the top. The next Bastion by a large rock outcrop is called Flag Rock. It is the southernmost point in the ring of fortifications. Before the days of radio flags were used to signal to the ships approaching the harbour.

You can now walk around the city ramparts. This is especially delightful in the early evening just before the sun starts to set. Aim to be on the West Walls at the end of your walk. There are a number of restaurants nearby with rooftop seating where you can enjoy a meal and a beer whilst watching this beautiful daily natural event.

Inside the ring of ramparts you will find old restored buildings in a grid system of roads and alleyways. Seek out the Dutch Church, Old Dutch Government House, Dutch Governors house and the huge Dutch warehouse and gatehouse that is now home of the Maritime Museum. Walk through the arch of the old gatehouse. The Gates are still in place. They are huge. On the inner side of the fort above the entrance the gate is crowned with the initials of the Dutch East India Company VOC and its coat of Arms. On the exterior wall side of the old gatehouse you will see the British Royal Coat of Arms. Four of the walls gun platform turret bastions are named after the four British Royal Navy ships of the line that took part in the seizure of Sri Lanka from the Dutch during the Napoleonic Wars. They were HMS Triton, HMS Aeolus, HMS Neptune and HMS Aurora.

It can get very hot and humid. Get out of the sun and have a drink in one of the posh colonial-era hotels. Sitting on the veranda under cooling fans having a cup of tea, gin and tonic or beer is delightful and gives you a sense of times gone by. Galle must be on every Sri Lankan visitors to do list.

The Boxing Day Tsunami
The new town area of Galle was badly hit by the 20 foot waves of the Tsunami of 2004. The solid walls of the historic old town protected most of the inhabitants. Flood damage was repairable. The nearby popular beach resorts of Tangalla and Unawatuna were practically wiped off the map. They have since been rebuilt with help from Western Countries. Thousands of people were drowned. If you are staying in a beach hotel try and get rooms on the third floor just in case.

Main Street Shopping
In the new part of Galle just east of the International Cricket Stadium there are two old Dutch market buildings. They have red clay tile roofs supported by pillars. Market stalls set up shop under its protection. There is one visible on the coast road and behind it at a road junction you will find the second. It is nice to see a piece of history survive in the new city.

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