The history of Galle extends thousands of years to biblical times when ships from East and West arrived at its well-protected harbor for trade. In more recent times it was a prized location for western traders searching for wealth and glory. The Portuguese captured the area in 1597 and built a small fort there. In 1669, the Dutch evicted the Portuguese and built the mighty fortress we see today. Its massive ramparts with 14 bastions mounted with 109 state-of-the-art cannons and a wide moat were considered so formidable and this fort was never attacked.
Claudius Ptolomy's 1st century map of the world clearly shows Traprobana (Sri Lanka) off the coast of India. Because of the island's importance as a center for ancient trade between East and West it was thought to be much larger than we know it to be today. Galle is not named but its harbor is depicted on the map. The map reference of Hodora may refer to the modern place name of Dondra which is just south of Galle.
Cosmas Indicopleustes, an Egyptian monk, in his 545 AD work Christian Topography writes "This same Sielediba [Sri Lanka] then, placed as one may say, in the center of the Indies and possessing the hyacinth receives imports from all the seats of commerce and in turn exports to them, and is thus itself a great seat of commerce." The place 'Hyacinth' referred to is believed to be Galle. Ibn Battuta a Moroccan explorer visited Galle which he called Quli in 1344 he found it to be a bustling port.
The grand treasury fleet of the Chinese admiral Zheng He made four visits to the port of Galle between 1406 and 1433 (The Galle National Museum as has a scale model of these gigantic ships and a comparable European ship of the time which is dwarfed by these ancient Chinese juggernauts). A copy of the Trilingual Inscription, left by him at Galle in 1411 can also be seen at the museum.
Galle with its well-protected natural harbor was a trading city since ancient time. Persians, Greeks, Romans Arabs Indians, Malays and Chinese traded their goods at Galle. It was, however, a minor port until it gained pre-eminence in the 13th century. A number of factors contributed to this development.
Until the collapse of the Polonnaruwa Kingdom in 1255 and the occupation of northern parts of the island by South Indian invaders the seaports in the north were the primary ports of the island.
With the loss of their rich agricultural land in the north; the Sinhalese populace slowly drifted southwards establishing a number of fragmented kingdoms there. The most powerful of these usually had sway over the southeast, where the harbors of Colombo and Galle were located.
The land in the south was less productive than those of the north and agricultural productivity and consequently the population plummeted. The land in the south, however, had an abundant supply of spices such as cinnamon, pepper, cardamoms and cloves. These now became a vital export commodities and a major source of government revenue. It was through the port of Galle that most of these commodities were exported.
While the local spice trade was the sole monopoly of the state, almost all the traders were foreigners, predominantly Moors (people of Arab or Muslim decent). At Galle these foreign traders occupied the peninsula which protected the northern flank of the harbor. They built a barricade and palisade using the trunks of coconut trees at the entrance to the peninsula to cordon off their enclave from the local population.
Over the years much resentment had developed between the locals and these traders who in effect had a stranglehold on all foreign trade.
By the 14th century it was a bustling entrepot and the most important harbor in Sri Lanka.
At the dawn of the sixteenth century, to the western mind the Orient was still the great unknown. It was imaged to be a place with palaces of marble with golden roofs and luscious pleasure gardens. Precious stones were said to flow down its rivers. Rare and exotic spices were so abundant that they simply fell off the trees. It was a place populated by people with dog's heads, Cyclops eyes, heads in their chests and even those with a single giant foot which they used as a sunshade.
The trickle of eastern goods; mainly exotic spices, rare gems, silk, and translucent porcelain, only heightened interest in this faraway place. No westerner since Marco Polo had visited it.
In the west Portugal, a poor backwater on the periphery of Europe, was becoming one of the most advanced maritime nations of Europe. By 1497,Vasco da Gama's little fleet of four ships ventured into the Indian Ocean and limped on to Calicut on the east coast of India, its crew near death by starvation. Europeans, for the first time, had gained direct access to spices and exotic products of the Orient finally breaking the Arab stranglehold to Asia.
The Portuguese were quick to exploit their new discovery. They set up trading post along the coast of India and set about establishing naval superiority in the Indian Ocean. At every opportunity they thwarted their Arab rivals, stealing their cargoes and destroying their ships.
In August 1506 news reached the Portuguese viceroy residing in Cochin India, Francesco de Almeida, that the Moors they were now evading the Portuguese coastal patrols and taking a more arduous route from the East-Indies (Sri Lanka, Indonesia, etc.) to Arabia via the Maldives. Determined to prevent this Francesco de Almeida instructed his son to lead an expedition to intercept and plunder these booty laden flotillas and to also attempt to discover Sri Lanka.
In early September 1506 Lourenço de Almeida set sail from Cochin for the Maldives with a fleet of 9 small carracks and caravels. (Amongst this fleet was the caravel Sao Jorge, with the 25 year old Ferdinand Magellan serving on board). Unfortunately Lourenço was ill-advised of the capricious monsoonal weather and sea currents prevalent at this time and was quickly blown off course. Much to his surprise he was serendipitously deposited, many days later, off the west coast of Sri Lanka. Some writers state that he was driven first to Galle where he heard that the king resided near Colombo. He journeyed to Colombo blackmailed the king and extorted a tribute of 1500 kilos of cinnamon an year in return for 'Portuguese protection" (Protection Money) and then returned to his home base in India. There was no further recorded contact with the Portuguese for 12 years.
The most likely derivation of the present name of this city is from the Sinhalese word gala meaning rock. This is supported by the fact that a number of place names in the vicinity have the root-word 'gala' in their names; for example Magalle contracted from Maha-Gala (huge rock) and Pettigallawatte meaning garden with basket-shaped rocks.
Early Portuguese writers describe their fort as being built on top of a rock at the entrance to this natural harbor. Unfortunately there is no trace of this rock today. It is likely that is was demolished during the construction of the present fort on the same site. The Portuguese noticed the similarity of gala with their word gallo (Latin: gallus, a cock). The Dutch who captured the city in 1640 retained the name and adopted the cock standing on top of a rock as their court of arms for the city.
The Ceylon (Sri Lankan) Jungle Fowl, the national bird of Sri Lanka, has the scientific name Gallus lafayettii.
The Portuguese returned to Sri Lanka in in 1518 and commenced the wholesale annexation of land along the coastline. In 1587 they sacked the port of Galle and vested control from their arch enemies the Moors. Initially they retained the earthen barrier and palisade built by the Moors. In 1597 they built the first Galle Fort, a small fort on the hillock there. These were flimsy barricades at best and in 1620 they replaced these with a small fort on the tip of the promontory and constructed a fortified wall on the landward side, across the narrow peninsula, with three bastions and a moat with a drawbridge for added protection from the hostile Sinhalese who attacked them from time to time.
Secure in their protected enclave, they named Santa Cruz, they exploited the local population and resources and prospered. For example, pepper bought in in Sri Lanka would increase in value fifty fold when sold in in Lisbon – a hefty 5,000% profit.
Throughout the 16th century the Portuguese enjoyed a total monopoly of the India trade. No other nation in Europe, other than the Spanish who were excluded for this part of the world by the Treaty of Tordesillas, had the wherewithal to undertake the long and challenging sea journey round Africa to the lucrative Indies. This status quo changed however in the early 17th century when both the Dutch and British created East India companies to tap into this lucrative trade.
The illustration on the left shows the Galle Fort in 1663, twenty-three years after the Dutch had captured it from the Portuguese. The little fort on the promenade is still standing. The rocks after which the city is named are also visible. The fortified wall and moat across the peninsula is visible to the right.
The Dutch Republic were no friends of the Spanish and by extension the Portuguese who had come under their sway under the Iberian Union. Spain's enemies now became Portugal's enemies. The Dutch East India Company ( VOC; Verenigde Oost-indische Compagnie) exploited this animosity by waging its own war against Portuguese in order to gain possession of their lucrative overseas outposts. The Dutch attacked and plundered Portuguese vessels and territories at every opportunity.
In 1602 The Dutch first appeared off the east coast of Sri Lanka.
They laid siege to the Galle Fort in March 1640 (see etching on right). The ensuing battle was one of the bloodiest fought by them in the Indies. They lost over 900 men. After fierce combat, on the 13th March 1640, the poorly manned Portuguese garrison surrendered the fort . The devastation amongst the Dutch ranks was so great that there was little celebration and the phrase "in Malacca there is is much gold, and Galle much lead" came into usage by their troops. Upon capturing Galle the Dutch made it their headquarters in Sri Lanka. By 1658 the Dutch had successfully evicted the Portuguese from all their possessions in Sri Lanka. At around this time the moved their capital to Colombo but Galle remained a vital shipping hub for Dutch ships in the Indies.
The present layout of the fort of Galle, which covers an area of 52 hectares and a circumference of 3 km, was established by the Dutch in 1663. Over the ensuing years they built a formidable fortress with fourteen bastions mounted with 109 advanced canons. While its height made it a more visible target, Dutch engineers compensated for this by building extremely thick walls. The rampart walls, build of stone with earthen inner embankments, where 30 meters (100ft) thick and up to 120 meters (400ft) thick in the center. There was a single entry gate into the fort from the landward side. This was accessed via a causeway and a drawbridge. The date above the main gate, still visible today reads 1668. Many nations coveted this harbor but none dared challenge its formidable defenses. It was never attacked.
By the late 1800's Galle harbor had passed its usefulness. It was too small and too treacherous for larger ships now arriving in Sri Lanka. In 1884 the British, moved most of their shipping operations to the expanded and modernized the harbor at Colombo. Whilst the Galle Fort remained the administrative center of the area the loss of maritime traffic led to the rapid and inexorable decline of the city. By the 1990's most of the grand Old Dutch and British building had fallen into disrepair and ruin.
Luckily for posterity, the nation at the time, was too poor to demolish and replace these buildings. So they remained derelict but intact.
The tsunami of Dec 26, 2004 devastated large parts of the city of Galle and the surrounding area. The massive walls of the Galle Fort, however, withstood the onslaught of the huge waves and remained intact. There was, however, substantial damage to the National Maritime Museum. Sea water rushed in through the open Old Gate of the Fort and flooded the building to a depth of nearly 2.5 meters. Over 80% of the museum's collection was lost forever.
Overall the tsunami caused nearly 35,000 deaths in Sri Lanka and made nearly a million people homeless. There is little evidence of this disaster today. The most poignant reminder of this catastrophe is the Tsunami Memorial near Hikkaduwa where a train was washed away with the loss of 1468 lives.
With the revival of the tourist industry after the civil war ended in 2009, Galle has seen a resurgence as a trendy tourist destination.
Standing majestically against an azure sea the old Dutch Fort is showpiece of Galle today. Its glory days are long gone but it still enchants the visitor with a mellow, quietly elegant charm. Its cobblestone streets, lined with numerous old building now house swank boutiques, restaurants, and hotels gently reminding us of a glorious by-gone era.