Hidden Dutch Fort in Katuwana | Sunday Observer

Hidden Dutch Fort in Katuwana

27 November, 2016
Katuwan Fort in a green and shady setting

Sri Lanka still has a large number of forts which were in turn garrisoned by the Portuguese, Dutch and British, successively. These forts, situated mostly along the coastline were built for the purpose of keeping at bay not only rivals from the sea, but also from the land. However, there is a curious structure in the centre of the sleepy town known as, Katuwana, and yes it is a Fort!

I had an opportunity to visit Katuwana Fort last week. Travelling from Ratnapura I passed an awe-inspiring mist laden mountainous region of Rakwana and Bulutota pass. I then crossed Panamure and finally reached Middeniya. From Middeniya I turned right and travelled another 12 kilometres to reach Katuwana. There is an alternative road - travel l40 kilometres from Tangalle on the Walasmulla –Kirama road which leads to Katuwana. This is where one can find an enchanting, lesser known, small but imposing Dutch Fort on a small hillock.

Travelling in this area, my memory goes back to the years of 1988 and 1989 when this area was soaked by the blood of youth killed in the insurrection. I still remember the picture of the funeral procession of a youth in Walasmulla that appeared in the prestigious TIME magazine which was taken by American photographer, Robert Nickelsberg.

The youth uprising of 88/89 was probably the second rebellion in this area. The first was the Matara rebellion which took place in Katuwana Fort between Dutch soldiers and Kandyan Kingdom soldiers, centuries ago.

Situated in the Southern Province, Katuwana is located around 12 kilometres from Middeniya where the low country ends and the mountainous region of the Central highlands begins. Therefore, it is safe to assume that the Katuwana Fort was constructed at a defensive position to protect the northern territory controlled by the Dutch VOC Company, anticipating possible attacks from the Kandyan Kingdom. Today, it is hard to miss as you pass through Katuwana town as this massive Fort rises above all.

The Fort is small in size, compared to those in Galle and Matara and has only two bastions. It is said that there were 12 cannons positioned strategically. The Dutch East India Company built the Katuwana Fort on rising ground around 40 kilometres inland from Matara, in 1645.

However, according to the information available in the Fort premises the ancient chronicles of the Mahawamsa had mentioned that Queen Sugala too had established her defensive fortifications at this site for her warriors against King Parakramabahu (1153-1186 AD) signifying the importance of Katuwana during ancient times.

Dutch period

As we begin to climb the steps towards the main entrance of the Fort, it takes awhile to imagine what this area may have looked like during the Dutch period as the Fort is surrounded by a modern town. What remains of the Fort is its massive rampart, bastions and the foundation base of buildings that gives an inkling of what may have been. It is calm and quiet, with huge trees that would have been saplings when the Fort was built, bearing silent witness to the happenings within.

Prominent surveyor R. L. Brohier wrote: “After a scramble through a barrier of prickly undergrowth we came upon a crumbling rampart wall and proceeding along its base we came to a gaping breach. It was the gateway of old. On all sides there rose the picture of crumbling ruin, of desolation. The space within the walls was occupied by a thick growth of jungle. Giant trees arose from the top of the ramparts. Their mighty roots had penetrated the crevices between the built up rocks and held them poised in an iron grip but in fantastic disorder. Traces of the foundation and flooring of the buildings within the fort were all that remained, and the well. I peeped down and looked at a dry bottom.”

According to historical reports, during the Dutch period the interior of the fort had the commanding officers’ quarters on the right side of the entrance, then the warehouse, the powder magazine, which can be accessed from the ammunition store next to it, then the lodgings and on the left side of the entrance a large well, which can still be seen.

Lime mortar

The entire layout of the Fort is such that the buildings are arranged along three sides of the curtain walls leaving the centre open. There are two staircases leading up to the rampart. The Fort had been built using lime mortar and the rampart is 20ft high externally and 8-12ft high internally. The central square was elevated in two parts in this manner as a defence mechanism and the Fort had its own complete surgery room and medical facilities as well.

Matara, the second important town in the southern possession of the VOC and in Dutch time, controlled the lucrative local cinnamon production and the southern elephant trade. The Muslim community was engaged in gem cutting and gem trade. Therefore, Katuwana Fort was also the commanding base for the smaller inland forts and others were at Akuressa and Hakmana which no longer exist today. Katuwana Fort was also an important regional purchasing centre for cinnamon and citrus, as the main purpose of the Dutch East India Company was commercial.

In 1761 during the ‘Matara Rebellion’, Katuwana Fort was captured by the Kandyan forces and the main gate including the rampart walls were damaged during the siege. It is said that the main doorway of the Fort can now be found in the main entrance to the Maduwanwela Walawwa which is located 30 kilometres from Katuwana.

‘Matara Rebellion’

After the ‘Matara Rebellion’ and subjugation of Kandyan Kingdom by the British in 1815, the Katuwana Fort lost its strategic significance and was abandoned for more than 250 years. The Katuwana Fort was named as an Archaeological reserve in 1980 by the Department of Archaeology. However, the conservation of the Fort began only in 2007, and the Katuwana Fort has now been restored to its ancient glory with aid from the Netherlands Government. Netherland has extensively granted aid to restore the country’s Dutch period monuments.

The extensive archaeological excavations carried out in the site in 2007, has unearthed the remains of a sump and a drain out constructed across the entrance to protect the fort from soil erosion. During the excavation these remnants were removed and re-erected at a separate location for public view. Walking inside the Fort, we came across the remains of ancient tiles and bricks scattered around the fort. We spent around one hour walking around the imposing rampart wall of the Fort and witnessed massive trees within and around the Fort. Some of the tree roots have penetrated the rampart wall. It does not take long to walk around this little Fort, but you can stay there for hours as it is very quiet and peaceful among the surrounding greenery with plenty of shade.