Jaffna Fort, 400 years of strategic defence | Sunday Observer

Jaffna Fort, 400 years of strategic defence

18 August, 2019

The most iconic landmark in the Jaffna town is the massive Dutch Fort. This fortified superstructure is the second largest Dutch Fort in Sri Lanka. For centuries this Fort has been associated with strategic defence on the maritime boundary of our resplendent island. It is probably the most visited destination of the Northern Province by local and foreign visitors. We entered this majestic Fort on a sunny Wednesday morning. A cool breeze somewhat reduced the heat, as the sun defiantly dominated the Jaffna skyline. A group of tourists was busy taking photographs. Outside the main entrance a few vans were parked selling ice cream and the vendors were engaged in conversation.

The arched main entrance is one of two entry points for visitors, the other being from the left flank of the Fort. A young female staff was gathering information about the visitors, probably some sort of data collection. Walking past the arched entrance one enters the first line of the fortress defence.

This magnificent Fort was first built by the Portuguese in 1618 under the command of Philip de Olivera, during the period of Portuguese invasion of Jaffna. A smaller fort was also built on the sea along Karainagar, called Hammenheil about which I have previously written.

The Portuguese managed to capture and wield their influence on Jaffna, but faced periodic resistance from local chieftains.

A few years later the Dutch unleashed their military might on the island of Ceylon, and decided to attack Portuguese Forts. By 1658, the powerful Dutch regiments outgunned and captured the strategic Jaffna Fort. It is not clear if the Dutch assaulted the fort from the lagoon and breached the defensive perimeter or raided from the land flanks. As with the other captured forts Dutch engineers began to enhance the defensive features of this fort and significantly increased her firepower.

Forty five cannons

We came to the area of the moat. The water was almost green in colour. An old man said that during its glory days there were crocodiles in the moat, which could be true as I have heard of this before when visiting the Star Fort in Matara. Next to the moat was a sentry turret, one of the last few intact guard points on this Fort which had been subject to much neglect. Thankfully, there is a restoration process in action now. We climbed some stone steps and got onto the first rampart of the Fort. From here we saw the white dome of the Jaffna Library and from another angle witnessed the serene beauty of the lagoon. The polygonal structure of the Jaffna Fort has been laden with many defensive features that would awe the present day military engineers. From the outside inner circuit walls there are glacis - a bank which slopes down from a Fort whereby it exposes the invading troops to the defenders’ cannon fire. The glacis offers a 180 degree view from which Dutch artillery gunners could launch a barrage of suppressible fire. From the angle of the glacis you can see the corresponding entry points along the outer perimeter walls which have been built with limestone and black coral. It is said that during the years of conflict in the recent past these sturdy walls sustained enemy mortar fire and didn’t collapse.

Another historic snapshot from that era is the hangman’s tower, which is almost intact. There are no records of how many were sent to their death here, but the solitary tower does have an eerie feel to it. The Jaffna Fort has five defensive bastions. They were the happening combat engagement points from which British attacks on this fort were initially repulsed by the Dutch. The large bastions were named Zeeland, Gelderland, Holland, Utrecht and Friesland- provinces of Netherland.

The Dutch Army General increased the firepower of the Fort by installing each bastion with six main guns and three guns on a shorter flank. That would add up to 45 cannons (nine on each bastion into five bastions). Sadly, visitors cannot see a single cannon, and one wonders why they were not restored?

Elephants and pearls

In addition this is the only Fort that has three ravelins. A ravelin is a triangular fortification that forms part of the forward line of defence and these three ravelins extend outside the Fort. So why did the Dutch build such a strong Fort? It was to secure and sustain trade. In that era the Northern Province was famous for two things - elephants and pearls. Robust wild elephants were captured in the jungles of the Vanni. The elephants were held captive and then transported by ship to India. Before reaching the ships the animals were driven down a shallow ford which later became known as Elephant Pass. Today, one does not see elephants in the Vanni. The second lucrative product for Dutch commerce were radiant pearls from Mannar. The climate of Mannar was conducive for large scale pearl harvesting.

Five tunnels

Climbing down from the rampart we entered a large open area where broken sections of the Dutch church were lying on the dried grass. The beautiful Dutch Church is reduced to a historic memory. The sections of the wall measure 4 to 5 feet thick. The church is supposed to have accommodated nearly 600 Christians. A short distance away is another building with no roof. This was the Queen’s House, a once stately residence. The rectangular residence is almost on the verge of collapse, and warning signs were posted not to get close to the walls.

The broken plastering exposed large red bricks. It is also said that the massive Fort had a prison, a hospital and other administrative buildings - none of which exist today. By now the heat of the sun was quite intense. We walked to the right flank and found the entrance to a tunnel. But the tunnel didn’t go further than a few feet and had been filled with sand.

It smelled of mildew. It is believed there were five tunnels built by the Dutch, with the primary purpose of transporting ammunition, to be taken to the bastions. After an hour of walking we exited the superstructure. This once majestic fort and her gallant defenders were subdued by the British and surrendered in 1795. After four centuries this fort proudly remains as an endorsement to Dutch engineering genius.