Among the most historic monuments found in Jaffna is a ravaged fortress with pockmarks, still standing as living evidence of Dutch rule and its influence in Sri Lanka’s North.
Initially built as a small garrison in Jaffna by the Portuguese after they invaded the North in 1618, the Dutch captured it in 1658 and expanded it, giving it a clear Dutch architectural identity. In 1795, it fell into the hands of the British and so remained until independence.
Confrontations between the Sri Lanka Army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) converted the historic place to a battleground. Residents recall a time when the Army used it as a camp – known as the ‘Fort Camp’ – and later captured by the LTTE for storing of weapons. The magnificent Dutch architectural was soon marred by the pockmarked, ravaged walls.
As the North undergoes a quick and severe facelift – something the local people find difficult to come to terms with still – the Dutch Fort is now under reconstruction by the Sri Lankan Government in partnership with the Netherlands Embassy at a total cost of Rs 104 million.
The government’s contribution to the fort restoration is Rs 42.2 million while the Netherlands has granted Rs 62.2 million.
According to a spokesperson from the Ministry of Economic Development, the X-shaped Dutch Church, destroyed during the war, is nearing completion under the Jaffna Fort Restoration Project. Besides, the Queen’s House located within the fort – spread across four acres of land– too is under renovation.
Initially planned to complete by the end of December 2012, the project has continued for nine more months and is to be completed by the end of October 2013. According to Deputy Director, Archaeological Department, Museums and Maintenance, W. A. J. R. Madagammana, four sides of the five-sided Jaffna Fort consisting of high ramparts, bastions and a moat are now nearing completion. However, reminding the renovators that Jaffna was a battle ground for so long, the Army Bomb Disposal Squad had to first clear the moat where hidden caches of ammunition and mortars were discovered.
Prior to being destroyed, the fort contained some armouries and barracks, used by the Dutch and British soldiers during colonial times, together with tunnels that connected different areas within the fortress.
The Dutch Fort of Jaffna had come under siege on many occasions and witnessed many a battle. Between 1986 to 1995, it was under the LTTE control and was recaptured by the Army in 1995, after a 50-day-siege during Operation Riviresa. It remained under Army control and is now being rebuilt with a massive labour contribution by the Army. When the Dutch set foot upon Sri Lanka in the first half of the 17th century, the Dutch East India Company – known as VOC – was eager to have a monopoly status in the export trade in Sri Lanka and found Jaffna a convenient location, besides Colombo and Galle, which were more strategically important.
The Dutch arrived in maritime Sri Lanka in 1602. It was Joris van Spilbergen who arrived on the Eastern Coast when Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, an island internationally famed for the best-quality cinnamon. It was strategically important for the Dutch to expand on the existing fort and to have control over the island’s Northern tip.
Much has changed since Dutch occupation. There is renewed interest in reviving the lost heritage and both the Sri Lankan and the Netherlands Governments are keen to restore what remains in Sri Lanka as Dutch colonial heritage.
With a 27-year-old war now behind, the reconstruction of the ravaged historic fort began and is now nearing completion, an effort not just to reconstruct the war affected buildings but as an initiative that recognizes the living and shared heritage.
Since the early 1990s, there had been a renewed effort to strengthen the cultural ties between the two countries and to rediscover the shared heritage. In doing so, Dutch maritime heritage, both in Jaffna and Galle were considered significant. While the Dutch Fort in Galle remains intact, sadly Jaffna’s plight had been far different.
As the initial work began after the war, in early 2011, it was recorded that some skeletal remains were unearthed by the Department of Archaeology, presumed to be the skeletons of Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). Local people claim that the area was soon sealed off for development work by the Jaffna Municipality. The municipal authorities, when contacted, did not wish to comment on the matter except to say, reconstruction work is now underway.
Initiated by the Archaeology Department with the guidance from the Department of History of the University of Jaffna, restoration team has discovered pre-colonial artifacts including stones from destroyed Hindu temples and medieval pottery. Roman coins and Duch period artifacts were also discovered from the soil, indicating the site’s historical significance. During a much earlier time, the Department of Archaeology discovered a Chola inscription, believed to have been unearthed from one of the destroyed temples in the area.
The Dutch Fort will soon rise from the very ashes of Jaffna’s bitter history. But its value in its original form, can never be restored. That will remain lost to the nation forever. COURTESY: CEYLON TODAY